King among actors

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Shreeram Lagoo and his co-actor and wife Deepa Shreeram in Govind Deshpande’s “Udhwastha Dharmashala”. Photo: By special arrangement

September 28, 2010: Shreeram Lagoo receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2009 from President Pratibha Patil. Photo: PTI

A poster for “Gharaonda”.

A cerebral actor, Dr Shreeram Lagoo (1927–2019) established a benchmark for naturalistic acting in Marathi theatre and infused subtlety and complexity into his Hindi and Marathi film roles to raise them above melodrama. by Sudhanva Deshpande

Dr Shreeram Lagoo was not merely one of Maharashtra’s most iconic and beloved theatre and film actors but also an inheritor of the State’s progressive and social reform traditions. In Maharashtra, Lagoo’s persona is intimately linked with the stage role he made immortal, V.V. Shirvadkar’s tragic hero in Natasamrat (King Among Actors), while Hindi film viewers will remember his performances in films such as Gharoanda (1977) and Lawaris (1981). He also appeared in numerous Marathi films.

Born in 1927, Lagoo grew up in Pune. His first attempt at acting was at school, when he must have been about 10 years old. Cast as Gopal Krishna Gokhale—coincidentally, the cameo he was to do in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) decades later—he was afflicted by stage fright as he waited in the wings. Thrust on the stage, at first he was tongue-tied. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, he was able to untie his tongue—at which point he delivered not just his own lines but the entire play, non-stop.

Lagoo was renowned for his rich, deep voice and immaculate dialogue delivery. He was deeply knowledgeable about Marathi literature, and his acting bore the imprint of his literary sensibility. There was a time when Lagoo, after becoming a professional actor, was doing three performances a day, of Natasamrat, Gidhade (Vultures by Vijay Tendulkar) and Himalayachi Sawali (Shadow of the Himalayas by Vasant Kanetkar). Astonishingly, he never lost his voice.

Lagoo was a cerebral actor. In his memoirs Lamaan (The Porter, 2014), he describes how he would go through emotional and intellectual upheavals while preparing for a role but only while rehearsing it. Once a role was ready, he would commit it to memory, not simply the lines and moves and the gestures but every little detail of what his muscles went through in creating those emotions. Then it was simply a question of recreating that physical pattern in performance, with technical finesse, every time. As a result, the act of performing was never an emotionally or intellectually tiring one, nor did he have to rely on “inspiration”.

Apart from Natasamrat and Gidhade, some of Lagoo’s career-defining stage performances were in Udhwastha Dharmashala (A Man in Dark Times by Govind Deshpande), Surya Pahilela Manus (The Man Who Saw the Sun by Makarand Sathe) and Kirwant (Premanand Gajvee). There was a tremendous surety and precision in his acting. Never did one get the feeling that he was getting carried away or that he was unsure of how much to push. The pauses were never laboured, the punchlines never forced.

There was something about his acting that reminded one of the Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar. No matter how many wickets fell at the other end of the wicket, Gavaskar gave one the feeling that he almost did not notice. He was in a world of his own. Watching Lagoo was somewhat like that. He would be in a zone all his own. His concentration never wavered, no matter how much his co-actors hammed.

Like Gavaskar, Lagoo was at his best when he had to bat in adverse circumstances. In Natasamrat, in his portrayal of the ageing thespian, he created pathos without sentimentality in an otherwise overly melodramatic play. In Gidhade, he had to act in a searingly brutal play that went against the grain of all that he himself stood for. In Udhwastha Dharmashala, he had to deal with a play of pure ideas, without any action at all, and play the part of a Marxist professor in a cultural ethos that was decidedly un-Marxist. In Surya Pahilela Manus, where he portrayed Socrates, he had to rescue an overwritten play.

To be sure, Lagoo was not the only great Marathi male actor of his generation. Three other names readily come to mind: Kashinath Ghanekar, Nilu Phule and Datta Bhat. Ghanekar was Lagoo’s senior and was already a star of the commercial theatre by the time Lagoo decided to turn professional. At his peak, Ghanekar had teams in half a dozen cities who would be ready to mount the play at short notice. This meant that Ghanekar himself was the only one who travelled from town to town, touring. He was the master of gauging his audience and of delivering flawless performances over runs that lasted a thousand shows or more. In time, Lagoo would become a star of the commercial theatre, too. Yet what distinguished Lagoo from Ghanekar is that even at the height of his stardom, one never got the feeling that Lagoo was playing to the gallery. He always got enough subtlety and complexity into his commercial performances to raise them above melodrama.

Nilu Phule and Datta Bhat were Lagoo’s contemporaries. Compared to Lagoo’s Gavaskar, both were Gundappa Vishwanaths. While Lagoo was cerebral, flawless, correct and precise, Nilu Phule and Datta Bhat appeared more instinctive and perhaps had more flair.

