Long back, Naseeruddin Shah had said, "Om was born with a wooden spoon." It probably was the perfect way to describe Om Puri's childhood, one that was filled with abject poverty.
On Friday morning, the veteran actor died of cardiac arrest. He was 66.
In a film industry known for its obsession with the perfect face and six-pack abs, Om Puri won and how! With his instantly recognisable rich baritone and chameleon-like ability to transform himself onscreen, the actor won many accolades and countless hearts.
The thespian, who acted in close to 300 movies, won the National Film Award for the best actor for his role as a police inspector in the 1982 film Ardh Satya. He also received the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India in the year, 1990.
However, Puri was an 'unlikely hero,' as the title of his biography by Nandita Puri summed it. The book gives us glimpses of what the actor's childhood was like.
Nandita Puri first met Om Puri in Kolkata, on the sets of City of Joy, where she had gone to interview him for The Telegraph. Listening to his stories inspired her so much that she wanted to write his biography. "My life story is almost like Sir Charlie Chaplin's... an amazing growth story," he had said.
It truly was.
Here are some anecdotes from the book.
1. Once a relative gave him five rupees to buy toys. He was ecstatic and bought a red car which ran when turned with a key -- a chhabiwali gaadi -- for a rupee and a half. Unfortunately, he had to return it. His mother thought that the rupee and a half would go a long way towards putting food on the table. His prized possession was taken away from him.
2. Om Puri was about seven years old when his family was living in Bhatinda. His father, who was in charge of the railways store, was arrested on charges of theft. For four months, the family went through a traumatic period. On one occasion when his mother and he were travelling in a train, his mother burst out crying. When other passengers heard her plight, one gentleman got up and collected some money from the others so that the family did not have to starve.
3. One incident that would often reduce Puri to tears was the memory of the time when the family was told to vacate the railway quarters while his father was in prison. His mother, Tara Devi, pleaded with the authorities. However, it didn't work. One morning, the railway authorities sent sweepers with a basinful of human faeces and threatened to soil the place if the family didn't move out. They were forced to leave.
4. A tragic incident connected with trains remained etched in Puri's mind. It was the death of his dog, Bisa. Bisa was a stray, adopted by his mother and him. Since they lived next to the railway tracks, Bisa would go to get food thrown by the passengers every time a train came to the station. One day, a neighbour informed them that Bisa had been run over by a train. The dog was found lying in the bushes. Puri couldn't eat for months, haunted by his dog's decapitated body.
5. The book notes how Puri was once molested by an elderly priest. The priest reportedly made a very young Puri hold his private parts. When he realised that something was not quite right, he fled. He did not complain to his mother but stopped going to that person's house.
6. To make ends meet, Puri used to work at a dhaba where he washed utensils at night. He would usually get tired at the end of the day, so he would hide the utensils beneath an ash mound in front of the shop and wash them in the morning. One day his trick was discovered and he was fired immediately. The owner was afraid that the utensils could get stolen at night.
7. No one knows when exactly Om Puri was born. Not even him. His mother told him that he was born two days after Dussehra. However, the year could have been 1949 or 1950. Later, when he joined school, his uncle picked 9 March 1950 as his date of birth. Years later, around 1976, when he went to Bombay, he decided to give himself a new birth date. He looked up the date two days after Dussehra that year and chose and kept 18 October as his birthday since then. After that, he would often receive birthday wishes twice a year.
8. When he was only five, Puri used to collect coal from the railway tracks and bring it home for fuel. Once, Om and his friend found an egg. Om had never seen one but his friend explained that it was something edible. His mother wouldn't let them enter the house with it. But she gave them an empty oil tin can and some wood. The boys lit a fire, boiled the egg in the tin can and then ate it with relish. It was the first time that little Om had tasted non-vegetarian food.
You can read the book here.
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