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Agashe's panache

We know him best as the Machiavellian Nana Phadnavis in Ghashiram Kotwal. Also a doctor and a theatre personality, Mohan Agashe plays many roles with equal elan.

At ease in all his three avatars

IT WAS an innocuous little news item in the newspapers announcing a play in the evening. But two names mentioned leapt to my eyes — the director, Mohan Agashe, and the group for which he was directing it, the National School of Drama. It was billed Par Hame Khelna Hain, "a play for children". The ADA Rangamandira was largely empty. Not a single child had come to watch. The curtains rose to the accompaniment of loud, rhythmic, and body swaying singing. A bunch of school children, in shorts and skirts and ties askew, took over the stage in a burst of childish enthusiasm and energy. But, hold on, something was wrong! These were not children, but adults dressed, talking, and acting like brats. That is GRIPS theatre in a nutshell — portraying the world through the eyes of children, but performed by professional adult actors.

GRIPS theatre was started in the late 1960s and deals with topics that are immediate and relevant to children and their surroundings. It does not preach or offer solutions — rather, it makes children think and rationalise for themselves with its delightful mixture of wit, understanding, intelligence, and entertainment. Par Hame Khelna Hain was a hard-hitting look at the communal divide amongst innocent schoolchildren and portrayed changes in their outlook and attitudes prior to, during, and after the Mumbai blasts and riots.

As the Honorary Director of Theatre Academy Grips Project since the mid-1980s, Mohan Agashe, who has a formidable reputation as a stage and film actor, has been the driving force behind spreading this unique theatrical experience in India.

Currently shooting for the Pamela Rooks-directed Dance Like A Man, written by Mahesh Dattani, Dr. Agashe has been flitting in and out of Bangalore and just happened to be present when his play was staged here.

Meeting him at the Jayamahal Palace Hotel on the sets of Dance Like A Man was like reliving a scene from Benegal's Nishant. Searching for him in that old world ambience, much like the zamindari haveli he inhabited as the loathsome landlord in that film, I finally caught him curled up with a book in a secluded first floor verandah, far away from the action.

Mohan Agashe is a man who wears three professional topis, all of which are equally close to his heart. As the Head of the Psychiatry Department at Pune's Sassoon Hospital, he spearheaded the move to found the Institute of Mental Health, where he continues as Director. As a stage actor, he broke new ground with the Marathi musical Ghashiram Kotwal. His performance, as the Machiavellian Nana Phadnavis, won great acclaim. The play saw 60 performances all over the world. It was the first contemporary Indian play to be invited abroad.

Agashe played Nana for two decades, starting from the 1970s. He has acted in films made by masters such as Benegal, Nihalani, Gautam Ghose, and the greatest of them all, Satyajit Ray. They have almost all been negative roles. He laughs when he points out that Nana's shadow has loomed so large over his screen persona that when Benegal chose him for Nishant, he wanted him to play the lecherous landlord "with that look of Nana's"!

Recalling his association with Satyajit Ray in the making of Sadgati in Hindi, with Om Puri and Smita Patil, Agashe remembers how he got the role after Ray had seen him in Ghashiram.

Agashe's love for theatre took roots while he was in Pune's Medical College, along with collegemates Shriram Lagoo and Jabbar Patel. While completing his MD, he took a conscious decision not to enter private practice, but instead take up a job in the medical college itself. This way he was able to rehearse plays in the evening, perform theatre over weekends, and during his annual leave, act in films with the best directors. A tumultuous phase in his life was when he was the Director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) for five years, under the chairmanship of Girish Karnad. The first years, he admits, were very challenging and satisfying, but once Karnad left, it was political and not academic forces that ran the place. Lack of a clear policy and vision on the part of the Government reduced this premier instituteto a series of strikes and closures, with "the Director ending up as the sacrificial goat".

As something of a sequel to his involvement with GRIPS theatre, Agashe has initiated an Asian resource centre called DATE (Developing Awareness Through Entertainment) to promote issue-based and awareness-oriented entertainment for children. He is also building on his psychiatric skills and trying to develop therapeutic uses for theatre. He took a year off to study the dynamics between theatre and therapy.

Directing a film was a dream at one time, but the good doctor has enough on his hands presently, with Prakash Jha's dream project, Ganga Jal, on his schedules, and, of course, his packed theatre calendar.

What role would he like to play? A grimace. "What a cliché!"

And then the flash of wit: a comic, negative role!


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