There was another difference. There was also something about Nilu Phule and Datta Bhat that reminded one of the village. Lagoo was the first truly urban actor in Maharashtra. Nothing about him suggested the village. In that sense, he was very much a part of, and came to symbolise, the post-Independence urban middle class. This middle class was increasingly losing its links to the village. It was educated, it spoke and read English with as much facility as it did Marathi—sometimes more—and it was also the middle class of India’s first truly capitalist city, Mumbai.

This was also the middle class that increasingly saw itself as part of a globally mobile metropolitan set. That Lagoo worked for a while in a hospital in England could be put down to coincidence. What is not a coincidence, however, is that Lagoo watched the great modern actors closely—Lawrence Olivier, Paul Muni, John Gielgud and Charles Laughton, among others—and brought into his acting both the capitalist work ethic as well as the fine naturalism they had perfected. This kind of urbanity and talent for naturalism were brought into Marathi theatre by Lagoo and his co-actor Vijaya Mehta in an early Vijay Tendulkar play, Madi. Lagoo and Vijaya Mehta, through their association with the Mumbai-based theatre group Rangayan, established the benchmark for naturalistic acting in Marathi theatre.

Marathi theatre

A number of partnerships shaped modern Marathi theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, and Lagoo was central to them all. He worked closely with the Progressive Dramatic Association (PDA), which raised the standard of amateur theatre in Maharashtra; with Kanetkar, the king of commercial playwrights; with Tendulkar, the first outstanding modern Marathi playwright; with Vijaya Mehta; with the somewhat underrated warrior of Marathi theatre, Arvind Deshpande, founder of Awishkar; and with Satyadev Dubey, the eccentric genius. What is remarkable is that he kept at it through the following two decades as well and worked closely with younger artistes such as Amol Palekar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Govind Deshpande, Premanand Gajvee, Makarand Sathe and Atul Pethe. Had it not been for Lagoo, one wonders if plays such as Deshpande’s Udhwastha Dharmashala, Elkunchwar’s Garbo or Sathe’s Surya Pahilela Manus would ever have been performed.

Lagoo was not merely an actor. He was a public intellectual who was not afraid of propagating rationalism and atheism and spoke up fearlessly against bigotry and for democracy. While he came to personify the Marathi urban middle class, he also became its conscience-keeper. If Maharashtra was in the vanguard of social reform in the 19th century, it was also a conservative citadel. Thinkers like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar and Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade were followed by bigots such M.S. Golwalkar, V.D. Savarkar and Bal Thackeray. It is hardly surprising that the Marathi middle class is often parochial, narrow-minded, sectarian and downright communal.

Lagoo railed against this. The campaign against censorship began in Maharashtra when the Censor Board imposed cuts on Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhade. Lagoo describes his first encounter with the play, sometime in the early 1960s:

“I had never read a play that ran over me and stamped on my chest like this. The play was very violent and very alive. With great ferocity, the play tore me to shreds. Mercilessly it poured my blood down a gutter and then filled a tumbler with it, put it to its lips, drank it down, and burped aloud, disgustingly satiated.”

Lagoo realised it was impossible for him to do the play; Marathi theatre was too middle class to accept it just yet. Years passed, and in 1970, Satyadev Dubey’s Theatre Unit decided to produce Gidhade under Lagoo’s direction. So it was sent to the Censor Board, which asked for about 150 cuts. The play is full of foul language, virtually all of which the censors wanted cut. This was unacceptable to Lagoo and Dubey, so they went ahead with the play without a Censor Certificate.

As soon as the play opened, it took Maharashtra by storm. The Censor Board summoned Dubey and Lagoo and asked why they were doing the play without certification. Because accepting the changes would mean butchering the play, Lagoo replied. After much confabulation, the board gave permission for the play to continue pending certification. After a delay of several months, the Censor Board finally cleared the play, with three cuts. Two were specific words. The third cut was visual. The brothers beat up the sister and her foetus is aborted. She appears with a blood red spot on her sari. The board said this was much too graphic.

Three cuts then, out of 150. The producers agreed to take these cuts. Then Dubey had a brainwave. Since the Censor Board objected to the red spot on the sari, what if the spot were blue, not red? So that is how the play got done after that: the spot remained, and in the advertisements of the play, spectators were asked to “imagine that the blue spot is red”.

Lagoo followed this up with a public campaign against censorship throughout Maharashtra. In 1974, he took up Udhwastha Dharmashala, a play against intellectual authoritarianism. When the Emergency was declared the following year, he performed Antigone, his critique of dictatorship. A thorough rationalist, he campaigned against superstition, and when the rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated in Pune in 2013, Lagoo took part in every protest that followed. Lagoo helped mobilise funds through special performance tours to support social activists (such as Medha Patkar) and took consistent and public positions against communalism.

Lagoo was fond of quoting the actor Shombhu Mitra’s adage that an actor is a philosopher-athlete—an athlete because he works with his body; a philosopher because he has to think deeply and use his body to say something. The test of a great actor is not simply how he or she performs the roles, but also which stories the actor chooses to be part of. Lagoo harnessed his stardom to tell uncomfortable stories, on stage, on screen, and in life.

Sudhanva Deshpande is the author of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi (LeftWord, 2020).

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