Thespian-psychiatrist Mohan Agashe says that he has always used his image as an actor in the service of mental health

There are many Mohan Agashes hidden inside Mohan Agashe and they make marked appearances in the course of a conversation. The actor and the doctor are intertwined and flow into each other often. Then suddenly the eyes light up, there’s rapture on the face and his body language makes a quick exuberant switch as he recalls an old patient and his joyousness. There’s a chuckle, a momentous pause. He can go on his own thought trip and never be brought back. His mind moves faster than you can track words.

The man who has played many a character in Marathi theatre and films, and mainstream Hindi cinema with aplomb, working with Jabbar Patel, Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihlani, Mani Kaul, Goutam Ghosh, declares: “Psychiatry has nothing to do with acting, to be very honest with you.” And then revises it, “Of course, my psychiatry ward became my school of acting. The first essential thing in acting is in believing what you’re doing. I realised that not having formal training in acting school, you can learn from this. One of the best ways of learning is by imitating; that’s how you learn in childhood. I’ll try to imitate you to understand you. Because if I ask and you tell me, you’ll tell me what you want, not what you are…that helped me.” Had he not been a psychiatrist, would he have been a different actor? “I don’t know,” he shrugs.

What has worked for him as an actor is his deep understanding of human behaviour. Agashe quotes Lee Strasberg (father of method acting) and his theory of emotional memory. “As a character in a play or film, when I have to be angry, I have to go back to my real experience – what mechanism created anger — that’s how you do your tuning — like you tune a radio. Once you get that, you get the bearing of your character. You show love, anger…it must be the same person showing all these emotions. Unless you get the bearing, you can’t have a consistent performance.”

He says he turns to theatre because in clinical psychology he’s stuck with a catch-22 situation. But in literature and films he gets an understanding of the situations. Moreover, he says, “I have always used my image of an actor in the service of mental health. In a meeting of ministers a “Professor” has no kimmat (‘value’, in Marathi). But if you’re an actor…“Arey Agashe saab, what new play are you doing?” And when I ask him about a particular mental institute, some work needs to be done…he’ll say “Ya, ya all that will be done.”

Swollen cognition, shrunken senses

When he’s talking, he’s less of an actor, more of a psychiatrist. Agashe is now working on several projects that bring together cinema and health; while in Bangalore he also gave a talk on the subject at NIMHANS. In a survey that asked people what their source of information for mental health was, 70 per cent said films! “That’s why my interest in the relationship between cinema and health…it seems to affect people so much,” he explains. Agashe was in Bangalore last week with the international short film festival on disability “The Way We Live” (see box).

“Our education is cognitively biased. Ever since, the written word became more important than the spoken word. Processing of written word is done by one part of the brain, whereas film is a convergence of three media – image, sound, and words processed by different parts. We as a people have swollen cognition, shrunken senses.” And so, he says people must be taught the language of cinema. “The language of image and sound is far richer.”

And he takes this idea of sensory learning to compare acting and cooking. “When it comes to acting you have to surrender your intelligence — your cognitive intelligence. It’s like cooking. You can write a wonderful book on cooking but you can be a very bad cook. Sensing the smell, knowing when exactly to add an ingredient — that is a performance skill. And it can’t be replaced by a cognitive skill.”

Playing the scheming Nana for 20 years

Agashe became synonymous with Marathi theatre with Vijay Tendulkar’s political satire Ghashiram Kotwal, in which he has played the role of the corrupt and lecherous Nana Phadnavis for 20 years! The impact of the role on his life? “Nobody gave me a girl to marry!” he laughs wholeheartedly. “I should have copyrighted my look,” he shakes his head.

“On a serious note, it broadened my horizons. People don’t live together for 20 years, leave alone play the same role! Understanding the character with its minor shades – not for others to see – but for you to sustain your interest in the character for 20 years is a challenge. Moreover, the play put Indian theatre on the international map. I gave 61 performances abroad and in each country I went to, with the play, I visited their best mental health institution, which in turn helped me set up the Maharashtra Institute of Mental Health…it’s sort of like playing Robin Hood,” he smiles contentedly.