Originally posted on the BBC Media Action blog by Devika Bahl on January 13 2017 - Veteran Indian actor, Om Puri, who passed away last week, fronted our HIV and AIDS drama series, Jasoos Vijay – helping make it one of India’s most watched TV shows of its time. Devika Bahl, creative director for the series shares fond memories of an exceptional man.
I first saw Om Puri in his cult film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, while I was still in school. Amidst a formidable Bollywood ensemble cast, Om stood out in this brilliant satirical comedy. Watching him in other movies such as Ardh-Satya, Arohan, Akarosh, City of Joy, East is East, I, like million others, grew up totally mesmerised by his very unlikely ‘hero’ face, pock-marked and creased, yet with a silent strength and intensity.
Years later, I met Om Puri in person in early 2002. Back then BBC Media Action was called BBC World Service Trust. Our HIV and AIDS multimedia awareness initiative included a television drama series, Jasoos Vijay (Detective Vijay) designed to help break the silence around a very taboo medical issue. To further personalise the narrative and to gauge the pulse of the viewers we decided to add a sutradhar (presenter) – someone credible, a confidante who the audience could write into with their views. Om Puri was the first name on the list. A shot in the dark – but worth a try!
Om was frantically busy in those days. Would he really want to present an unknown TV show? But our casting director, Dilip Shankar was not one to give up. Within a few days, Dilip came in beaming, waving Om’s letter – he had said yes! We couldn’t believe our luck.
And before you knew it, Om was on his way to Delhi for his very first shoot. We were all of course, very nervous. We hadn’t budgeted for a star of his stature and we were sure he would expect to be put up at a five star hotel. Much to our surprise Om declared he would be happy to be put up in a guesthouse with a simple supply of “dal tadka, green chillies, onions, and rotis.” But the cynics that we were, seeing would be believing, so when we next met, he greeted us warmly, praised the lodgings we had found him, and with a twinkle in his eyes, said, “You must try the dal-tadka here, it’s very good!”
As months passed and seasons changed, Om became an integral part of the Jasoos Vijay family and his contribution was immense. His compassion for the common person, his sincerity and commitment were so genuine, it struck a chord instantly. Audiences wrote in hundreds, week after week, pouring their hearts out about their deepest, darkest concerns – and seeking solutions from Om. The project team responded to each letter, sending out information booklets and postcards printed with Om’s signature. He clearly enjoyed being part of a project designed to help the Indian public and would say: “I find working with you all very therapeutic and Jasoos Vijay is very good for me”. It was good for its audiences too – research showing that among sexually active men, 58% of Jasoos Vijay viewers said they were aware that unprotected sex could be a route of HIV transmission, compared to only 39% of non-viewers. By the time it finished, the show had reached over 70 million people – and often featured in India’s top 10 shows.
One day Om rang to say that he had just returned from a shoot near Siachen (Kashmir border) where he met a soldier who had spent a laborious half an hour in the snow to crank up his oil generator to power his television so he could watch Jasoos Vijay and “his uncle” (Om and the actor who played Vijay resembled each other). The soldier couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw that the ‘uncle’ was right before him. Om said that since viewers craved to know whether he was related to “Jasoos Vijay”, he didn’t want to disappoint. So it was decided to feature Om within the drama itself as Vijay’s uncle. Again, all of this, Om happily did.
A self-made man, Om blazed his own trail. He had very humble beginnings, but did not give up. He mastered his craft and made it to the top, both nationally and internationally. But once there, he never lost sight of his modest beginnings and his struggling days. He remained a man of simple needs, wearing cotton kurtas and a simple watch, a true son of the soil.
His outstanding talent, his quiet professionalism, his charisma, his deep baritone voice, and above all the human being that he was will be much missed.
I feel very lucky to have had him pass through my life, leaving behind wonderfully warm memories of his generous, kind and adventurous spirit.
Image credit: BBC Media Action, caption: "Om Puri and Adil Khandkar in costume for an episode of Jasoos Vijay"
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