Om Shivpuri – Memories
Omji was born on July 14, 1936, to a Brahmin family of princely origin, in Kashmir. They later shifted to Jodhpur, where his father was adopted by the royal family. They were very orthodox and the women in the family had to be behind veils. Even if they fell ill, a doctor could not examine them.
He was the fifth of eight children and theirs was a joint family. Omji graduated in Jodhpur. His elder sister was a professor at the Maharani College in Jaipur. By then his father fell sick so all of them shifted to Jaipur. In Jaipur, Omji did a part-time job in a school. He had also done his first year LLB, but he could not complete it because he was a ring leader in college, always up to some mischief. His attendance was short and he was chucked out.
Right from his childhood, he was involved with dramatics. I remember he had told me, that he had acted in a play as a girl. And’his performance was so good that everyone thought he was a girl! In Jaipur, he got a job in All India Radio, I was on the staff and was also a leading actress. I was very young, just 14 or 15 years old and everybody wanted to act with me. My fans on the radio would wait to hear the name Sudha Sharma. So when I was introduced to Omji, I just looked at him and thought ‘Oh, another of those struggling actors trying to act smart’. I did not pay much attention to him.
In AIR, Jaipur, everyone thought I was very egoistic since I did not speak to anyone. But my mother used to sit outside from morning to night waiting for me, so if I was even caught saying namaste to any guy, she would bring the house down. Omji was quite a fair and handsome man. There was a big line of girls running behind him! But not once did I ever see him flirting. Since my mother was around, there was no chance of my even saying hello to him.
My mother was very possessive. When I was 13 years old, the burden of my family fell on me. I used to work from morning to late night, for only about 30 or 40 rupees a month. At this time, a play worth Rs. 250 was offered to me with Omji, So I grabbed it. One day, while awaiting my turn at AIR, Omji, walked up to me. I was in a bad mood. So when he asked me why I was wasting so much time working and why I was not completing my studies, I just blew up. I told him, ‘Aap apne aap ko kya samajhte ho? How can you talk to me like this’? He was quite taken aback. He asked, ‘Why are you shouting at me’? It made me mad. I told him, ‘Can’t you see I am sitting here all hungry and you are telling me to study? I don’t even have the money that’s why I am working’.
Since his sister and brother were doing their final year B.A., Omji said that if I want to, I could study with them. He used to bring me his sister’s books. There were just four or five months left for their exams. He used to stay opposite my house and one day, he came home and met my mother. For the first time, my mom liked some guy. She agreed to let me study, but in the house and luckily I passed my BA..
At the same time, Omji had applied for an NSD scholarship. He got it and was going to be away for two years. By then, we had reached an understanding. He told me that if I could wait for him, for four to six years, till his brothers and sisters got married, he’d come back for me. He also wanted to get settled first. He wanted to be in a position to spend at least around Rs. 1000, then only could he think of marriage. He was also very protective of me. And he also told me no one should know of this understanding we had.
I thought that since he was going for two years, there was no guarantee that he would return. At the same time, my mother was busy looking out men for me to marry. One day, Omji came and asked if I wanted to join NSD in Delhi. After convincing my mother, I signed the form and got my admission. But my mother was not ready to leave Jaipur. With great difficulty I managed to convince her and reached Delhi.
We were in Delhi for two years. There too, Omji was teaching me. I came out first and he passed with distinction. I had also got the best actress award. Omji and I were the first to start the present Repertoire Company in NSD. We were on the staff for three years.
At NSD, Omji had really carved a name for himself, Since he was almost settled, he went back to my mother and asked for my hand. But she was quite upset because by then, she had fixed me up with a rich boy from my community. I still remember this incident. The boy with whom my mother had fixed my marriage, had come down to see me. It was a sort of an engagement ceremony. At the same time, Omji had not yet agreed to marry me, I was in a fix. I had no option but to meet the boy for the engagement. But when Omji came to know of this, he was heartbroken. When I met him a few days later, I was shocked to see him, He had grown a beard and was looking like Devdas. But I told him that I hadn’t given my consent for marriage yet.
Ultimately, in1968, after nine long years of waiting, I got married to him. My mother soon accepted him but his family took a long time to accept me. We both got jobs as the Teachers of Cultural Activities, in Modern School in Jaipur, When we got married, a lot of people used to say, let’s see how long this theatre girl will stick to her man. How is she going to run the family? But I proved them wrong.
We had done a lot of plays together in AIR Jaipur as well as in Delhi. One of our first plays at NSD was titled “Shaadiyan’, written by one Mohan Rakesh who was later associated with us for many years. In 1968, we had our own theatre group. We had done more than 100 to 150 plays. Many times, I had played Omji’s mother! That’s why, even after marriage, he used to call me budhiyaa!
