Recently, India has witnessed a spate of big book launches. In this vein, the Bollywood biography of Om Puri, one of India's stalwart actors, was launched with great fanfare, including an appearance by Amitabh Bachchan, India's most recognisable actor. The book is Unlikely Hero: Om Puri, as told by his wife, Nandita. Om Puri is a well-respected actor, having won several awards, including a Padma Shri (one of India's highest honours) and an OBE. He has also acted in many films, including 1991's City of Joy, with Patrick Swayze, and recently, Charlie Wilson's War. His rags-to-riches tale is sweet and inspiring. But, about two weeks before the launch, stories began to appear in the media revealing the actor's distaste at the more lurid excerpts that were being brought to light - especially one that detailed a relationship with a member of his household staff.
Puri, shooting in Chandigarh, Punjab, at the time the story came out, was contacted by friends who asked him if it was all a publicity stunt. Talking to a national newspaper in India, he said: "My wife has reduced a very important and sacred part of my life to cheap and lurid gossip. I had shared these dark secrets with my wife, as all husbands do. If she chose to make them public, at least she should've made sure to maintain a dignity about experiences that are a valuable part of my life. Has she forgotten that I have a standing in society and I've worked hard to achieve all that I have today? I won't allow her to throw it all away for the sake of sensationalism."
Strong words, and at the book launch of the biography, held in Mumbai's ITC Grand Central, the actor admitted that he had been angry with his wife at the time. "The journalist called me when I was angry," he said. "And those six lines I said to them became a whole story." As attendees at the launch sat open-mouthed at the airing of these grievances in public, Puri went on to say that he felt very bad about talking so openly to the press. "My son called me up crying, saying: 'Baba, why did you do this?' and I felt very bad." Some attendees admitted it was nice to hear people talking openly about issues usually not discussed. Says the theatre actress Diksha Basu: "It is so refreshing to see someone from Bollywood willing to talk openly about his weaknesses, regrets and fears instead of continuously portraying himself as a paragon of virtue."
The publisher, Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books, delivered an impassioned speech about how the media had left out the really relevant parts of the book, such as Puri's humble beginnings and rise to fame. "There are very few honest biographies," he said. "And if someone does attempt it, they are condemned." Puri's speech at the launch gave most of the audience goose bumps - he admitted to cheating on his ex-wife and then suing her for cruelty and adultery and then broke down saying: "I am so guilty." One couldn't help but speculate - will this see a league of copycats following through with their own public battles? Biographies are, by and large, an underexplored genre in India but this might just lead to more people following through.