Mohan Agashe is eating his lunch at 5 pm – a habit he picked up during his years as a psychiatrist in a government hospital. He would have a large breakfast and snack when it was lunchtime, following by a proper lunch in the evening and dinner much later. “I realised that I can think better on an empty stomach than a full stomach,” he said.

Agashe’s lifelong study of the mysteries of the mind has spilt over into his other profession as a celebrated actor in plays and films. Agashe has been balancing psychiatry and performance since the 1970s. His involvement in mental health led him to produce two films, both directed by Sunil Sukhtankar and Sumitra Bhave.

Agashe was drawn to Bhave’s solo project Dithee because of its sensitive handling of bereavement.

Agashe also stars in the Marathi film, which turned out to be Bhave’s final project. The 78-year-old director died of a lung ailment on April 19.

Agashe recalls that Bhave was in excellent health during the production of Dithee, which has been released on the streaming platform SonyLIV. Made in 2019, Dithee is the heartrending account of a Warkari ironsmith’s crisis of faith after his only son dies in an accident.

Ramji has been travelling to Pandharpur for the annual Warkari pilgrimage for three decades. After his son’s sudden death, a near-catatonic Ramji, played brilliantly by Kishor Kadam, questions the ways of his god Vitthal and the very meaning of life.

Kishore Kadam in Dithee (2019). Courtesy Sumitra Bhave Films/Mohan Agashe.

Agashe was initially approached to act in the movie as one of Ramji’s spiritual fellow travellers. Dithee’s cast includes such pedigreed talent as Dilip Prabhavalkar, Uttara Baokar, Amruta Subhash, Shashank Shende and Girish Kulkarni. Agashe had previously starred in Devrai, which explores schizophrenia in a rural setting, and Astu, a moving chronicle of Alzheimer’s. Both films were directed by Sumitra Bhave in partnership with Sunil Sukhtankar.

“I had closely observed Sumitra’s style of working – I had seen her meticulousness and her thorough knowledge of her subjects,” Agashe told Bhave was a trained social worker and lecturer before she began making films in the mid-1980s. Together with Sukhtankar, she explored a range of social issues, such as the education of troubled children, vitiligo and the Right to Information Act.

Bhave excelled at “cinema as a tool of non-formal education”, Agashe observed. She had written Dithee, based on a story by DB Mokashi, over a decade ago. “She desperately wanted to make the film, but no producer came forth,” Agashe recalled.

In 2018, a producer did materialise and even gave Bhave seed money for the project, but he backed out just when the shoot was about to commence. Agashe stepped in as producer, diving into his savings to fund the shoot. The actors agreed to delay their payments after the film was completed. “I wouldn’t have finished the film otherwise,” Agashe said.

Dithee (2019).

The film’s themes dovetailed into Agashe’s own longstanding beliefs about the importance of mental health. “There is no health without mental health,” he observed. “The body is a temporary residence for the mind. The mind is not an organ – you can’t find it even after cutting the brain, just like you can’t find music by cutting up an instrument. It’s by tuning the mind and body together than you can make the meaning of life.”

The first time Agashe turned producer was for another film about mental health. Astu (2015), directed by the Bhave-Sukhtankar duo, is a compelling drama about Alzheimer’s. Agashe won widespread acclaim and awards for his performance as a Sanskrit professor who is gradually losing his bearings.

Agashe stepped in when Astu ran into funding trouble in the middle of the shoot. “I didn’t want the project to be aborted, and I put my life savings into it,” he said. In order to recover costs, Agashe organised scores of private screenings. The response to the film’s sensitive treatment of a difficult subject was overwhelmingly positive, he recalled. Agashe later produced Kaasav, Bhave-Sukhtankar’s film about clinical depression, in 2016.

Astu (2016).

Alongside teaching and practising psychiatry, Agashe set up the research-oriented Maharashtra Institute of Mental Health in 1991. He retired from its stewardship in 2005 – a decision that spurred him to make the transition from “doctor to smuggler”, as he put it.

“I smuggle in education in the garb of issue-based entertainment,” the 73-year-old actor said. His involvement in medical issues has extended to his work in theatre. This includes the Marathi play Zara Samjhun Ghya, about the fraught relationship between doctors and patients. Zara Samjhun Ghya were being staged as recently as early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic broke out in India.

Agashe’s sterling run in theatre led him to the movies. Among his most iconic roles is in the landmark play Ghashiram Kotwal. Vijay Tendulkar’s political allegory from 1972 starred Agashe as Nana Phadvanis, the influential minister who served the Maratha Empire and its Peshwa ruler in the eighteenth century.

The play about the corrupting nature of power was as controversial as it was popular. Director Shyam Benegal watched the play and set up a meeting with Agashe for a role in his 1975 film Nishant. “I went to meet Shyam with my paper cuttings of my plays,” Agashe said. “He said, okay, you will be acting in my film as one of the brothers. Don’t you want to see my cuttings and photos, I asked him. He said, it won’t be necessary.”

Several arthouse films followed, including Jabbar Patel’s Jait Re Jait and Sinhasan, Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh, Goutam Ghose’s Paar, Aruna Raje’s Rihaee and Arun Khopkar’s Katha Don Ganpatraonchi. Mainstream filmmakers recruited Agashe too. One of his most well-known roles is in the Subhash Ghai production Trimurti (1995), directed by Mukul S Anand. Agashe played Kooka Singh, a diabolical godman with wild hair and racoon eyes.

Bol Bol Bol, Trimurti (1995).

Despite the presence of Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan, Trimurti was a resounding flop. “I accepted the role because Kooka wasn’t a routine villain and was about spiritual power,” Agashe said. “The villain was very strong – the heroes flopped, but not the villain.”

Agashe’s upcoming projects include Mangesh Joshi’s black comedy Karkhanisanchi Waari. Like Dithee, but in a very different mould, Karkhanisanchi Waari deals with the fallout of death on members of a joint family.

Agashe had also collaborated with Bhave on a movie about issues related to the elderly. Titled Outhouse, the film was supposed to have been made in April. “We hope to complete Outhouse as a tribute to Sumitra,” Agashe said.

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How Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar have kept their directorial partnership going for 30 years