As Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister “Yogi” Adityanath hogged the headlines in 2020 for a series of measures that attacked and marginalised Muslims, a recent tweet by the writer Genesia Alves reminded us of another Yogi – a non-divisive and beloved fictional character who was indelibly brought to life by the renowned actor Mohan Gokhale.
Mr Yogi, Ketan Mehta’s entertaining television serial from 1989, was one of the high points in Gokhale’s fruitful but short career. The spindly actor with the brown eyes, sharp nose and deep dimples moved smoothly between theatre, cinema and television from the 1970s to the 1990s. His movie credits include Mehta’s Holi, Bhavni Bhavai, Mirch Masala and Hero Hiralal.
Gokhale was shooting for Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram in Chennai on April 29, 1999, when he died in his sleep from a heart attack. He was 45.
Mehta met Gokhale while studying direction at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. Gokhale had already built a reputation on the stage in Pune. He had also appeared in films that FTII students were required to make during their course.
“He was a very fine theatre actor,” Mehta recalled. “He was in the play Ghashiram Kotwal, and I used to attend the rehearsals. We became very close friends. He was in my diploma film [at FTII]. When I did Bhavni Bhavai, he played the lead, and he became an integral part of my life at that point. When I did Mr Yogi, he was the natural choice. He was brilliant.”
The Doordarshan serial starred Gokhale as Yogesh Ishwarlal Patel, who travels from the United States to Ahmedabad to pick a bride from among 12 women who represent each of the zodiac signs. Yogesh, or Yogi, or sometimes YI Patel, has affectations, partly due to his American ways. He calls his parents “Father” and “Mother” and says “You know”, “Oh yeah” and “Boy oh boy” a lot but also possesses a sterling quality – he refuses to ask for a dowry.
After comic encounters with 12 women played by some of the leading television actors of the 1980s, Yogi rejects them all and opts instead for a mysterious Luna moped rider. She was played by Gokhale’s future wife, Shubhangi.
“We were courting at the time, so I used to be around Mohan a lot,” Shubhangi Gokhale told Scroll.in. “I also helped out with the production rather than sitting around the sets.” Shernaz Patel, who had been cast as Yogi’s eventual choice, backed out since she couldn’t drive a two-wheeler. As a last-minute replacement, Mehta turned to Shubhangi Gokhale. She was initially hesitant – she didn’t want people to think that she had been cast because she was the lead actor’s girlfriend.
“It was fun,” Shubhangi Gokhale said. “The question of whom Yogi would marry had to be a surprise. Nobody guessed that it was my character. The last episode was telecast on December 2  and on December 10, we got married.”
Mehta’s satire was based on Gujarati writer Madhu Rye’s Kimball Revenswood. The novel also inspired Ashutosh Gowariker’s What’s Your Raashee? in 2009, in which Priyanka Chopra played all 12 characters.
“The novel was a really funny look at life and this fixation we had with NRIs at that time,” Mehta said. “It was a wonderful mix of humour and satire. The serial became very popular. Mohan was a very modern actor, a wonderful human being. What a way to die, in the middle of a shoot. It was quite a shock.”
A few low-quality episodes from Mr Yogi are on YouTube, courtesy a fan with a deep nostalgia for the glory years of Doordarshan and a better sense of archiving than the employees at the national broadcaster. The episodes provide a glimpse into Mehta’s witty script and Gokhale’s skill for low-key comedy. Om Puri is present too, playing both the twinkly-eyed narrator and a series of characters whom Yogi meets during his quest for the perfect bride.
Mohan Gokhale was born in Pune on November 7, 1953. Theatre provided him with the platform to explore his acting talent. He appeared in a series of acclaimed plays, including Ghashiram Kotwal, Mahapoor and Doctor Tumhi Suddha. Roles in television shows followed, which in turn led to Hindi and Marathi films in the 1980s.
He was already a respected actor when Shubhangi Sangvi first became aware of him. She was in college when she watched him in Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai and Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh. “I remember thinking, how lovely he is, what work he does,” she said.
Sangvi too was immersed in experimental Marathi theatre, and she knew about Gokhale’s work on the stage. Though they hadn’t formally met, they knew many people in common. Their first proper encounter was straight out of a script for a romantic movie.
Sangvi was suffering through a mindless play. She was in the dressing room waiting to go on the stage when there was a knock on the door. “I saw this handsome man, and I realised who he was,” she said. “He said to me, hi, I am Mohan Gokhale, I like you, let’s get married, it will be fun.”
The charming and yet abrupt proposal was “just like Mohan”, his wife said. “He would never waste a word, he would speak directly and honestly. What can I say – mare gaye gulfaam.” I was a goner.
After they were married, Shubhangi Gokhale told her husband that she wanted to watch him in Ghashiram Kotwal, the explosive allegorical play by Vijay Tendulkar. Mohan Gokhale plays the role of a Brahmin who curses Ghashiram – a performance of “tremendous impact”, Shubhangi Gokhale said.
The play was staged again in Mumbai. As Shubhangi Gokhale sat in the fourth row of the Ravindra Natya Mandir auditorium, she was so moved by Mohan Gokhale’s performance that she began weeping loudly.
