Dr. Shreeram Lagoo was a legendary film and theatre actor, known for his character roles, in addition to being an ENT surgeon. In four decades, he acted in over 100 Hindi and Marathi films, over 40 Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati plays, and directed over 20 Marathi plays. Zaakol in Marathi remains the only film he directed. He enthralled audiences with his outstanding body of work. A talent as nuanced and natural as his was rare to find.
He described his childhood self as a bathroom actor, caught between a desperate love for theatre and a deep fear of audiences. But deeply inspired, he would declaim classical Marathi monologues in the style of British and American actors while locked in his room. These early influences shaped Lagoo’s approach towards acting.
Born in Satara district, Lagoo studied at Bhave High School and later attended Fergusson College and B.J. Medical College, Pune, where he received his MBBS and MS degrees, respectively. While studying, he also acted in plays and co-started a group Progressive Dramatic Association.
After acquiring a degree in ENT surgery from the University of Mumbai in the early fifties, he practiced in Pune for six years, before going to Canada and England for additional training. His theatre activity continued when in India.
Despite success as an ENT surgeon, Lagoo decided to turn his passion for theatre into a fulltime vocation in 1969. After a brief struggle, he bagged the role of Sambhaji, the son of the Maratha king Shivaji, in Vasant Kanetkar’s Ithe Oshalala Mrityu (Where Death Shied Away). Lagoo’s obvious talent attracted attention.
His career in theatre soared with the role of the protagonist in the famous iconic Marathi play Natsamrat written by Kusumagraj (Vishnu Vaman Shirwadkar) in 1970. But the demands of the character were so intense, that it caused his health to deteriorate. Commercial success came with his very first film V Shantaram’s Pinjra (1972), in which he portrayed a nuanced performance as a principled village teacher.
He ruled the Marathi stage with plays like Natsamrat, Surya Pahilela Manus, Mitra, and Marathi films like Pinjara,
Sinhasan, Samna, Himalayachi Saoli, Premachi Goshta, Kachecha Chandra, Yashoda, Udhvasta Dharmashala, Ek Hoti Rani, Khichadi, Mukta Masala, and Shashan, his last film. He acted and directed the long-running Gidhade.
His Hindi films included Thodisi Bewafai, Maqsad, Souten, Nasihat, Awam, Devata, Des Pardes, Lawaris, Muqadar ka Sikandar, Inkaar, Sajan bina Suhagan, Kinara, Lootmaar, Insaaf ka Tarazu and Gharonda, to name a few. He played the character of Gopal Krishna Gokhale in the feature film, Gandhi.
Lagoo described his tendency to win awards as a bad habit, one he could never break. He won several awards including Padma Shri relatively early in his career, in 1974; the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor award for his work in Gharonda(1978), the Kalidas Samman of the M.P. Government (1997), the Master Dinanath Mangeshkar Smruti Pratisthan for his contribution to Marathi theatre ( 2006; 2007), Punyabhushan’ Puraskar (2007), the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (2010) and the Lifetime achievement award by the youth theatre group Thespo (2016). He also contributed articles on theatre in literary magazines and wrote one-act plays.
Lagoo’s dedication to theatre never wavered. He had disdain for the division between theatre and cinema and commercial and experimental art. His acting prowess hinged on his clear and captivating voice, which he painstakingly modulated. His piercing gaze was also a vital element of his performances.
Affectionately known in theatre circles as ‘Doctor’, he was also known for his progressive, non-religious rationalist views, which he expressed without fear.
He died on December 17, 2019 at the age of 92. In his passing,the Marathi theatre has lost its beloved Natsamrat. Indian theatre has lost a giant. A man of many faces, his eternal legacy will continue to reign in the hearts of millions!