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Tribute: Amol Palekar remembers Hemu Adhikari and their fight against the Emergency


The veteran actor and filmmaker remembers his friend and colleague and their days in the parallel theatre movement.

Keyur Seta

Veteran film and theatre personality Hemu Adhikari, who died yesterday in Mumbai, may largely be remembered by cinegoers for his role in Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), where he played a pensioner who uses 'Gandhigiri' to force a recalcitrant government clerk to move his file, but he was first and foremost a theatre artiste.

Adhikari, who was 81 and was ailing for a while, was at his peak during the parallel theatre movement, when he collaborated with well-known film and theatre personality Amol Palekar.

In a telephonic conversation with Cinestaan.com, Palekar recalled the period when he worked with Adhikari. “Hemu was one of the pillars of the parallel theatre movement, which was at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s,” said the filmmaker. “His rational thinking coupled with passion for theatre and social change was the core of his personality."

Palekar's greatest collaboration with Adhikari happened when they worked together on a play to protest against the Emergency. “One of the most cherished moments of my career in theatre was when we did Badal Sircar’s Juloos," said Palekar, who was the biggest draw of what was characterized as 'middle-of-the-road' cinema in the 1970s. "It was produced by Bahuroopi, which was Hemu’s group. And I was the guest director. It was during the Emergency that we thought of doing this. That was our little protest against the Emergency.”

Interestingly, the Bahuroopi team performed the play in a competition organized by the state government. “We used to get this kick by performing it in the annual state drama competition, which is organized and funded by the government. It was our personal kick that we wanted to perform it there. We were very clear in our minds,” said Palekar. 

Recalling their first performance, he said, “I still remember that night of our first performance at Ravindra Natya Mandir in Prabhadevi [in central Mumbai]. It would be an understatement to say that it was jampacked. There was not an inch of space in the auditorium. People were sitting in the aisles and standing in every possible corner. Everywhere!” 

Hemu Adhikari

Even many revolutionary leaders attended that performance. “Underground opposition leaders like Mrinal Gore and a few others had come to see the performance incognito," said Palekar. "It was a proud moment for us that we were able to do this in theatre as our expression and fight against censorship and any kind of curtailment of freedom. That was the peak of our association and friendship that I remember proudly. I cherish the rehearsals we did for about three months."

The team put on nearly 200 shows of the play. They also performed in alternative spaces, which was not the in thing then. “We were exploring absolutely different spaces," said Palekar. "This was when terminology like ‘street theatre’ and ‘political theatre’ did not exist.

"I had started exploring other spaces from 1972 onwards. Juloos was a logical extension of that. I remember performing in the LIC [Life Insurance Corporation of India] canteen during lunch, at Jaslok hospital, co-operative society grounds, somebody’s garage, even on terraces.”

The experience at IIT Bombay's Mood Indigo festival was memorable for both Palekar and Adhikari. “Mood Indigo was very young then," the director said. "But we performed in front of about, I think, 2,000 students in the open air. Probably the most fulfilling moment, which Hemu also said later on, was when at the end of the play all the students joined the procession to protest.”

The two cherished their friendship even when they were competitors. “We would help each other though we were fierce competitors," said Palekar. "We did theatre with the ultimate goal of doing something different and better. Therefore we considered each other not enemies but friends and co-workers. I remember Hemu coming and asking me if I needed anything. He and others would set the chairs [at my shows]."

Naturally, Palekar would return the favour: “After the production, we would sit down, criticize and appreciate. Then the next day for his performance I would do the same thing and help. This was part and parcel of our camaraderie, which was the most beautiful part of those times. Those were golden moments of parallel theatre. My friendship with Hemu grew during that period. It has a special place in my life.” 

Hemu Adhikari's iconic scene in Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006)

The filmmaker, who now lives in Pune, said he had met Adhikari on a recent trip to Mumbai and was distressed by his condition. “He was in very bad shape, not able to communicate. It was painful to see him like that. Those were the last stages of the deteriorating health of a man of his fighting spirit. He was still fighting, but it was painful to see. I was talking to his wife this morning and we were sharing those moments again. She had to witness all these things.”

Yet, even in that condition, Adhikari continued to be involved with theatre. “He was so steeped in theatre," said Palekar. "He wanted somebody to translate the play Copenhagen [in Marathi]. He was looking for people who would do justice to it. This was probably at the beginning of this year. Finally, he got somebody from Kolhapur."

Despite his failing health and bedridden state, Adhikari still wanted to do something socially relevant. “That was Hemu Adhikari," said Palekar. "You can well imagine what he must have been like before!”