On Friday, veteran Indian actor Om Puri, who found success both at home and in the West, died at age 66 after suffering cardiac arrest. Here, acclaimed Toronto-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta recalls the storied career of the Bollywood icon, who starred in her first feature, 1991's Sam & Me.
I first met Om Puri years ago, at the National School of Drama in New Delhi.
My dear friend Neelam Mansingh and Om were students at the school of theatre in India and good friends to boot. I had just watched Om perform in a Kabuki play in the outdoor theatre of the school and he had completely blown me away. So when I met him casually, smoking a cigarette on the lawns of the NSD residence the day after, I was completely star-struck until he said in fluent Punjabi, "Stop staring at me."
I guess that was Om. Totally calling it what it was, despite giving brilliant performances.
For my first film, Sam & Me, when Neelam suggested I check out Om for the pivotal role of Nick's uncle, it was a no-brainer. I met him in Bombay and thought he would be perfect. And he was. Despite all his experience (he had acted in the iconic Ardh Satya by then), not for a second did he make me feel my lack of experience. A passionate actor who cared immensely for his craft, he actually was involved in the bigger picture. Om Puri knew that a film was a collaborative pursuit, and everybody else had to chip in for it to reach its highest potential.
I have been, and am, a diehard Om Puri fan. East Is East, Aakrosh, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, The Hundred-Foot Journey – he has done them all. He played in Satyajit Ray films, had an unforgettable cameo in Gandhi and took the role of an absurdist tradition-bound uncle in Sam & Me.
I feel honoured to have worked with him, and truly despondent that the world has lost such an incredible talent.
Writer and director Deepa Mehta's latest film, Anatomy of Violence, was released late last year.