Jaane bhi do yaaron…

My apologies. This tribute to Om Puri is so late now that perhaps it’s already time for him to be reborn! But do read for legends never die and it’s never too late to write about them…

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Shabana Azmi was right, wasn’t she?  Pic credit: Times of India

That pockmarked face with blazing eyes had dared to dream of becoming an actor in an industry that ran on star power and “face value”, and Om Puri had neither.

Naseeruddin Shah, his friend of 40 years since their NSD days, recalled in a television interview how their co-star in several parallel films, Shabana Azmi, had looked at an old photo of the two friends and had jokingly commented: How could such ugly men even think of becoming actors!

Indeed. How could they?

The answer was beautifully captured in an ad on Doordarshan in the late eighties or perhaps early Nineties. One vaguely remembers it was an ad for a scooter and went something like this:

Om: Log kahte thhe tum actor nahi ban sakte…lekin mujhe apni kabiliat par pura bharosa tha…

Technician: Sir, shot ready hai

Om: Dekha? Ab sir kahte hain!

Om Puri carried the aspirations of the Average Joes of an entire generation on his shoulders and this ad tried to cash in on the success of this man, who was making waves in an industry that valued an actor’s looks more than his or her acting skills. His success was an inspiration not only to struggling actors but people in general.

He did not even have the advantages that his friend Naseer had — “charm and impeccable English” as Om himself had put it in an interview.

But what he had was confidence — as he says in that ad — in his ability as an actor. The ability to transform himself on stage or in front a camera to be the characters we came to love over the years.

From the angry cop in Ardha Satya to the likeable buffoon in Hera Pheri, from the rickshawala in City of Joy to George in East is East, Om Puri has left his footprints in English films as much as the parallel cinema movement of the 70s and 80s and of course regular Bollywood fare.

But those who knew him closely say his global fame sat lightly on him, to the extent that he appeared quite oblivious of his colossal status in the world of cinema. He was proud of his work but had no airs about him — an uncomplicated, emotional and down-to-earth Punjabi man who had his own flaws like any human being.

The son of a railway man, he is known to have washed dishes at a tea stall and scrounged around for pieces of coal fallen from steam engines on the tracks to help run his family’s kitchen fire. Such humble beginings kept him rooted and helped him effortlessly portray those raw emotions on screen that left us spellbound.

In Satyajit Ray’s TV film Sadgati based on a Premchand short story, Puri’s silent portrayal of the untouchable Dukhia’s pain, suffering and his impotent rage at being exploited by the Brahmin remains etched in one’s memory and so is Ardha Satya’s angry cop Anant Velenkar’s fury when he mercilessly beats up a thief in lockup while the audience sees through Anant’s eyes that he is thrashing his own demons.

But Om Puri was not just about raw emotions, he could also make you laugh. Slapstick comedy came as naturally to him as any of his serious roles and he did it better than those who were known for such roles.

Recall Ahuja in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron in that epic stage sequence where he enters in Bheem’s costume still wearing his goggles. “Oye baat to maine apne baap ki nai suni tu cheez kya hai?,” Ahuja deadpans when asked by Arjun, “Bheem kya tum bhratha Yudhisthir ki baat nahi sunoge?”

A crooked Punjabi businessman, who loves his tipple, played to the hilt by a Punjabi bloke who loved his booze. Recall another legendary scene where a drunk Ahuja thinks the dead civic official D’Mello’s (played dead in the entire movie by Satish Shah) coffin is a sports car! Om lifts this over-the-top slapstick sequence to another level, making us believe that Ahuja was indeed capable of such stupidity.

That was 1983. His knack for comedy remained largely unutilised– barring that memorable DD satirical series Kakka Ji Kahin where he plays a political fixer– till we get to see him in a string of comedies such as Hera Pheri and Golmaal.

The versatility of Om Puri’s craft is matchless, even his legendary college buddy Naseer doesn’t come close. And we haven’t even touched the body of his work in international films, which is for a later post.

Om Puri was born to be an actor. Like Naseer says in one of his interviews that Om credits me with bringing him into films, but the fact is: “Om jahan bhi hota Govind Nihlani usse zameen khod kar nikaal lata.”

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Manna from heaven

I know it’s a clichéd headline, but what else can you say for the owner of a made-in-heaven voice? For me, the essence of Manna Dey is captured in his two songs that are linguistically, musically and emotionally poles apart but cover two ends of the melody spectrum he ruled for nearly 50 years.

