Sreeram Lagu (1927-2019): A Tribute
Remembering the theatre veteran
Dr. Sreeram Lagu, who reigned over the Marathi stage for several decades almost without break, passed away last week of complications resulting from age. He was 92. He leaves behind his wife Deepa Lagu, also a known theatre actress, a son who lives abroad and a daughter. He lost his younger son Tanvir in a freak and tragic train accident when the boy was 18. After this tragedy, Dr. Lagu went almost into professional seclusion till his theatre colleagues and disciples drew him out and tried to bring him back on the stage.
Born in Satara as the eldest of his parents’ four children, he schooled in Satara and then joined Fergusson College in Pune. Though his interests lay in art and painting, his father’s insistence on a medical education drove him to a noted medical college in Pune where he specialised as an ENT surgeon. He trained at the Pune Sassoon Hospital in Pune and was successful enough to bag opportunities for higher education on a fellowship followed by practicing in Tabora and Tanzania for three years in the 1960s. But he gave up his medical practice completely in 1969 to focus on theatre through the first group he had joined as a student, This group, based in Pune was called the Progressive Dramatic Association and was founded by Dr. Bhalba Kelkar who was responsible for staging old classical plays in the Marathi language and the main role was always performed by Sreeram Lagu. The most relevant play staged by PDA was Vasant Kanetkar’s play Vedyache Ghar Unhat (The madman’s home is in the Sun). This was followed by Devanche Manorajya followed by a series of plays authored by P.K. Atre such as Vande Mataram, Lagnachi Bedi, Udyacha Sausar, and Bhrahmacha Bhopla. V.V. Shirwadkar’s Marathi adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth marked his debut into international theatre which he not only directed but also portrayed the main role.
In Mumbai, under the auspices of Rangayan which was Vijaya Mehta’s group, and he played in a series of plays here such as Vijay Tendulkar’s Mee Jinklo Mee Haarlo, Madi and so on. After leaving Rangayan, he acted in Vijay Tendulkar’s controversial play Gidhade which remains a classic till this day. The biggest turning point in his career turned out to be the play Natasamrat, said to have been loosely based on William Shakespeare’s King Lear. But it was “Indianised” by Vishnu Vaman Shirwadkar and turned out to be Dr. Lagu’s his turning point. He played the character of Appasaheb Belwalkar who is a retired actor who cannot come out of the stardom that was once shining like an aura around him and his life becomes a tragedy because of this. Shirwadkar was bestowed the Jnanpeeth Award in 1987 for his contribution to literature in Marathi language. He is better known by his pen name Kusumagaraj. Dr. Lagu lived the glory of golden era of Marathi stage. Appasaheb Belwalkar, the protagonist of the play, was famous for performing the major character in all the Shakespearean characters but Life had written a different story for him.
Dr. Lagu as an actor and sometimes, also as director, had performed in Marathi translations of many international plays such as Ugol Betti’s The Queen and the Rebels, Annouilh’s Antigone and Cyrano De Bergerac all of which he directed too. His participation in Marathi theatre crossed time and space because he acted also in modern playwright’s works such as two plays of Mahesh Elkunchwar – Atmakatha and Garbo, Gajvi’s Kirwant, Mayekar’s Agnipariksha, Ajit Dalvi’s Shatakhanda, Shyam Manohar’s Premachi Goshta, and Sathe’s Soorya Pahulela Manoos. Udhwasta Dharmashala and Himalayache Saavli are two more plays that kept the audience adhered to their seats in show after show after show. In Himalayachi Saavli, Lagu had to enact an attack of paralysis on stage and he did it with such conviction that the audience felt he was really having a paralytic attack.
He believed that preparing for a role for any actor ought to be fun and not an effort. Also, since he was convinced that the body of an actor was his best equipment, he took great care of his health and was a disciplined man. Inspite of such discipline, he had to undergo two bypass surgeries. He, along with Suhas Joshi, acted in a Marathi play Agnipankh which was a brilliant exposure of the atrocities and random killings of Maharashtrian Brahmins near Pune immediately following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. They play an ageing couple to refuse to leave their ancestral abode even in the face of death and are consumed by flames along with the mansion in which they lived.
He also did his stint on television though he was not really interested in all that. It is his performance in character roles in many Hindi films that gave him the status of a national celebrity. Not all his film roles were equally popular but the ones that gave his character enough flesh and blood were very popular. Among them are - Basu Chatterjee’s Gharaonda, Raj N. Sippy’s Inkaar, Amol Palekar directed film Ankahee, Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Achanak, the role of Gopal Krishna Gokhale in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Gulzar’s Kinara, and around 250 Hindi films in which he left his mark without investing his roles with theatrical mannerisms of any kind. The three Marathi films Saamna, Sinhasan and Pinjra are etched in the minds and memory of the Marathi audiences.
In Arunavikas’ film Gehrayee, one of the few films done on occult practices and the supernatural, he played a very successful tea planter whose life topples over when his daughter begins to behave strangely enough to defy medical explanation. His role as the villainous, alcoholic, wastrel foster father of Amitabh Bachchan in Muquaddar Ka Sikandar was completely against his grain but his performance was so real that it made the audience hate him.
Dr. Lagu founded a prestigious award in the name of his late son Tanvir and the first person to have been bestowed the award is Ebrahim Alkazi. Following winners were – Satyadev Dubey, Vijay Tendulkar, Vijaya Mehta and Naseeruddin Shah. In his personal life, he was an atheist with clean leanings to the Left. He supported Narayan Dhabolkar’s stand against superstition and wrong beliefs and for rationality. He was also extremely generous with his silent help he extended to young theatre groups stuck for want of funds to put up a given play. He said that those in theatre should accept it like a religion and not just dedication and commitment to theatre.
In a moving tribute to his guide, mentor and teacher, contemporary playwright, director, writer and actor Arun Naik who has worked closely with Dr. Lagu narrates an incident when he and his friends approached Dr. Lagu for financial help, the only two words Dr,Lagu pronounced were “How much?” as he opened his purse. The play in question was Life of Galileo. In 1985, a similar incident had happened when youngers were planning to produce Othello at the 25th State Drama Festival. He took the play under his group Roopvedh and also financed the play while the young group of theatre workers promised to return the money from the sales of the tickets and the prizes they won. That was the real Dr. Sreeram Lagu behind the greasepaint and the voice inflections and the costume.