Shriram Lagoo passed away on December 17.
In 1970, poet Vi Va Shirwadkar, better known as Kusumagraj, brought in Shakespeare to the buoyant Marathi stage in the form of Natsamrat to which Dr Shriram Lagoo lent his face and rare thespian abilities, making the protagonist Ganpatrao Belwalkar an immortal character. I saw the play at the impressionable age of eight, and it affected me so deeply that to this day, I am unable to forget Dr Lagoo's iconic performance. I am 57, but that performance has stayed with me to date. As an eight-year-old, I had a different world opening in front of me after Natsamrat. I must have seen it not less than eight or nine times, at least thrice with Dr Lagoo performing and on another occasion with Satish Dubhashi. Several actors performed on the play, but none could match the gravitas and nuance that Dr Lagoo brought to that role. I wonder what is it about this doomed character that whoever has played it (Satish Dubhashi, Datta Bhatt) so far has suffered a heart attack, including Dr Lagoo who passed away in Pune on Tuesday.
One of my strongest memories from the play is 'Kunee ghar detaa kaa, ghar...' , an evocative soliloquy rendered with exemplary timbre and tone by the homeless Ganpatrao Belwalkar. In its passion and anguish, it surpassed the melodramatic 1960s social dramas of Kashinath Ghanekar, Chittaranjan Kolhatkar and their ilk. A new sensibility emerged with Natsamrat. After this, the duo of Dr Shriram Lagoo and Shanta Jog sailed through Himaalayaachi Saavli and Kaachechaa Chandra to rule Marathi stage. The eloquence of well-written text and dynamic performances were rudely interrupted by the New Wave of Vijay Tendulkar and his shocking 1972 play Sakharam Binder, with Marathi cinema’s stock villain Nilu Phule playing the titular character. It was banned in the '70s, but the aftershocks of this new syntax and grammar remained, ultimately proving to be a game-changer.
Shriram Lagoo in Paradh. (Express archive photo)
Saamna, a personal favourite
Saamna (1974), the Vijay Tendulkar-scripted and Dr Jabbar Patel-directed black and white masterpiece, was a mythic occurrence. It starred Dr Shriram Lagoo opposite Nilu Phule in a rare treatise on political argument. This was way before the Hungarian master Istvan Szabo's Taking Sides (2001). It speaks so much about Vijay Tendulkar's renaissance and exceptional talent as a writer. Saamna is one of my all-time favourite films. It's a conversation between a politician and a teacher, but it just goes into another realm. Vijay Tendulkar's script was a master class. When I first saw it, it turned everything in my head. The Ravindra Sathe-sung, Khanolkar aka Arati Prabhu-written "Kunachya khandyavar kunache oze" was so powerful that it haunts me even today. Saamna impacted me as deeply as Natsamrat. Dr Lagoo was also the star of V Shantaram's epic Pinjra (1972) in which he played a village teacher smitten by a Tamasha dancer (Sandhya Shantaram, my aunt). The degradation of this teacher was truly Dostoevskian. Hats off to Dr Lagoo! Dr Jabbar Patel's Sinhasan (1980), a political drama, had its highs and lows. But it was a multi-starrer, which had all the Marathi doyens under the sun. Dr Lagoo played the finance minister. It was like Mirch Masala on which I was an associate with Ketan Mehta. Mirch Masala also had a plethora of names from the Hindi New Wave.
Dr Lagoo's Hindi career
Shriram Lagoo in Ganga Ghat. (Express archive photo)
Dr Lagoo's appearances in Hindi films (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Laawaris, Gharaonda etc) always brought credibility. But that’s not how I want to remember the departed thespian. His truly great work was on Marathi stage and screen, and that's what we should be keeping alive. Personally, I never knew him though I saw him at functions and events. His political understanding and intellectual curiosity is what made him stand apart from other actors, and that is the high crucible on which he stood. As we bid him goodbye, Natsamrat, Saamna, Pinjra and Sinhasan are the masterpieces that shall shine eternally to keep the Marathi renaissance bright and relevant. Dr Shriram Lagoo's death is a huge, huge loss. He was a stalwart whose work shall never be forgotten.
(Amole Gupte is a film director. He spoke to Shaikh Ayaz)