Bombay Showcase

The man, the stage, and his kingdom

What happens when a celebrated theatre star, after 40 years of ruling the stage, retires? When we see Ganpat Ramchandra Belwalkar (Nana Patekar) give his farewell speech, we see a man who is content with his achievements. Having thoroughly enjoyed the bountiful rewards of his art, he wants to spend the rest of his life in the idyllic comforts of his family.

At that moment, he could have been a bank manager bidding goodbye to his life-long company, someone who’s looking forward to spending long hours reading the newspaper sitting on his armchair.

Only that he is not a bank manager. He is a stage actor, hailed as ‘Natsamrat’ (the king of the stage) in the theatre scene in Maharashtra. And someone like him never really retires.

But little does he know it. Mahesh Manjrekar’s Natsamrat , written by him and Abhijeet Deshpande, adapted from the seminal play of the same name written by VV Shirwadkar, is about a man whose life falls apart after he makes his final exit from the stage, a man so shaped by the jagged edges of the robust art form that out in the world, he is a beast impossible to tame. It’s not that Ganpat regrets his decision to retire. He is very much a family man — a lovable grandfather and an all-sacrificing father.

There is unbridled joy on his face when the news of the birth of his granddaughter reaches him and he weeps at his daughter’s wedding like any other. But gradually, he makes the devastating discovery that living his characters in theatre was easier than playing his role outside it. There he could be himself, here he struggles to.

Using a story known to every Maharashtrian worth her salt, Manjrekar creates an absorbing drama that at one level works like an ‘old parents-married kids-conflict’ like Baghban and at another, like a Shakespearean tragedy. The comparison with a tear-jerker such as Baghban isn’t a great thing, considering how manipulative the film was. But surprisingly, some of the Natsamrat’s most effective portions are when Patekar’s character lets loose in front of the annoyingly bourgeoisie son and daughter-in-law. Or when, after getting drunk on country liquor with a random stranger, he creates a ‘scene’ at his daughter’s anniversary party.

This brings us to Patekar, who inhabits the character with so many personal touches, that it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. He portrays the pride, vulnerability, humaneness and madness of Natsamrat with the ferocity of a hungry actor relishing a great role. You care for his character.

It towers over most of the others, resulting in some under-written parts like that of the daughter-in-law Neha (played by Neha Pendse) and son Makarand (played by Ajit Parab). It’s the character of the son-in-law, Rahul (played by a restrained Sunil Barve), that turns out to be more layered than the son’s.

Next to Ganpat in terms of importance is his wife and support system Kaveri, (played by Medha M Manjrekar, who’s had to age at least 20 years to replace Reema Lagoo, who was originally slated to play the role) and his best friend from their early theatre days: Ram (a wonderful, moving turn by Vikra Gokhale). The Gokhale-character wasn’t in the play and has been created for the film. And he almost seems like a mirror-image of Ganpat. Their one-on-one conversations are so personal, so intimate that Ram feels like Ganpat’s alter-ego.

In spite of being a mainstream film that involves an elderly couple whose target audience includes families, Natsamrat doesn’t shy away from adult complexities. In a scene when you would least expect it, Ganpat and Ram reveal how they both have had extra-marital affairs in their careers as actors.

In another scene, Ram, at the autumn of his life, with no legacy left behind, curses himself for being sterile.

Natsamrat is melodramatic — there is too much staginess in the early portions. But it has a consistent tone.

This is after all the story of a veteran theatre actor who invokes Shakespeare in family gatherings. The more he ages, the more the boundary between art and life get blurred. So when lightning and thunder accompany a crucial moment, you don’t question its theatrics.

At 2 hours 40 minutes, Natsamrat feels too long. The ‘last act’ doesn’t reach the expected crescendo either. But its strong emotional core, at the heart of which is Patekar’s character, makes it work.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 7:36:24 AM |

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