My career in entertainment journalism will soon reach the two-decade mark. In this span I have met almost all top actors from the Hindi film industry. With every interaction I have created a memory – some good, some bad.
But not many interactions leave an indelible impression on the mind and gift you a takeaway that you can treasure for a lifetime.
My interaction with veteran actor Om Puri way back in 2003 was one such. The news of his sudden demise today at the age of 66, took me back to a day in January, 14 years ago when Om Puri surprised me out of my wits, saved my day and taught me a lesson that I will value till my last breath.
I was working as a Senior Sub-Editor/Reporter in The Times of India, Kolkata then and had walked into office for our noon meeting. Our Editor was in a foul mood because he had assigned one of my seniors the task of tracking Om Puri because he had heard he was shooting in town for a Channel 4 production and a day had gone by and he had no news.
At the meeting the Editor suddenly turned to me and said, “Ok since this guy has failed. You better get me Om Puri by tomorrow morning. I want his interview on the front page.”
What followed were some frenzied calls from me to sources, to owners of studios where he could be shooting, to shooting equipment suppliers, to line producers, to make-up artistes, but no one had any inkling about anything.
Then my Editor suggested I call a lady, a PR professional, who knew Om Puri well and maybe she could say where he was staying. He actually handed me the key but I never realized it would take me so long to reach the door.
The PR lady knew he was staying at The Park Hotel and asked me to call up his room. “You could talk to his wife Nandita Puri and tell her I have given you the number.”
At least some breakthrough I had thought then. But after 10 phone calls to Nandita Puri I realized I was hitting a wall once again.
She didn’t know where Om Puri was shooting, when he would be back and neither was she keen to hand me his phone number. I was inching close to my deadline and I still hadn’t established any kind of contact with my interviewee.
Instead of hitting the panic button though I decided to take a concrete step. I stationed a photographer at The Park Hotel lobby so that he could at least get a photograph of the famed actor when he walked in.
My frantic calls continued. Some to Nandita Puri and some to people who might have a notion of where Om Puri was shooting so that I could, maybe, land up on the sets. But I did not make any headway.
The deepening furrow on the Editor’s forehead did not make matters any better. The sun went down, the edition went to bed I headed home. Not being able to get an interview, when the man was shooting in town, was probably the most shameful thing to happen to a reporter, who almost never failed a deadline. But it was about to happen to me and I couldn’t do anything about it.
Dejected I boarded the bus home. Had it not been a public vehicle, I probably would have burst into tears.
Then my mobile phone rang. There was a baritone on the other side.
“Did you call me?” the voice said.
“Who are you?” I asked tentatively.
“You call me 20 times, then you do not leave a name or number and then you have the cheek to ask me this?”
I stuttered. “Is this Mr. Om Puri?”
I just couldn’t believe it. I could not imagine an actor of his stature would actually be calling me back on my mobile.
Then the worst thing happened. My mobile’s battery gave up on me and it went dead.
I don’t know which part of the town the bus was going through, maybe it was passing through Park Circus. I just got off and frantically searched for a phone booth.
I found a cramped one, with a stool. In those days luckily we carried phone books in our bags. I took out the number of Park Hotel and dialed Om Puri’s room.
The baritone answered and he agreed to give me an interview right then. Om Puri told me he was shooting for the Channel 4 film Second Generation based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Lear, in the film, hailed from Kolkata.
He fondly spoke about his Kolkata connection because he had shot two landmark films in his career, Roland Joffe’s City of Joy and Satyajit Ray’s Satgati in the city. I did the entire interview sitting right there at the phone booth, the kind that have vanished in Kolkata today because of the onslaught of mobile phones.
Long after the interview was over I sat in that booth thinking of my good luck, thinking of the professionalism and humility of a Padma Shri-winning actor with international acclaim, who called back a journalist just because she had been looking for him all day.
Then it struck me. He had told me I had never left my name and number, (how could I, his wife never asked?) then how did he call me back on my mobile, I wondered.
The mystery was unveiled the next day when I walked into office with a breeze in my step and a smile on my lips and managed to iron out the furrow on my Editor’s forehead with the news that Om Puri will be on front page that day.
The photographer I had stationed at the lobby had managed to get Om Puri’s photo with his entire unit at the lobby of the hotel.
The photographer told me, “Om Puri asked me if I knew who was calling him all day from The Times of India. I told him your name and then he asked for your number which I gave.”
I felt Nandita Puri wasn’t co-operating but if it hadn’t been for her Om Puri wouldn’t have known I had called.
I met Om Puri a couple of times after that. I always thanked him for calling me back that day because he not only saved me a sleepless night but reinforced my faith in humanity. He only smiled and said, “We are all doing a job.”
Entertainment journalism is a very different ballgame today. You have to go through a wall of PRs and secretaries before you can reach a celeb. But yes prior to a movie release they reach you.
But I am fortunate to have belonged to a time when one-to-one interactions with Bollywood stars was possible, they even handed over their personal phone numbers and professional relationships could be established and they even personally called back, like Om Puri did.
While working in Kolkata and Dubai after that I have met so many celebs but Om Puri with his simple gesture left such an impression on my mind that I wrote about this entire incident in my book Exit Interview, a novel and a fiction on the life of a journalist, published by Rupa Publications.
Om Puri’s body of work both in India and abroad makes him one of the most versatile, talented and acclaimed actors of our times, someone whose demise is a major loss to world cinema.
To me Om Puri will always remain the star who taught me a valuable life lesson in humility, simplicity and professionalism.