Manna-deyThe songs are Laga chunri mein daag and Coffee House er adda. The first is a masterly rendition of a classical-based playful number pulsating with energy that makes me go in a trance. The beautiful words penned by Sahir Ludhianvi is layered — naughty and philosophical at the same time.

At one level it is about a woman afraid of returning home with a stained chunri after a rendezvous with her lover. But at another level it says — “wo duniya mere babul ka ghar, ye duniya sasural” — and hence the stain on her chunri can also be compared to the worldly sins that stain one’s soul.

Sorry couldn’t help digressing there! But you only have to close your eyes and hear Manna unleash this torrential number now going berserk with the sargam and suddenly restraining with a tonal inflection bringing to life every poetic nuance of Sahir’s masterly woven lyrics.

And on the other end of Manna’s spectrum is the melancholic, pining-for-the-past melody Coffee House er adda. The song penned by Gauriprasanna Majumdar recounts the Coffee House days of seven friends, who sat over endless cups and cheap charminar cigarettes burning between their lips with dreams to make it big.

But life has taken a toll on them, DSouza is now dead, Amal is dying of cancer, Rama is in an insane asylum betrayed by his lover, Sujata is married to a rich man, Nikhilesh is in Paris and Moidul has gone back to Dhaka. The seventh friend is the unnamed narrator pining for the old carefree days of Coffee House.

There is not a time when I don’t get a lump in my throat listening to this song. The pain in his voice makes you die with DSouza, the guitarist of Grand Hotel, it makes you suffer as Amal, the failed poet, it makes you stare at nothingness like the insane Rama, the love less, failed actor.

I can imagine a concert tonight in heaven where Manna will join the already departed trio that made the famous quintet of Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore and Manna.

Manna in heaven, sing in peace.

PS: Uploading the two songs. Enjoy!

Murder he thought

It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat. “Shoooh!” he cried, but the cat simply ignored his threat and continued to stare at the bloodied mess on the floor, then looked at him and purred as if to ask, “What do you propose to do now?”

“Well, you have any ideas?” he asked the cat, who didn’t seem to have any good ideas either and, instead, chose to turn away, walking thoughtfully to a corner and take a place next to a shattered vase.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he thought, “Not on my off day, I get only one day in a week for God’s sake.” The cat seemed to agree and made that stupid noise that cat’s make when they have nothing better to do, which irritated him more.

He cursed the cat again but this time it didn’t completely ignore him, just stretched its neck and cocked its head a bit, as if to say “Come again?” And when he didn’t, the majestic feline decided to go back to ignoring him once again. A decidedly wisely look came over its furry face, as if it was chewing over the predicament slumped in disarray on the floor.

The mess, any mess, can be cleaned up, provided you wanted it cleaned up. He remembered reading something to that effect somewhere back in the days when he used to read to take his mind off pressing matters instead of smoking up.

Meanwhile, the blood-soaked problem on the floor was silently crying out for his attention and increasingly he was finding it difficult to ignore it anymore.

Even the cat was restless now and it got up to take a closer look at the crisis at hand and slowly lowered itself next to it, its whiskers quivering with what seemed to be anticipation.

The bright noon sun peeping through the curtains, almost blinding him,  shook him our of his reverie. He really needed to do something. With no idea as to what, he just went looking for a beer in the fridge.

Suddenly, his mind cleared. Maybe the long swig on an empty stomach jolted him, and he decided to act, finally. But he was still holding the beer bottle and had to finish that first. Besides, he needed to think some more. “I can’t think, drink beer and clean up this mess at the same time,” he thought in his defence and stared at the floor half expecting to see only the empty beer bottles, newspapers and cigarette butts lying about as usual.

“All I wanted was to win the game. And this is the price I pay for wanting to win a piddly game of chess? He could have just let me win, stupid bugger,” he muttered angrily to no one in particular, but the cat nodded all the same.

He felt sad though. They were friends for a long time and he was a constant companion where ever he went. Even in office. In fact, he was his only friend. “And now he is dead. You could have just let me win you fool just this once?,” he thought again regretting his friend’s stupidity.

At the back of his mind he always knew that his friend was better than him in everything and secretly hated him for it. “He always got the girl even when I spoke to her first. I did all the hard work didn’t I?. Even in office the few times the editor praised my copies he pushed me aside to claim the credit. And when something went wrong the boss never believed he fiddled with my copy and introduced the errors. Good riddance. I don’t even want to talk about the other times when he made me look stupid.”

The man felt dumb whining about his friend’s meanness to the cat, who seemed to be giving a sympathetic hearing by occasionally twitching his whiskers in agreement.

