The return of Nana Patekar

As an aging artiste in 'Natasamrat', Nana Patekar provided a timely reminder of a character trope that is slowly dying in Indian cinema.

Shriram Iyengar

As the aging artist in 'Natasamrat', Nana Patekar provided a timely reminder of a character trope that is slowly dying away from Indian cinema. The position of the actor as a perishable commodity is losing ground, even as aging actors continue to evolve into different roles onscreen. 
In Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard', the legendary actress Norma Desmond, says of her current status ' I am big. It's the pictures that got small.' It is a sad recollection of the truth that fame is fickle. Actors often struggle to find their own identity in the midst of writers, directors instructions. Their objective is to portray a character to their fullest ability as they think it should be, according to the director's and the writer's vision. In between this, they have a tiny space to establish their own brand on the character. But that is the domain of truly talented actors. The number of actors who have fallen by the dark side of fame in India is innumerable. Suchitra Sen, Mukri, AK Hangal, the list is long. Not their fame, or talent, could protect them from the anonymous fallibility that old age brings. 

'Natasamrat' was written by VV Shirwadkar, known by his pen name 'Kusumagraj'. One of the great pillars of modern Marathi theatre, his works were often inspired from the works of Shakespeare, Beckett, Tenessee Williams and Camus. Based on the great Shakespearean tragedy of 'King Lear', the play described the tragedy of a great thespian who finds life too untenable and rigid for his free spirit. It is also a superb skewering of the easy 

dispensation of the elderly which is a common scene in nuclear families. However, where the play stood out was in its examination of the actor's inability to give up the stage. In one scene, the wife of Ganpatrao Belwankar (the protagonist) tells him 'You did not quit the stage. You just brought it home.' Like they say, once a star always a star. Ganpatrao, in all his misery, cannot give up the stage or entertaining people. It is what keeps him going. Even in the small shed that the old couple lives in, he works up a monologue to entertain his wife. A milestone in Marathi theatre, 'Natasamrat' was once an eponymous title handed to Dr.Shriram Lagoo for his impeccable portrayal of Ganpatrao on stage for 15 long years. Such was the scale of the performance, that

 the play hasn't been touched since. Till Nana Patekar came along. 

The fall of great artists has been tackled before, famously by Guru Dutt. In 'Kaagaz Ke Phool', Dutt trails the fall of a once great director, now ignored, forgotten and reduced to a homeless corpse on the chair of a studio that he ruled over. The fil

m, in many ways, portrays the life of Guru Dutt, an accomplished artist whose work found understanding only after his passing. Ironically, 'Kaagaz Ke Phool' was a tremendous flop on release, but now finds a place among the classics of world cinema. In another remarkable film, 'The Last Lear', Rituparno Ghosh cast a superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, in the role of a Shakespearean actor who has been left behind by time. As the new age director, Arjun Rampal explains the workings of the camera to the actor, frustration seeps into the septuagenarian. Yet, he cannot give up the allure of acting out Lear and Shakespeare to the novice. It is an irrepressible urge to display their skills that drive every artist to work. Often times, the staple formulaic cinema of Bollywood allows no space for experience to shine forth. It is only in recent years that actors have begun to accept their age, and adapt to it. 

Bollywood prefers younger actors or actors who look young at least. Dilip Kumar had to reinvent himself in the mid-70s to find some work. It was his failure as the leading man in the 90s that forced Amitabh Bachchan into accepting his age, and trying something different. Meanwhile, the trio of Khans continues to romance heroines half their age while expanding the horizons of their fame. In the last few years, the fearsome Nana had been reduced to playing comic characters in slapstick films. A disappointment to fans who yearned for the fire from his 'Parinda' days. With his return to the stage, 

it almost seems like a sly nod to the inability of  Bollywood to tolerate actors past their age. However, like Dr.Shriram Lagoo before him, Nana has managed to deliver a fine performance as the forgotten star from a far away horizon. A reminder to the film industry, in Milton's words that 'they also serve who only stand and wait.'