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Naseeruddin Shah fondly remembers his friend and co-actor Om Puri

Naseeruddin Shah on his friend and co-actor Om Puri. An excerpt from Shah’s memoir ‘And Then One Day’

Naseeruddin Shah (left) with his friend and co-star Om Puri.
Naseeruddin Shah (left) with his friend and co-star Om Puri. (Naseeruddin Shah (left) with his friend and co-star Om Puri.)

Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri were contemporaries at the National School of Drama (NSD). They worked together in several films and remained close friends. In his memoir, And Then One Day, Shah writes about Puri in various contexts. This excerpt is about their times together at the NSD.

We returned from vacation for our final year, to be informed that auditions would be on for the next production, a Kabuki play Ibaragi in Hindi, to be directed by an expert from Japan. My awareness of this classical form was as immature as that of a twenty-two-year-old drama student can be expected to be. We had never actually seen a Kabuki play but had been shown films of some performances. It would be a stretch to perform like that, I knew, particularly with the vocal acrobatics required, but I felt more than confident that the big part in it would be mine.

Even though I then had frequent laryngeal trouble, and had to often perform with a voice that was no more than a ghostly whisper, I was cocky to the core that if anyone could pull this off it had to be me. It did not occur to me that there were other actors too, not as showy as myself, who had been far more diligent in practising their craft than I had been. Arriving at the school for the first read-through, we were told that only the students of acting would be cast. We, the students of direction, were to only observe and assist in the production. I was gutted and so was Jaspal, who had naturally assumed that with his vocal abilities, he would be a shoo-in. And who should get cast in the main part but Om Puri, also a classmate, who had very quietly persevered in self-improvement through the time he had been at NSD. When the play was performed Om, for once cast as a flamboyant warrior, was a revelation. I was stuck doing School of drama, tragedy and heartbreak 143 production duties for this play I would have killed to act in, and could only watch him in wonder and envy. Despite intensely coveting the role, it was difficult not to be thrilled at the level of performance he had achieved. Something told me I could NOT have done what he did.

Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir ‘And Then One Day’ was published in 2014.
Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir ‘And Then One Day’ was published in 2014.

Om had always been a model, if somewhat stodgy, student and human being: completely virtuous, genuinely considerate, deeply compassionate, industrious, punctual, attentive, thoughtful; but had so far received attention because of his sweet temperament rather than for his acting. Now he had delivered a knockout performance, and I could see there was no magic formula responsible. He was so astoundingly good because, quite simply, he had gone for broke and expended every ounce of his energy in preparation. Om continued to inspire me for a very long time.

Even though I initially found his sincerity amusing and quite unnecessary—at complete variance with my own attitude—I finally began to see its virtues, and had to admit to myself that none of my own performances in the school productions could begin to approach Om’s achievement in Ibaragi.

Next morning Jaspal/Shah were in Alkazi’s office, insisting on a transfer to the acting course. We couldn’t bear to not be acting in any more plays, and that is what now seemed likely, with direction students normally assisting with the lighting and backstage jobs. We wanted to act, at least I did and I suppose Jaspal did as well. I find it hard to remember who was the mover behind all these decisions we took in tandem and who the follower. Alkazi was reluctant to let us go, reiterating time and again that we would benefit more by doing the course in direction. And he was right: we would have learnt more but, hell, we didn’t want to learn, we wanted to act. As a last resort kind of thing to assure me I had a future as a director, he gave me a classroom assignment to direct Acts One and 144 AND THEN ONE DAY Two of A Doll’s House, with Om acting in it, and even though I acquitted myself reasonably well as director, with Jaspal as stage manager (it was incidentally the first of two more later unsuccessful attempts at directing Om), it did not deter me from resuming my pleas to rejoin the acting course, a request Alkazi finally had to grant.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin India.

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