Words cannot express my grief as I reflect on the passing of one of our most legendary and humble actors, Om Puri, who passed away at the age of 66 on January 6th, 2017. A beloved artist, he endlessly inspired the people in his life. Many Pakistani and Indian artists alike expressed their deepest regrets at his loss, and fans on both sides of the border will never forget his contributions both to art, and to the citizens of our nations.
I loved Om Puri for many reasons: his acting prowess and versatility, his humility, his good nature were just a few of the defining traits that made him a such a pleasure to watch on screen. But what truly inspired me was his passion about ending the enmity between India and Pakistan, for building bridges between our two nations and showing us time and time again that we are far more alike than we are different, that Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike can maintain the strong bonds of friendship that we enjoyed before the chasm of hatred pushed us apart nearly 70 years ago. Unlike many Indian citizens, Om Puri had the privilege of going to Pakistan many times, so he managed to see the truth that many citizens of India and Pakistan remain ignorant to: that we are the same, and that our borders unnecessarily divide us. Many citizens of India and Pakistan are unable to actually go across the border and see this truth for themselves, due to the never-ending political games that are played by our governments and sensationalized by our media. So all of their experience, news, and information about one another is mainly acquired through their corrupt governments and of course, the biased media. But Om Puri went to Pakistan himself and was wise enough to see the truth for what it was.
Om Puri regularly spoke out against hatred of Pakistan, a supposed “enemy” nation. He stated that Pakistani films should be released in India, and that Partition prevented the talent on both sides of the border from being recognized properly. Regarding Lahore he said, “Great Indian actors came to Lahore to act, and legends like Prithviraj Kapoor also benefited from the ancient city’s film industry.”. He was also an ambassador for peace between our nations, stating that “I’d say about 95% of them want peace. Only 5% want trouble. I hope, someday, we can get over our differences and release Pakistani films in India too. We’ve got a huge market for Lollywood there.”.
For him, terrorism had no religion, stating: “I oppose terrorism activities in Pakistan and also condemn last year’s attack on Army Public School in Peshawar.”. This is important, because the narrative of the Indian media and politicians is that Pakistan supports terrorism. There is an important distinction that needs to be made here: The government of Pakistan does not address terrorism as vehemently as it needs to, and because of politics, has too often looked the other way with regards to harboring individuals who commit acts of terrorism. But the people of Pakistan do not support such acts, nor do they support the harboring of such individuals. And indeed, terrorists do not discriminate in who they kill, which is proven by the number of Pakistanis who fall victim to it every year. The government has a responsibility in this, because they do not adequately and decisively resolve terrorism the way it needs to be. And because in Pakistan the government is basically run by the military, who have their own political agenda to work towards, the corruption in the government (and military) and lack of proper address for terrorism is not likely to get the attention that is so desperately needed.
Unfortunately, many Indians saw Om Puri as a traitor to their own nation, those same ones who believe in keeping this narrative of animosity alive. And as I have stated before, the same people who criticized him for being unpatriotic and a traitor to the nation are the ones who scream 'til they are blue in the face about how useless our governments are, how they don’t care about the people and the politicians are getting rich off of their misery. They speak with admiration about the western powers and how much “better” life is there, and would leave their beloved nation for one of the western nations in a heartbeat, without looking back. But the moment someone like Om Puri comes out and criticizes their government and says anything positive about Pakistan, they are quick to become patriotic Indians and slam him for daring to say anything against their beloved nation and politicians. Such people in Pakistan are no different. Day in and day out they will complain about their corrupt leaders and politicians, and do their very best to leave Pakistan for a western nation, but the moment someone like Fawad Khan or Shahid Afridi comes out in support of India or anything to do with it, they are treated worst than apostates or blasphemers. Om Puri was intelligent: He knew that the flaws lay in the governments, politicians, and media of India and Pakistan, not the mass majority of the common people. He gave credit to the governments of India and Pakistan where it was due, but sadly both governments have done little to earn any credit in making peace.
There was a time when the Hindus and Muslims of our subcontinent lived together without a border, when they knew that there was far more that united them than there was that divided them. But 69 years of hatred from our governments, politicians, and media has brainwashed and warped the minds of multiple generations of Pakistanis and Indians into believing that we are different, that we are sworn enemies of one another. But Om Puri was one of those rare gems who saw through the facade, the animosity, that many of the people during partition tried to voice but were quickly silenced. Because sadly, hatred was stronger than love. But Om Puri had the same mindset that those individuals had, and he was not afraid to express it: We are one. As Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, as Pakistanis and Indians, we are united by a common culture and heritage, and you can easily be a devout practitioner of your faith and still believe in the unity of our citizens. Om Puri realized all of this and more from the very beginning. He was an individual who saw past borders and religion, while maintaining the cultural heritage of our people; he was the ultimate example of the prepartition unity that we must again work towards.
Without a doubt, it is true that Om Puri left us far too soon. His death represents the loss of a beacon of hope for building bridges between our nations, and seeing us at each other’s throats caused him immense pain. That is why I say that now it is up to us to carry on his legacy, to make sure his vision comes true, to keep that fire going. That is the least of what we owe him. How many more soldiers on both sides have to be “martyred”, have to die fighting their “enemy”, before we realize that 69 years of hatred has led to nothing but bloodshed and grief and loss? How many more men like Om Puri will it take before we are able to look past the supposed differences that unjustly divide us?With each generation, the people of India and Pakistan are handed what at first look like brand new lenses with which they are able to see each other, hand-crafted by their education systems, their media, their governments, and their politicians. They are guaranteed that these new lenses are state-of-the art, will never need to be cleaned or washed, and are impervious to dirt and grime from the outside. And as time went by, new versions of these lenses came out, each supposedly better and more efficient than the last. And those same people failed to see that with time their lenses were getting dirtier and more polluted, and more easily cracked, than when they first had them, having full faith in the guarantee they were given by their creators that they were seeing everything clearly, that any other lens would obscure their vision. What all those generations, from then all the way up until now, have not realized is that there is nothing like the original lenses, the first that were ever made. They were not only clean, but they were clear. Their lenses were impenetrable by hate and politics, because there wasn’t nearly enough of that antagonism to dirty them up. They were in mass production before partition, but sadly those manufacturers were forced to shut down because of politics and because they lost their business to the new manufacturers who opened up on both sides of the borders, who came out with the supposedly better ones, because hatred was selling much more than love. As a result, the original lenses became rarer and more difficult to find, almost like a collector’s item. Om Puri was lucky enough to have one of the original lenses which were by then very old, yet just as pristine as when they were first made. He maintained them very well, allowing his vision to remain clear and unbiased, and empowering him to strive for the peace and unity of the people of Pakistan and India. His lenses may have been old and even out of fashion for the political narrative that sells nowadays, but if we truly want to improve the future of India and Pakistan, perhaps we should all invest in finding a pair for ourselves and finally see one another clearly, perhaps for the first time in nearly 70 years.