Suddenly, it occurred to him that this cat, which is not even his cat, could be the reason behind the day going so bad for him and shot a menacing look at the animal. This time the feline didn’t ignore the threat and moved just as the empty beer bottle crashed at the place he was perched till a moment ago. The cat was giving him a wary look now, ready to leap again, just in case.

“Damn! More mess. I should just burn this place down,” he thought. “Yeah!” The idea appealed to him and his eyes lit up.

——–

The man woke up to a stench of burnt flesh, feeling very thirsty. He tried to look around and felt a stab of pain all over his body as he tried to move. “Where am I?” he thought as his eyes took in the sight of what looked like a hospital ward.

The attending nurse came rushing seeing the John Doe move for the first time in two days. “Can’t you hear? Give me some water,” he cried at the top of his voice. But the nurse seemed not to hear and kept leaning closer.

It was then that horror struck. Through the corner of his eyes he saw his friend standing and smiling mysteriously petting a cat. “He should be dead, why’s he here, and that cat, that cat…” A weary calm descended on him as the room grew darker. He closed his eyes and wondered if he was dying.

PS: The opening line courtesy Neil Gaiman.

Bollywood’s Gentleman Villain takes his final bow

It was the stylish way in which he was spotted putting a pan in his mouth and chewing it with relish that got him his first role as a villain in his debut 1940 film Yamla Jat. From that moment onwards Pran Krishan Sikand aka Pran never looked back.

This anecdote comes from film journalist Bunny Reuben’s biography of the legendary actor with a quirky title — ‘…and Pran’. An apt title for the life story of a man who, despite never playing the hero in hero-centric Bollywood films, ruled the roost, to use a cliche, so much so that the film credits actually read …and Pran. 

Rest in peace.

Innocence of Muslims

What is wrong with the world? Some madcap, two-bit porn filmmaker makes a worthless movie which no one had heard of till another loony posts it on YouTube and the whole Islamic world explodes.

From Libya to Bangladesh in nearly every Muslim country people just go on the rampage burning public property in protest against the insult to the Prophet. Insult it is for sure but by whom? A lunatic? Can a god be insulted by any random guy?

And what is America’s role in it? Just because that deranged Egypt-born dimwit holds an American passport?

Besides, isn’t it ironical that this whole episode should begin in a Libyan town that was saved by American fighter jets from the wrath of Gaddafi’s troops who were marching on Benghazi because they dared to revolt?

I can understand and empathise with the Muslim world’s decades-old justifiable anger against the Americans, but in this case I can’t imagine how the US is responsible for the act of one unhinged individual.

And this is not the first time. A cartoonist in faraway Denmark draws a caricature of the Prophet, in bad taste I may add, and you have enraged masses burning public property in a remote town in West Bengal where those rampaging are unlikely to even know where Denmark is.

Yet these poor folks are willing (most likely incited) to forego their daily wage, risk being beaten up by the police, even their life and for what?

Why is it that a community that largely lacks in nearly every parameter of social development fails to rally itself to demand what it lacks but is readily mobilised to “avenge” a religious insult in some remote corner of the world.

And this appears to hold true for nearly every religion. Is religion the only worthy cause for standing up?

PS: I assure you I am not a Hindu fundamentalist or a self-appointed apologist for the Americans.

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When I wrote this piece two years ago, Mehdi was already ill and bed-ridden. Writing it I dreaded the day when the Emperor of Ghazals will sing no more. Today is that day. It’s a shame that I am recycling this tribute instead of writing a new one. Those who know me know what his ghazals mean to me and they would expect me to write something new. My apologies to them. But the only way I can explain the reason for re-blogging this is a couplet by Faiz which he wrote in another context: “Duniya ne teri yaad se begana kar diya, tujhse bhi dil fareb hain ghum rozghar ke…”

Coalemus's Column

Mehdi Hassan first revealed himself to me through one of my friends in college. I may have heard him before as a kid at home but my fascination with the Emperor of Ghazals began one lazy late afternoon in my first year in college.

We were through with our daily dose of chai, samosas, cigarettes, girls, sex and politics it seemed. There was a sudden hush at our table in the canteen.

Abhishek believed that the best way to fill such a silence was through songs, especially ghazals. So he began humming a Jagjit Singh number. Soon it turned into a mehfil and slowly those who thought ghazals were boring left leaving only a few of us at the table.

It was then that Abhishek began singing “Ranjish he sahi” — one of Mehdi’s most popular ghazals that even those with passing acquaintance with his ghazals would know.

But lightning…

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