Mohan Agashe on passion for theatre, his memories of Vijay Tendulkar and the current state of Marathi Theatre

Age has set in. Memories of an older, more glorious time pervades most of the interview. But what has remained unchanged is Mohan Agashe’s passion for theatre. “The kick you get from theatre is not something you get from television or film. Theatre is an active medium,” says Agashe. He was in Bangalore for the screening of the film Ghashiram Kotwal, at Max-Mueller Goethe-Institut, in which he played Nana Phadnavis, as he did in Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal.

“The film has got nothing to do with the play. Except for the title,” says Agashe. “But Tendulkar wrote a brilliant screenplay…” going on to add, “Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand wanted him to write scripts for them.” He recalls how he visited Tendulkar’s house. “He was a sincere and committed man. He was frank. He didn’t subscribe to any ideology.”

Indeed, Tendulkar was attacked and criticised for his depiction of Nana Phadnavis, a statesman during the Peshwa regime, and the portrayal of the Brahmin community. Yet, Ghashiram Kotwal goes down in the history of Indian theatre as one of its greatest plays for its honest portrayal of how power corrupts men, leading them to devalue human rights. “The attack against Tendulkar for Ghashiram Kotwal and Sakharam Binder was fierce, especially by right-wing groups. But he was always firm in his opinions,” says Agashe.

Agashe’s portrayal of Nana won him instant recognition, marking his entry into films. “Shyam Benegal casted me after watching me perform Nana.” But he admits that after a point, he got tired of being known only for Nana Phadnavis. “I wanted to quit at one point. But then Grips theatre came like a breath of fresh air,” says Agashe of his association with Grips Children’s Theatre, Germany.

Agashe, also a well-known psychiatrist, made up his mind when he was student, that he would be actively involved with theatre. “I started acting right from school. I continued my acting career while I was doing my post graduation.”

The conversation veers to Marathi Theatre, about how Maharashtra is known for its socially relevant theatre—Agashe adds that the only Marathi playwright who wrote politically relevant plays was G.P. Deshpande—and of censorship marring Marathi Theatre, even today, for which, Agashe says, there’s “no logical explanation”. When he speaks of contemporary Marathi Theatre, Agashe speaks of the revival of musical dramas or Sangeet Natak in Marathi theatre over the last few years. “Young directors and writers are experimenting. People like Nipun Dharmadhikari, Manaswini Lata Ravindra, Irawati Karnik. The younger lot are moving easily between plays, television and writing for film.”