Shriram Lagoo, who died on Tuesday in Pune at the age of 92, was an astute tightrope walker, constantly balancing his passion for theatre with his love for cinema. His artistry ensured that he left a rich legacy on both the stage and the screen.
Lagoo was born on November 16, 1927, in Satara. He described his childhood self as a “bathroom actor”, caught between a desperate love for theatre and a deep fear of audiences. An experience of crippling stage fright as a child had left Lagoo so wary that he had renounced the thought of acting in plays. But he was deeply inspired by Hollywood stars such as Paul Muni, Spencer Tracey and Ingrid Bergman, and would declaim classical Marathi monologues performed by the likes of Nanasaheb Phatak, Keshavrao Daate and Mama Pendse in the style of British and American actors while locked in his room. These early influences shaped Lagoo’s approach towards acting: he could convey deep emotions with little more than a glance or gesture.
The eldest son of a successful doctor, Lagoo studied medicine at BJ Medical College in Pune, while also acting in five full-length plays and 15 one-act plays in a five-year span. Despite his passion for the stage, Lagoo decided to continue his medical education, and acquired a specialisation in ear-nose-throat surgery before moving to Africa.
In an interview to Doordarshan, Lagoo confessed that he might have quit medical college if an institution like the National School of Drama had been available to him at the time. “But there was absolutely no prestige associated with actors then,” he recalled.
An undeterred Lagoo quit medicine in 1969 at the age of 42 and returned to India, determined to pursue a career in theatre. After a few months of struggle, he bagged the role of Sambhaji, the son of the Maratha king Shivaji, in Vasant Kanetkar’s Ithe Oshalala Mrityu. Although his initial plays were not commercially successful, Lagoo’s obvious talent attracted attention.
His career in theatre reached a high in 1970 with VV Shirwadkar’s Natsamrat, in which he played Ganpatrao Belwalkar, a thespian who retires from the stage after portraying Shakespearean characters but is unable to escape the drama of familial clashes. The demands of the character were so intense, and Lagoo’s immersion in the part so complete, that the play was regarded as the cause of his deteriorating health at the time.
Felicitated with the Sahitya Akademi Award, Natsamrat ran successfully for more than four decades, and was remade in 2016 as a film starring Nana Patekar.
Other acclaimed plays, including Kachecha Chandra and Himalayachi Saawli, earned Lagoo the lead role in V Shantaram’s Pinjra (1972). With a nuanced performance as a principled village teacher in his very first film, Lagoo showcased his ability to mould his talent to suit the cinematic medium.
Lagoo was associated with the turning points of the careers of several stalwarts in Marathi theatre and cinema. He acted and directed the long-running Gidhade. Vijay Tendulkar’s play is an early example of the acclaimed playwright’s trademark style of delivering incisive social commentary in unadorned but impactful language. Lagoo was also a protagonist in Saamna (1974), the debut film of celebrated director Jabbar Patel.
Brazenly political and deeply insightful, Saamna depicted the clash between self-satisfied and corrupt sugar baron Hindurao (Nilu Phule) and a righteous, Gandhian drunkard known as Master (Shriram Lagoo). Lagoo modified his voice and body language to suit Master’s languorous personality, acting as the perfect foil to Phule’s pompous Hindurao. Lagoo also acted in Patel’s political drama Sinhasan (1979), in which he was memorable as a wily and sophisticated minister.
Lagoo was meant to make his debut in Hindi cinema with the Jaya Bachchan starrer Aahat, but the film was never released. Instead, he appeared in Suresh Kumar Sharma’s Mere Saath Chal. Although he acted in several Hindi films, including Hera Pheri, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Laawaris, his characters in these movies were not written with the depth and nuance that his talent deserved.
Bhimsain’s Gharonda (1977) was an exception. Lagoo’s performance as a canny and self-serving businessman earned him a Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor. He also shone in a brief role as Gopal Krishna Gokhale in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).
Despite several successful films, Lagoo’s dedication to theatre never wavered. When asked by television anchor Tabassum if his increased involvement in cinema would hamper the Marathi theatre circuit, Lagoo shook his head with great regret. “I don’t know if they will miss me, but I miss theatre,” he told Tabassum. “When I was absorbed in cinema and couldn’t act on stage for two and a half years, I felt like something very wrong was happening in my life.”
Lagoo remained resolute in his disdain for the division between theatre and cinema and commercial and experimental art. This disavowal of binaries reflected in his performances. Although he remained sensitive to the differences in the mediums, and adopted subtler mannerisms in cinema, Lagoo’s basic style never wavered. His acting prowess hinged on his clear and captivating voice, which he painstakingly modulated. Lagoo’s piercing gaze was also a vital element of his performances.
Raised in a politically inclined household, Lagoo had great belief in the subversive potential of art, and maintained that actors must become instruments of social change. A vocal rationalist, he worked to debunk myths about religion and spirituality, often openly rejecting the idea of an all-powerful god and ruffling many feathers in the process. He was closely associated with the anti-superstition movement in Maharashtra championed by social activist Narendra Dabholkar.
Inspired by Bengali thespian Shambhu Mitra’s advice, Lagoo believed that an ideal actor should be an “athlete” as well as a “philosopher”. Consequently, despite an early heart attack, he remained physically fit enough to continue acting well into the eighth decade of his life. He returned from a sabbatical with a wrenching performance as the aged politician Nana Chitnis in the Marathi political drama Nagrik (2014).
Lagoo was awarded a Padma Shri relatively early in his career, in 1974. He went on to win a number of awards, including the Kalidas Samman presented by the government of Madhya Pradesh, the Dinanath Mangeshkar Smruti Pratisthan for his contribution to Marathi theatre, and the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship. In his autobiography Lamaan (Carrier of Goods), Lagoo describes his tendency to win awards as a “bad habit”, but he never could break it. He was awarded the lifetime achievement award by the youth theatre group Thespo as late as 2016.
Shriram Lagoo’s equanimity is evident in his autobiography. As he narrates his triumphs and failures without modesty, ego or self-absorption, Lagoo is often sweetly emotional and sharply critical – much like his performances.
He writes, “When one is lucky enough to chase their most deeply desired dreams, even the scant few pleasures afforded by life have the capacity to humble life’s mountainous burdens of pain.” Audiences who have watched him perform will be glad he chased his dreams, and helped them weave their own fantasies in the process.