I tried to help Om Puri, the struggling man behind the actor
He was like you and me. A little susceptible to the promise of happiness.
Why don’t the spate of articles on Om Puri reflect the tremendous struggle he was undergoing?
What’s the point of the headlines screaming "Om died a lonely death" or that he deserved this and that?
Do you remember Hollywood’s Robin Williams and the discussion around depression and dementia? Did it draw away from his success and legacy? It didn’t. It may have helped educate many people about the illness. It gave him even more fans.
With the rising depression epidemic (36 per cent, according to WHO), many, many Indians will connect with Mr Puri’s troubles and - who knows - take some solace and lessons from his habits.
For instance, Om Puri, even during his tough last few years, gracefully managed to separate his personal misery from his work as an actor. That is evident in his international projects such as The Hundred-Foot Journey, where he starred alongside Helen Mirren, as well as his well-praised cameo in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. These performances came amid some very tough personal and court battles.
I had first met him as a teenager at actor-couple Kanwaljit Singh and Anuradha Patel’s home. They were aware of my fondness for him, my fondness for acting in "art" films, and had graciously invited me.
He was extremely vivacious - with jokes that were hilarious and sharp (but I’ll keep them private.) He patiently helped me resolve what I thought was a sure mistake in the film Aakrosh. After complementing me for my "keen sense of observation" he announced to all: "Waise hi film critic khoon chooste hain, ab ye naujawan bhi shuru ho gaye."
I could see that his health was failing when I met him in 2015 with a team for a documentary interview. He was funny - still - but consistently withdrew to a place inside of himself.
Also, he was constantly smoking. He smoked before the interview, during the conversation, and afterwards. He also took a smoke break during the interview - a five-minute interlude to sit and puff and make small talk.
|Om Puri with Smita Patil in his younger days. (Photo: Reuters)|
He answered the questions well, in my opinion, and immediately after the camera was switched off, turned a little tense…
I had known he was humble and "earthy". Was that the reason he made no effort to hide a definite sadness on his face? Was the practice of facing the camera helping him beat his misery, or was it preventing him from coming to terms with the problems?
Since I had been meeting his family occasionally over the years, I spoke about his son, and Mr Puri spoke fondly about him. We shared his son’s penchant for a certain "Nepali gaana" - a memory that lifted his spirits, until the reality of the present took over again.
While the team packed up we spoke on cinema, on an English film I was acting in, and my regard for his performance in the film Drohkaal, especially the interrogation scenes. "I hope to work with you on screen and get interrogated by you."
"Don’t forget what happens later in the film. You will interrogate me too. Be nice," he said.
These distractions worked. He livened up, posed for photos and turned humorous. He was like you and me. A little susceptible to the promise of happiness.
Until we moved near the door and saw him embroiled in counting money. The mood had shifted again - he was tense about his counting, and unsure and fidgety.
I eventually connected a prominent men’s rights activist to Mr Puri. Perhaps the conversations about family life would help him. Perhaps he would realise there are a million others in the same boat as him.
I was a tad unsure of how he would receive this effort.
It worked well; he informed the activist about his fragile state of mind and thoughts of death - “Yesterday I was contemplating whether I should take pills or hang myself.”
The activist was taken aback to see him vulnerable and child-like, so different from how he had imagined he would be.
Mr Puri thanked him and also participated in a small YouTube video backing his work.
So why don’t Mr Puri’s celebrity friends do the same - bring "the man" out? As such we all know from the media about the drama surrounding his divorce.
Why should only the "juicy" family-gossip bits of his life be known? If a celebrity is a public figure, then why can’t we also focus on other aspects of his persona, including his struggles with the mind and spirit?
Naseeruddin Shah admitted about Mr Puri’s struggle during the last few years. Anupam Kher has referred to it.
Like I tried in the way I could, it would be good to know about the efforts his friends made to help him out. If at all.
Because in that same interview, while standing next to the window and smoking into it, he had said that "if not for Bollywood money, I would be out of this city. It’s become rubbish."
If we must honour him, we must honour the struggle, or learn from it.