The sweet and simple Wagle is someone every middle-class person can identify with. And so is Anjan Srivastav, the man who made him a household name
Anjan Srivastava broke the comic stereotype with a string of powerful roles Photo: Mohd. Yousuf
"ONE DAY Kundan Shah (the director) gave me the script of the first episode and said you will have to do an audition before R.K. Laxman. Every episode, scene and dialogue had to pass through his meticulous scrutiny, before and after production. And the casting. R.K. Laxman, he was very a very critical person. I said "Yaar, Kundan, what is this?" He said, `Zor se mat bol yaar, main bhi test de raha hoon!'," says Anjan Srivastav with a smile.
"So there he was, Laxman, wearing spectacles and looking stern and aloof. I performed in front of him and was approved for the role of Wagle. I was puzzled because I just acted as I could."
" All of us in Kundan's team worked very hard on the first episode. It had to pass the test of Laxman, before the serial could go ahead. We were thrilled when he okayed it. But the real complement to me came much later when Laxman said that Anjan is the barometer by which every other thing in the serial should be measured and compared."
As the emblematic common man of Laxman's cartoons came alive on Doordarshan through Wagle Ki Duniya, everything changed for Anjan Srivastav as an actor. His dark big face with thick set nose and lips and heavy eyelids sincerity and puzzlement writ large on it could belong to any middle-aged, middle-class man anywhere in the country. No wonder, Wagle and his wife Radhika (Bharati Achrekar) endeared themselves to the whole nation in those days of simple television viewing (1988-90).
In a sense, the role fitted perfectly with the pucca middle class upbringing Anjan had in Calcutta. His father, who hailed from U.P., was a respected banker with Allahabad Bank, a master in the subject of `advances' and who wanted his son also to be a banker. Although he allowed his son to go ahead with his indulgence in acting ("only after the death of my sister in 1976 did he soften, allowing me to seek a transfer to Bombay"), Anjan had to wait for 33 years, in deference to his father's wishes, before he could resign his job in the same bank in 2001.
There was no tradition of acting in the family. His cultural nourishment came mainly from his mother's family. They too came from U.P., but had settled long back in Bengal. His mother was into Rabindra Sangeet and his maternal uncle's place was always crowded with local writers and artistes.
Anjan ventured into theatre in 1968 while studying law, and got associated with the Hindi theatre troupes of Calcutta and participated in radio plays. He also happened to do a small role in the film Chameli Mem Shaeb. It was from people like Abha Dhulia who were acting in the film that he came to know of the opportunities available in Bombay. On shifting to Bombay, he immediately joined IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association). He rose up the ranks of IPTA and had a stint as its General Secretary. How have you remained so steadfast with IPTA?
"IPTA is virtually India's national theatre movement which has been there from the '40s. It has a very democratic pattern of functioning. Today, it has all kinds of people. And even the nominal party (Communist Party of India) control that was there has disappeared. IPTA has an honesty of purpose which is lacking in most theatres groups." The same honesty which Anjan adores whether he found it in his father, or M.S. Sathyu, the late Kaifi Azmi, R.K. Laxman or his spiritual guru, late Maharaj Mohanand Brahmachari of Calcutta.
The breaks in television and films were much faster after Wagle. Tamas, Nukkad, Alpaviram and Wagle Ki Nayi Duniya (on Star, 1998-99) on TV and among films, Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala, and Bollywood flicks like Golmaal, Bemisal, Khuda Gawah, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, Pukar, Little John, Pitaah and Dil Hai Tumhara.
His most recent big roles in films have been in the Hinglish rollicking comedy directed by the sultan of Mumbai Hinglish theatre, Bharat Dabholkar's God Only Knows, in which he plays a politician, and, Flavors, a crossover movie by two NRI lads from Andhra, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. In Flavors, he plays the role of a dad whose joie de vivre outmatches his mismatched clothes. The film has already been released in the U.S. and will be released in India shortly. On television, he has a key role in Sahib Biwi Ke Ghulam on Sahara .
Although he had to bear with the burden of a comic actor's image for a long time, he has been largely able to come out of it by virtue of a string of powerful roles. Yet, Wagle has become an inseparable part of his personal as well as professional identity. "It has received uniformly good appreciation, everywhere in the world, because Wagle is a person who can touch everyone's heart. It is something every Indian understands instinctively."
What about having another extension to Wagle? "This time, I would like to produce it myself, if Laxman sahib agrees to it," says he with a sudden sparkle in his eyes.
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