Padmashree Dr. Mohan Agashe is a man of discerning words that spring from the experience of diverse worlds. A psychiatrist by instruction and an actor by intuition, his professional strides are a fascinating blend of natural progression and conscious design. No wonder, he has left an indelible mark across different spheres - whether through his compelling stage performances, remarkable screen presence, innovative theatre movements, incisive papers or rigorously executed health projects. At 61, his zeal to learn is as luminous as his zest for life, finds Sudhir Raikar in this exclusive tete-a-tete with the unassuming thespian.
A medico with a passion for theatre and an actor with a penchant for diagnosis - seems just what the doctor ordered for you?
It may all seem very logical in hindsight but there was very little design responsible for the blend. To me, both professions are one and the same as both essentially deal with human emotions. My psychiatry ward is as much a school of Acting for me whereas my medical training has enriched my operational knowledge in Theatre. Let me give two instances.
It was not a textbook of Psychiatry that helped me articulate the logic of function over structure in exploding the myth that Psychology is secondary to Bio-Chemistry. It was this dialogue in MAHANIRVAAN that gave me the insight: "That Bhau which you know is no longer this Bhau. This is just the dry world of manganese, phosphorous, water." I then realised afresh that the concept of human health is functional, not structural. The glorified "cry" that establishes your birth is nothing but respiration - the first independent function of a new-born. As soon as the umbilical cord is cut, the second function of circulation is acquired. Both are termed vital functions; the cessation of which marks your death. The line about "That Bhau" and "This Bhau" sums up this scientific process in theatrical terms like no medical journal can ever manage. To me, it's no surprise that Freud found his inspiration for deciphering neurological problems in the plays of Sophocles.
Likewise, the theory of inflammation caused by foreign bodies taught me how to deal with the actors in my troupe. I see it as a game involving four reactions - submission, tolerance, resistance and resignation... whether I submit to his demand openly, whether I tolerate his demand discreetly, whether I resist his demand at all costs, or whether I resign and look for another substitute.
When did Theatre begin for you?
My interest in acting was triggered, among other things, by economic reasons. I was born in a family of modest means in Pune and Acting was one of those very few extra-curricular activities that came for free. I also happened to be good at it. Theatre happened to me in my formative schooling years. I was a child artiste in Sai Paranjpe's group called "Children's Theatre", and was absolutely thrilled with the praise we got for our performances from stalwarts across fields including Pandit Nehru. My tryst with Maharashtriya Kalopasak began in my 10th standard when Purushottam Vaze (of Purushottam Karandak fame) roped me in for the role of Amol in Tagore's DAKGHAR.
All this while, my academic record was impressive which, in those days, automatically translated into a career choice of either Medicine or Engineering. I chose Medicine based on the grades I secured. I learnt much later in life about the herculean efforts of my father and elder sister to sponsor my higher education.
Medical college introduced me to Jabbar (Patel), Satish (Alekar) and other 'artiste' medicos, and before I knew it, I was already a member of the core group. So, when Jabbar joined the Progressive Dramatics Association (PDA) I followed suit. And by the time I was doing my MBBS, my passion for theatre became irreversible. I consciously realised that the only subject that I loved in Medicine was Psychiatry, given my interest in human beings and life. The rest happened along the way.
Your role of Nana Phadnavis in Vijay Tendulkar's GHASHIRAM KOTWAL was an obvious landmark in your theatrical career.
We had never anticipated Ghasiram's spectacular success. We at Theatre Academy reckoned that it would last for a couple of years. It turned out to be a phenomenal rage for a good twenty years. This modern play dressed in conventional garb mesmerised everyone. For me personally, "Nana" was directly and indirectly responsible for my career in cinema with legends like Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Gautam Ghose, Mira Nair and Jabbar Patel...not to mention the rolling stint in commercial Hindi cinema with doyens like Subhash Ghai and Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra.
Ghashiram also gave me the opportunity to play the actor-manager of Theatre Academy's overseas tours, notably at the International Theatre Festivals of Berlin, Lille, Belgrade, Quebec and Baltimore, besides guest performances in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Moscow, and many cities of North America.
On the one hand, the worldwide adulation was exhilarating but on the other, it also turned out to be the biggest hurdle in my creative voyage. No matter which role I played, I was being compared with (and identified as) Nana. The growing fear of this fixation actually drove me to thoughts of quitting theatre altogether.
I hated the very thought of some director approaching me for a role based on that" lecherous" look of Nana -I felt as if I held a patent for it. Mind you, nothing could be more tragic for an actor who's aspiring to play challenging and multi-hued characters. Luckily for me, I was aware of these subtle insecurities that an actor goes through - thanks to my psychiatric education... precisely why Grips Theatre came as a welcome relief - a form that helped me develop a whole new way of looking at life, not just theatre.
How and when did your tryst with Grips begin?
