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Natsamrat (The King of the theatre) has shades of King Lear in it. However, the masterpiece of this Marathi movie starring Nana Patekar as Ganapat Rao Belwalkar is not just Nana, though his performance is spectacular. It is his best friend in the movie, Vikram Gokhale as Rambhau who lingers. Both are actors on the stage and according to both of them, Rambhau is the better actor, but the one who never gets the name, fame and the wealth that Ganpat Rao gets. The decades-long friendship between the two is never affected by jealousy or bitterness. For a generation raised on easy clichés of feel-good relationships, these two actors show what the essence of a truly honourable friendship over the years really is. In a haunting dialogue as Rambhau is dying, the two friends act out a dialogue from the Mahabharata between Karna and Krishna in which Karna questions Krishna on the unjust nature of Fate and Krishna begs forgiveness. A more
memorable display of acting will be difficult to find.

But back to King Lear. Shadowing the Shakespearean tragedy, Ganpat Rao, in a stage packed with a fawning audience announces his retirement from the stage at the peak of his career having played a range of roles from Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Brecht, and of works by Marathi play rights. Shortly after, he returns home and gifts away his wealth and property to his son and daughter believing that they would look after him and his wife. From here on, the story could have taken the turn of any melodrama except for the larger questions of life that keep looming up as Ganpat and his wife (played by Medha Manjrekar) see their life slide downwards, first nudged aside by their son and later by their daughter are rendered homeless. Although the parallels to King Lear are too obvious to be missed, the thespian Ganpat Rao does not allude to the King at all. The 3rd daughter of the King in Natsamrat is characterized by a young bearded acolyte Siddharth who recognizes the actor within the withering patriarch even in the deep winter of his life.

The question before the Natsamrat which he oft repeats is “ To be or not to be”. But Hamlet is just one of the ghosts he is fighting. In his swansong soliloquy, he gives a peek into an artist, particularly stage artist’s mind, as he wails that he cannot find himself anymore as the ghosts of all the characters that he has played on stage over the decades, inhabit him now and haunt him…Hamlet, Othello, and countless others have stayed with him for a long time, even in his death. Through his act, Ganpat believes that these characters that he played through life will live on in his audience’s mind forever. That is how he will also be immortal in their mind, in their lives. Ganpat’s is the story of a king crowned in all his glory and later dethroned by his own family, to die a tragic death at a place where
his heart truly belonged – in the theatre, for the viewers (natyarasik). Natsamrat tells the story of each one of us – crazy, erratic, larger than life, given its theatrical base, the film is heavy on words. But how powerfully are the emotions that Nana pours into every syllable and never once makes it seem wordacious.

His soliloquies leave you hypnotized, and I must admit that I broke down when a broken-hearted Belwalkar pleads, “Kuni ghar deta ka ghar?” (Will someone please give me a home. As an actor, Ganpat Rao did full justice to the characters he played on screen, his immense popularity and fame is proof of it. However, what does he do when the real-life crisis strikes him? When his dear confidante and companion dies.in his arms? His beloved wife breathes her last in front of his eyes. His children abandon him. Does he face the crudity of his fate with the same élan as his characters did on stage? Natsamrat is the question and also the answer to these questions. And like a true Aristotelian play, watching it is a wholly cathartic experience.

Shantanu Dutta, a former Air Force doctor, has been associated with the nonprofit sector for the last 25 years and more.


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