Shriram Lagoo had courage to stick with the unconventional

According to actor-director Amol Palekar, Shriram Lagoo was “the Last of the Romans”.  

Dr. Shriram Lagoo, who passed away on Tuesday aged 92, ruptured the complacency of the Marathi stage with his intelligence, logic and virtuosity. His contemporaries, many of them luminaries, describe him “a complete actor” who plumbed the depths of his roles to depict characters with subtlety.

His passion towards theatre coupled with his discipline, hard work and continual innovation of his craft throughout his nearly six-decade career invites comparison with the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the English stage: John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, whilst his experimental roles echo exponents of the American method school of acting like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

“I met him first in the early 1960s when I was 19, and he was playing an extremely demanding role in a play by Vasant Kanetkar… I was immediately struck by his marvellous voice modulation and the brilliance of his application of logic to his craft,” filmmaker Dr. Jabbar Patel told The Hindu. He observed how Dr. Lagoo had the method actor’s attitude towards humanity with the quest for truth forming the “analytical base” of the characters he essayed.

“He was a keen observer of theatre in the West and diligently studied the greats of the British stage, as well as the American method actors. But his favourite was Paul Muni, the great 1930s actor of such films as The Life of Emile Zola and The Good Earth,” said Dr. Patel.

Dr. Lagoo’s control over his craft, coupled with his intelligence, can only be rivalled by the legendary theatre pioneer Sombhu Mitra, he said. “His voice had a great ring of melancholy and sadness. It was showcased to devastating effect in iconic roles consisting of long soliloquies like Udhwasta Dharmashala, where he essayed an embattled Marxist and in Kanetkar’s Himalayachi Saavli, where he made for a peerless Maharashi Karve, the renowned social reformer,” says Dr. Patel. He said he was in awe of the late thespian’s 25-minute soliloquy as Socrates in Surya Pahilela Manus – a role he tackled when he was well over 70 years of age.

Fondly recalling their days at Pune’s Café Good Luck in the Deccan area, Dr. Patel spoke of Dr. Lagoo’s warmth. “We used to meet there regularly, and he used to regale me with his stories and ideas over tea and bun maska… we dubbed the place Good Luck University,” said Dr. Patel, who directed Dr. Lagoo in Marathi films such as Samna (1974) and Sinhasan (1979). Both films featured the titans of Marathi screen and theatre: Dr. Lagoo and Nilu Phule. “When Saamna, which dealt with grassroots corruption, was entered in the 25th Berlin International Film Festival, I recall the thunderous applause that greeted the performances of these two legends after the curtains came down,” Dr. Patel said.

According to actor-director Amol Palekar, Dr. Lagoo was “the Last of the Romans”. “He was a giant… in retrospect, one realises what a stupendous actor, director and producer he was. On the one hand, he was a ‘superstar’ of the commercial stage with his celebrated performances in plays like Natsamraat which ran to 400-500 performances. On the other, through his Rupaved Pratishthan, Dr. Lagoo produced only experimental plays. It took tremendous courage to achieve that,” says Mr. Palekar.Speaking of Dr. Lagoo’s vision and commitment to theatre, Mr. Palekar said he admired the late actor most for his rationalism. “He was an avowed atheist and despite enduring unending criticism, he had the guts to declare, ‘Let God be retired’, on a public platform… He suffered censure, but he stood firmly by his principles and views,” he said.

A sampling of three famous and controversial plays: Gidhaade, Garbo and Udhwasta Dharmashala, demonstrate Dr. Lagoo’s versatility and the complexity he brought to his craft, said Mr. Palekar.

“In Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhaade (‘Vultures’), Dr. Lagoo, along with the play’s producer Pandit Satyadev Dubey, fought a long and bitter battle with the censors. In the end, the two fought it with such conviction and courage that they succeeded in changing the rules of the game and virtually overhauled the Censor Board’s diktats,” said Mr. Palekar.

As an actor, Dr. Lagoo never flinched from controversial and taboo topics as in Garbo, which dealt with female sexuality, he said. “His roles in the motion pictures were no less stellar… as a young person, I was privileged to work with him closely and learn so much from him. The affection that he showered on me is to be cherished,” said Mr. Palekar.

On the actor’s humility, Mr. Palekar recalled how he directed Dr. Lagoo in the Marathi version of Edmond Rostand’s classic 19th century play Cyrano de Bergerac in the mid-1970s in Mumbai. “While directing him, I pointed out a few shortcomings in his gait and walk… he listened to me patiently and with such humility and then embraced me and said: ‘Why didn’t I meet you before’… It is incredible that such a great actor as he had the capacity to accept objective criticism,” says Mr. Palekar, who performed with Dr. Lagoo in films as Ankahee and Gharonda.

Dr. Lagoo’s connect with social activism was seen in his close association with the late rationalist Dr. Narendra Dabholkar and the pivotal role he played in the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS). In 2000, well before the advent of ‘gender activists’, several activists, socially committed theatre and film artistes and grassroots leaders led by Dr. Dabholkar, Dr. Lagoo and farmers’ leader N.D. Patil had marched from Pandharpur to Shani Shingnapur to combat the ban on women entering temples.

“While he was undoubtedly one of the greatest of all actors to grace theatre, he was an even greater individual and humanist. His social activities helped entrench MANS throughout Maharashtra. What is admirable is that a man with such a popular following fearlessly expressed and stood by unpopular beliefs throughout his life. He never compromised on them,” says Dr. Hamid Dabholkar, son of the late Dr. Dabholkar.

Dr. Lagoo’s last rites will be performed on December 20. The thespian will be given a State funeral.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 9:47:37 AM |

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