Omji played a variety of roles. He is also in the record books of the Shakespeare company for being the youngest actor to play the role of King Lear. The company had also come down to watch him. I remember the time when our play ‘Antagony’ was staged, Panditji had come to see it. He was so engrossed in it, that he waited till the end. Many other top leaders used to attend our plays, like Indiraji and Dr. Karon Singh. One of our last plays, ‘Aadhay Adhurey’, was converted into a film. It is still not released, Recently, I came across the print when the lab sent us a letter to take away the print after almost 25 years!
Ritu’s birth was the most joyful event in Omji’s life. He was quite stubborn about certain things. When I was about to deliver Ritu, he told me that he would not come to the hospital. Even when his father was in hospital, he did not visit. But I was shocked. When I was actually admitted to the hospital, he was there waiting outside my room for two whole days. He refused to go home. When Ritu was born, he was mad with joy.
He would do everything, from changing her nappies to looking after her. He was quite well versed in handling babies. Ritu was quite a healthy child. We used to take her everywhere we went. When we had our plays, we would put her in a walker and she would toddle around. At times, she used to sleep and wake up exactly when the play got over! It was like she was just programmed to do it.
For almost two-and-a-half years after Ritu was born, we used to have regular shows. The turning point in Omji’s life came, when we lost Mohan Rakesh, the writer who had been with us for many years. That day, it dawned upon him what would happen to his wife and child if something ever happened to him. By just doing plays, the income was not good enough. We used to make around Rs. 450 each. All along, he was offered many films but he never accepted them, Theatre was his life. Acting and directing plays were his soul. But after our writer’s death, he signed two films — Jeevan Sangram and Koshish. He was offered Pran Saab’s role in Heer Ranjha, but he refused. I too, used to get offers before my marriage. But he told me, ‘Decide, marriage or films’, I thought since I had waited for nine years, I had better get married. We were not money minded people.
In 1974, Omji came to Bombay. He used to stay at Caesar’s Palace. He came here with just Rs. 1500 and within a year’s time, he had his own house. When I came to Bombay, this house was totally empty. We had to start from scratch. By then, he had seven to eight films. His first release was Gulzar’s Koshish, then came Jeevan Sangram and Namak Haram.
He used to do around 15 films a month and yet have enough time for the family. He was a very friendly person. Every night, he used to have the house full of his friends, playing cards. He was a family man. When he came back from his shooting, he enjoyed being with his children. I was bored in Bombay. But luckily, I got this Max Muller play, ‘Puss in Boots’. I played the role of the cat. I still remember, I had gone to the theatre to see Jeevan Sangram. When he came to know of this, he came into the theatre and found me. In front of the audience, he just kept hugging me and I was so embarrassed!
For him, it was just his family. Once, while shooting in Kashmir, his work got over earlier. The unit was to return the next day, but Omji caught the next flight after his work and came to Bombay. All his friends had the same complaint — that he headed home soon after his work!
But if he was with his friends, he could be a real mischief maker. There is this funny incident that happened in Jaipur. It was even before we knew each other. At AIR Jaipur, I was always working late. So I bought myself a cycle, with great difficulty. Everytime I rode it, he and his friends would keep running in front of me, asking everyone to clear the way for me! One fine day, as planned by them, as I was going home, a boy with a cycle crashed into me. I was flat on the ground. When I looked up, I saw Omji and his gang laughing at me. I wanted to kill them. I got up only to see my cycle in a bad condition, while I was full of scratches. To rub more salt on my wound, he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll reach the cycle home’! That was it. I just wanted to clobber each of them.
When he went outdoors, Omji got homesick and would call at least twice a day. Many times, he took us with him. But one thing he always kept in mind. If he took us, it was at his own expense. He never let the producer pay for anything, right from his drinks, to his paan masala and cigarettes. He never once obliged! That’s why, many people still respect him. He was a very devoted father. He took his children whenever he went abroad for shows. Ritu was Omji’s favourite. She was very attached to him.
After sometime, he became an introvert. On one of the outdoors shoots, he felt sick with a high temperature of around 103°. But even then, he went to work. He did not want the whole unit to be in a mess because of him. But he got worse and was admitted to hospital. Doctors confirmed it as pneumonia. His chest was so congested, that the X-rays showed this black patch. But after two days, he wanted to go home, The doctors refused to discharge him because he could hardly walk. But somehow, I brought him back to Bombay. He soon recovered and was his usual self, joking and playing with the children.
He went out on another outdoor, after a few days, for Phool Bane Angarey. From Madras, he called me at around 11 o’clock at night, asking my permission to play cards. I told him if anyone heard him, they’d laugh at him for asking me! That was the last time I heard from him. The next thing we knew was that he had expired from a heart attack. He expired on October 16, 1991, It was a very sad thing that I was not there with him. Ritu was the one who was hurt the most. Even today, she breaks down if you talk about her dad. But I have managed to control myself and pull back my life. I pray to God that if any woman should get a husband, he should be like Om Shivpuri. A loving husband, a devoted father and a caring friend (As told to Dinesh Nair in 1993).