After BEGUM BARVE, I was off theatre for long. This was of course a conscious exile. I was working in films but I was slightly disillusioned with theatre because of the way the system works here. Actors rarely have a choice in the creative voyage since they are largely dependent on writers and directors. Worse, we have these patrons who build theatre around themselves rather than finding their place in theatre. Having travelled some distance as an actor, I was now looking to break free... looking for plays where I could be independently creative without somebody forcibly sheltering me.
This was the time I came in contact with Ludwig Volker of Grips Theatre, Germany. I stuck an emotional chord with him - both during his visit to India and mine to Germany. It was not long before I was gripped with the magic of "Grips." Conventional children's theatre is like anaesthesia without surgery. In contrast, our conventional education is like surgery without anaesthesia. "Grips" was like a surgery of education under the anaesthesia of entertainment.
The plays were issue-based- throwing light on double standards, sex, drugs and the other like - marking a departure from the cliched fantasies normally aimed at children. The quality of production was astounding. The plays had no prescribed upper age limit; they simply indicated the recommended viewing age.
After much deliberation and exertion, I managed to build a group of enthusiasts who were keen to practice this form in India - with or without financial aid. CHHAN CHOTE WAITT MOTHE happened in this fashion. Eventually, we produced several plays in collaboration with Grips Theatre, Berlin and Max Mueller Bhavan besides conducting several workshops all over India on the Grips methodology with the help of Goethe Institute branches in India. This opened a new chapter in Indian theatre for children and the youth. More importantly, it plants the seeds of better audio-visual literacy at an early age.
Why do you stress on audio-visual literacy?
The whole of the twentieth century was dominated by the print media and the written word. This led to the dominance of people who could read and write, and who in turn exploited those who could not read or write. We have traditionally ignored the fact that biologically speaking, language comes later in life. One begins with the audiovisual language that has no limit to the symbols, sounds and sounds (unlike alphabets) and is perfectly adjusted to the growing years of a child. The language of words is a cerebral tool while the language of sound and images is an emotional tool. Hence a film appeals to us faster than a text book would. It's only after films like "A Beautiful Mind", "Devraai" and Taare Zameen Par" that common people turned their attention to schizophrenia and dyslexia.
Manik da (Satyajit Ray) has taught us to how to handle sound and image in films. The long silences in his films make way for such potent images and sounds that tell you what it is and why is it so... The imagery of a downpour, a cricket's chirping and the like...
On the other hand, audio visual media, if misused, has great manipulative powers. A case in point is advertising which lures people into buying what they can do without. The balance between sensory skills and cerebral skills is the key to all-round development. There's no formal education that ensures this learning. The harmony of life comes with the harmony of intellect. So unless we teach audio-visual communication as a subject, we will continue to let the makers of this media exploit its viewers. It's our collective responsibility to be conversant with this language of sounds and images which is so integral to our lives.
What about Acting fascinates you the most?
To this day, I am excited with the opportunity to establish a fascinating relationship with space and time - something that otherwise happens for you only in your dreams. Each time I wait in the wings before stepping on the stage, I stand on the cusp of two sets of time and space. The spectators are willing to accept my stage existence as real - however simulated it may turn out to be. I cannot describe this elation in words.
You return to Marathi theatre after a pretty long hiatus? What was so compelling about KATKON TRIKON?
You know, an actor always aspires for that "Aha" moment when he feels drawn to the script in a flash. Dr. Vivek Bele narrated the inspiration for his play when he approached me. He was visiting his hometown to attend to his ailing father. As he took the old man's hand to check the pulse, he suddenly realised he had not physically touched his father in ages... This revelation was a moment of truth for me when I knew I simply had to play a part.
Any favourites amongst actors, directors and playwrights?
Although I have been influenced by cinematic and theatre legends from the world over for varied reasons, I would like to mention a few names from among the people who came in my direct contact - either in films or theatre.
In theatre, I have thoroughly relished working with Jabbar. Among playwrights, Vijay Tendulkar is right at the top of my list of favourites. Thanks to his sparkling insights, scores of filmmakers and theatre folks could raise their bar of creativity. I have not seen a more unlikely scholar who learnt directly from life, and not from books.
Naseeruddin Shah inspires me no end. He's a phenomenal actor, and certainly among the very best worldwide. I would strongly advise all aspirants of the field to watch any of his films; he's an institution within an individual. Om Puri and Shabana Azmi are splendid actors too. Even Smita Patil was very intense.
Amongst directors, Satyajit Ray comes very high for his unique cinematic sensibilities. I must say the time spent with him was one of my most enriching experiences in life. I was also impressed by Prakash Jha's clarity of conviction. Amongst Marathi filmmakers, Umesh Kulkarni looks very promising. I think there's no dearth of individual talent among the current crop of film makers.
*A cost accountant by qualification, Sudhir Raikar says his chequered career of melodramatic proportions brought him closer to the world of films and theatre. He brings with him over 17 years of experience in writing that includes journalistic reports & stories, book and film reviews, analytical writing, critical appreciation, marketing communication, translations and business writing for leading media groups and corporate houses. His passion is fit-for-purpose writing.