Although Gokhale’s films and television serials brought him national attention, his work in theatre was equally enduring, Shubhangi Gokhale said. People used to attend shows of Doctor Tumhi Suddha just to watch him in two scenes revolving around telephone conversations, she recalled. The play, written by Ajit Dalvi, explores medical malpractices.
“The phone calls were jarring – in one, he is being jokey and in the other, threatening and corrupt,” she said. “When I watched him during the rehearsals, I felt, this isn’t my husband but a doctor who has been working in a hospital for a few years.”
Gokhale was an avid reader, a keen observer, and a sensitive listener – qualities that helped him bring “finesse and variety” to his roles, Shubhangi Gokhale said. These traits carried over into his television serials and films. Among his noteworthy movie roles is in Raj Dutt’s Maficha Sakshidar (1986), based on the notorious Joshi-Abhayankar killings in Pune in 1976 and 1977. Gokhale played a reluctant member of a gang of murdering thieves led by Nana Patekar’s messianic monster.
A companion piece to the absurdist Bhavni Bhavai was Sanjiv Shah’s Hun, Hunshi, Hunshilal (1991), featuring Gokhale as the eccentric despot of a fictional kingdom.
“I had known him for a long time from the FTII days,” Shah said. “We were going to work together on my diploma film together, but that didn’t happen. Later, I edited Mirch Masala in which he had a role. He was very competent, of course, but he did a really brilliant job in Hun, Hunshi, Hunshilal.”
In Amol Palekar’s Kairee – which turned out to be Gokhale’s final film – the actor conveyed his character’s personality through a simple scene in which he is shown eating a meal, Shubhangi Gokhale said. For the television serial Alpavarim, made by Vipul Shah and Aatish Kapadia, Gokhale turned down the meatier role of a doctor to play a ward boy instead. “He knew how to minimise a performance for the screen, to make a small role seem bigger than it is,” she added.
Despite bursts of success, there were several fallow periods between roles. “My father wasn’t a very commercial-minded person, he was artistically driven,” said Sakhee Gokhale, actor and chief curator at the House of Aadyaa art centre in Pune. “I didn’t know for the longest time that he was so popular.” But she also has a vivid art-imitating-life memory from childhood of seeing her father on the television set while he was present in the room.
Mohan Gokhale wanted to give back to theatre and cinema by directing plays and movies, Shubhangi Gokhale recalled. He worked for months on a production of the Marathi play Ekach Pyala, and was deeply upset when its financiers backed out at the nth hour.
“He wasn’t a part of any group or gang,” she said. “He didn’t like to network. He got his due very late, and he didn’t get enough. His most beautiful experience was being called by Kamal Haasan for Hey Ram! Atul Kulkarni eventually did the role, and won a National Award.”
For most people, though, Mohan Gokhale will always be Mr Yogi. The serial’s widespread acceptance meant instant recognition for the self-effacing performer. “It was that Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari effect – people recognised him at airports and bus stands and called him Mr Yogi,” Shubhangi Gokhale said.
Among the other beneficiaries of the TV show’s success was Kiran Bir Sethi, who played the wild and wily Jankhana. The free-spirited Piscean spooks Yogi with her unpredictable behaviour. “I had no idea that my backless choli would create a sensation,” Bir Sethi recalled.
Bir Sethi was studying at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad at the time. Ketan Mehta had come there to shoot Mr Yogi’s opening sequence, a spoof of the James Bond movies. “I was among the people helping with the shoot,” Bir Sethi recalled. “He saw me and asked me if I would be in one of the episodes. I had really short hair at the time, so I had to wear a wig.”
She was already married to the billiards champion Geet Sethi at the time, and did the role for a lark. “I was having so much fun, stupid fun,” she said.
Bir Sethi remembers Mohan Gokhale as a “quiet and meditative person” who switched gears when the camera began rolling. “He would just come and do his job,” she said. “He was a one-take guy. In fact, it was he who would ask the director to film another take.”
Although she was flooded with offers, including from Saeed Mirza, Raaj Kumar and Subhash Ghai, Bir Sethi stayed away from the movies, instead pursuing a career in interior design and setting up the Riverside School in Ahmedabad.
The one role Bir Sethi did accept and even briefly shot for was in Ketan Mehta’s Vallabhbhai Patel biopic Sardar (1993). She was cast as Mahatma Gandhi’s doctor. The shoot was interrupted by tensions over the Mandal Commission’s recommendations for reservations in educational institutions. Bir Sethi was already in the early stages of pregnancy at the time. By the time the shoot resumed, she was in no physical condition to continue.
Bir Sethi has a set of the Mr Yogi episodes to remind her of her only acting stint. The scratchy videos on YouTube are another nudge of Jankhana’s failed attempt to capture the hero’s heart.
The Gokhales too don’t have many mementos of their father’s roles, apart from the films and a few recordings of his plays. “But Mr Yogi has stayed with people – they talk to me about it all the time,” Sakhee Gokhale said.
There’s another way in which Mohan Gokhale lives on. The street on which his apartment in Goregaon in Mumbai is located is named after him.
“I am sure that wherever he is, in the world beyond this one, he must have a big name there too and he is probably entertaining people there,” Shubhangi Gokhale said. “I just smile when I think of it.”