Journalist and author Nandita Puri on her book, Unlikely Hero, her husband Om Puri and more…

As a journalist, Nandita Puri had interviewed many people but this interview — or rather series of interviews — was different. For one, the person facing her was her husband. Secondly, he was no ordinary person; he was the eminent actor Om Puri. Obviously Nandita Puri had her task cut out. In Chennai recently for the launch of her book Om Puri: Unlikely Hero, she spoke about the making of the book and the controversy that broke out when certain portions relating to Om Puri's earlier relationships were leaked. Excerpts:

As a journalist you have interviewed many people. How different was it to interview your husband?

To begin with, it was delightful … Om is extremely articulate, honest and media-savvy and that makes him a dream profile. Om loves talking about his childhood and early days of struggle. While describing his work, he may get a date here or a name there wrong, but his ability to recollect anecdotes and incidents add depth. However the one big difference was that if he wanted to retract a statement or an incident, he would easily arm twist me into it. And if he was hesitant about something, it was easier for me to convince him to do so. Fringe benefits of being a spouse!

How easy/difficult was it to detach yourself from the events of his life?

Mostly easy. I have been a journalist for many years and when I decided to embark on Om's biography, I was very clear that it was not going to be a coffee-table book or a panegyric or a eulogy. So it was easy to deal with his early years as well as his working years. Describing his relationships was a little difficult...because as a wife it can be a bit tricky; besides most of the women in his life were not willing to talk. So I had to rely on Om's opinion on them. But the most difficult part was trying to bring forth the ‘man' rather than the actor. And living with the subject with his fluctuating moods at home can be very difficult for a biographer. Often he would be very relaxed. Except when he was tired then he would get irritable and say, “Bas. Enough for today….” I had to wait to catch him in a good mood or squeeze in time between his shoots to continue… I tried my best to keep my opinions and prejudices aside.

Was there any event/episode that you particularly liked?

A lot of anecdotes from his childhood days were a mix of pathos and fun. Every time I read about the time Om asks God to take his mother away as she lay dying in hospital, I am moved to tears. For a boy of 17 to make a wish like that rather than see her suffer because they could not afford the medicines to treat her... it must have been very difficult. I truly realised the magnitude of poverty Om experienced.

Have you learnt anything new about your husband while researching this book?

Quite a lot. When stalwarts from world cinema speak highly of him, you realise that he is not only a good actor, he is a legend. Having lived with him so long in the humdrum of daily existence, you tend to take his greatness and talent for granted. But after Unlikely Hero, I am seeing him with new eyes.

Tell us a little about Nandita: likes and dislikes; background; influences.

I was brought up in Kolkata in a progressive middle class Bengali Brahmo family; studied first in a Roman Catholic boarding school in Chandernagore (the other French colony apart from Puducherry); then English literature from Loreto College and Masters from Jadavpur University. I worked as a journalist and wrote extensively for The Telegraph, The Statesman, Sunday Mail, Reader's Digest, TOI group among others. I also worked as a broadcast journalist. Have also written a typical Bollywood screenplay “Mera Dil Leke Dekho”, a film by Punam Sinha.

In 2005 my first collection of short stories Nine On Nine with urban Indian women as protagonists was published by Rupa. I enjoy reading, music, travelling, looking after the house and being involved with my son who is all of 12 .... in between vigorous spells of writing. As also daydreaming and chilling with gallons of coffee, just an excuse for creativity.

What next in terms of your writing?

Currently am adapting one of my stories “At Jenny's” into a Hindi screenplay called “Pati, Patni And In Between”. But the most important project is my debut novel, which should be out early March-April 2010. Called Two Worlds, it is a thriller spanning three cities over a century and a half from Imperial Calcutta to present-day Mumbai and Wales. It deals with the media politics and vis-à-vis Bollywood and Mumbai underworld. Spent six years researching and writing… and am looking forward to a lot of people being shaken out of their comfortable stupor! I call it my non-fictional fiction.

Has the controversy over the leaked portion of your book affected your marriage?

No, it didn't affect our marriage but there was a lot of unpleasantness. Neither of us is used to being in the news for the wrong reasons. Om's outburst was due to a misunderstanding that his biography was introduced the wrong way; not through his childhood or work, but through his relationships.

What hurt me most was people trying to slander me. I have been honest, but when honesty is given a slur by gossip columnists and tabloid journalists who try to pose as moral torchbearers, it is both sad as well as laughable.


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012