Om Puri’s first wife, Seema Kapoor, talks about working with him on her directorial venture, and the void he’s left behind
Anju Maskeri (MID-DAY; January 22, 2017)

While narrating the script of her upcoming film Kabadiwala to the cast in June last year, Seema Kapoor recalls a comment actor Om Puri made at the end of the session. “The protagonist in the film is a kabadiwala’s (junk dealer’s) son, who manages the community toilets in the village. But, he goes around telling everyone that he owns a restaurant chain. When Puri ji heard the narration, all he said was, ‘Seema, film hai toh badbu pe, par ismein se khushboo aa rahi hai (although the film is about stench, I can smell fragrance in it)’,” says Seema, actor Annu Kapoor’s sister, who married Om Puri in 1991. Their marriage lasted less than a year — Puri then married journalist Nandita Puri. But, 38 years on Seema and Om still maintained a more than cordial relationship.

Seema, in fact, was one of the last people the veteran star called before his death. On the evening of January 5, when she was in the editing studio, he called up to know where she picked up grain for the birds she fed every day. That was her last conversation with him. And, the film, which the duo was working on, was Puri’s last.

On January 6, the star was found dead at his Lokhandwala Oakland Park residence. Puri, who was believed to be in good health and had returned from work, a day prior, was reported to have died of a fatal heart attack while alone at home. Kapoor is still grieving. She pauses frequently to fight back tears. For the last seven years, she was Puri’s constant companion.

“While we were shooting in Lucknow, Puri ji personally went around making all the hotel arrangements for the crew. He even coordinated with the caterers and ordered food for all of us. He would jokingly add, ‘Put my name in the line producer credits.’ Imagine, somebody of his stature doing chores for the crew. Sometimes I wonder why he was doing so much. But that’s who he was,” she adds.

It’s this sense of humility, she feels, that endeared Puri to all. Although the duo had worked together on two documentaries earlier, this was their first feature together. Puri was supposed to play the ‘sutradhar’ or the narrator in the film. Incidentally, the Uri debacle had taken place when the actor was in Lucknow shooting for Kapoor’s film. Puri, at that point of time, was part of a televised debate about the IMPPA’s (Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association) indefinite ban on Pakistani artistes from working in Indian projects. The ban was in response to the killing of 19 Indian soldiers in a terror attack at Uri, Jammu and Kashmir on September 18. During the debate, Puri lost his cool and said, “Who had asked the soldiers to join the army? Who told them to pick the weapons?” This statement led to Puri being vilified for being callous. A police complaint was filed against him at the Andheri police station for being insensitive towards the soldiers who lost their lives for the country.

“When he returned, I said to him, ‘Ek sentence galat nikal gaya’, and that one line proved costly. He, of course, did not mean it. He just did not how to phrase things correctly,” she says. Puri plunged into depression after that. Kapoor recalls how that night Puri did not turn up for the shoot, but stayed back in his room. “He kept saying, that he’s done so much in his life, but that one line is all people choose to remember. He was devastated. All the channels and people on social media were vilifying him. His apologies went unheard in that,” she says.

In their 38-year-long association, Kapoor had seen several upheavals in their relationship. Towards the end of 1991, Puri confessed that another woman (Nandita Puri) had come into his life and he wanted a divorce. She silently gave her consent, but chose not to go public even after she got divorced. “Both of us maintained our dignity and respect. Neither he nor I ever badmouthed each another. We have seen the worse times, had the most bitter fights with each other, but never washed dirty linen in public,” she reveals.

She feels it’s the sense of implicit trust that made them surmount all obstacles and be other’s confidantes through the years. “When you love somebody, you love them in totality. And for me, he was my companion in good and bad times. It’s a void that will never be filled.”

Om Puri and Seema Kapoor (centre) in her hometown, Jhalawar, in 1980
Om Puri and Seema Kapoor (centre) in her hometown, Jhalawar, in 1980