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Leap Over The Fourth Wall

The incredible story of Shivaji Underground, its inspired, unschooled cast, superb mentors and bravura performances

Leap Over The Fourth Wall
On Stage
A performance of Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla in Mumbai
Photograph by Apoorva Salkade
Leap Over The Fourth Wall

Sowing poison in history,

we reaped riots,

Crooks keep writing and

the reader remains blind,

The gift we need now,

is the awareness of our times,

The gift of sight, and happy times…

Oh king, Oh shivaba… ji ji ji ji

At Vahe, where Narayan Waghmare lives with his parents and brother, theatre and cinema belong to another world. Seventy kilometres from Jalna, battling failing crops and poverty, Narayan and his brother could study only up to class six. Their fat­her, an alcoholic, tried his utmost to meet ends. The thoughts of auditioning at Aramnagar, or performing at hallowed spaces like Shivaji Mandir, NCPA or Prithvi theatre in Mumbai had never crossed Narayan’s mind. All that was before he joined the group that has been performing Shivaji Und­erground in Bhimnagar Mohalla.

The connect of the cast with the play is a deep, emotional one. Everyone has a personal stake. “It belongs to all of us,” says Sambhaji.

What started as a play with a curious name has just had its 500th show and is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. Along with the title, for the first few years advertisements would announce the cast thus: Farmers from Jalna District, instead of names of the performers. And though some of them were performers in their own right, writing or performing folk songs or one-act plays at the local level, they could never have imagined the journey that has been. For, most of these ‘13 farmers from Jalna’ are now regulars in Mumbai and Pune and have switched to theatre and cin­ema as their primary vocation, managing their farming responsibilities on mobile phones or leaving it to family members.

The concept, music and lyrics of the hard-hitting powadas (folk songs that tell a story) are by activist-balladeer Sam­bhaji Bhagat (who wrote lyrics for the acclaimed Marathi film Court), the play is written by Rajkumar Tangde and dire­cted by Nandu Madhav, who went on to play Dadasaheb Phalke in the award-winning Harishchandrachi Factory. Initially, Madhav produced the play, which is now done by Bhagwan Medhankar. The folk musical—based on Chhatrapati Shivaji’s life—not only asks tough questions about the rewriting of history but also tries to put forth a logical and objective (besides being very positive) reading of the life of the Maratha warrior king, Shivaji, interspersing it with contemporary iss­ues of agrarian crisis, casteism and corruption.

"I have been with the group for six or seven years now. Whatever I lacked in my life before has been compensated. With this play I not only understood the movement but also figured that this was my expression,” says Narayan. He plays a key character and has since acted in small scenes in films, short films and plays. “I didn’t look at it for money but it gave me that too. More importan­tly, it gave me respect; now people look up to me in the village, thanks to this association.”

That association is a spe­cial one, drawing the act­ors out and forging them to their roles through a deep emotional bond—one reason why the original cast has not been replaced. Although Sambhaji and Rajku­mar Tangde are the mentors, everyone has a personal stake. “The play belongs to all of us. Sometimes, it is hard to tell what each one has done. Even the way this idea was developed—there was Kailash, Sambhaji Bhagat, Raj­­kumar and me. We worked for over a year to come up with the script,” says Sambhaji, who has also acted in the biggest Marathi film of recent times, Sairat, among others. Sambhaji is  a livewire at rehearsals—every song has him straining his vocal chords to their utm­ost—and is an inspiration to all. Reh­ea­rsing in a dark, dingy wedding hall in Matunga, with only the occasional tea to wet their parched throats, the team members are involved enough to finish each other’s lines. This is how it is wherever they are—in bus journeys or at rehearsal halls. “Getting a play like this at an early stage helped us in many ways. After finishing studies at the theatre academy at Mumbai University, I was part of Sambhaji Bhagat’s Jalsa and later got this opp­ortunity. When an actor gets to play with substance like this, you get noticed,” says Meenakshi Rathore, who hails from Tanda, where dance and music are part of her nomadic tribal culture. Looking after her seven siblings was tough, but her father encouraged her to pursue her dreams. Her short, intense monologue towards the end of Shivaji Underground, on riots and enmity, is an effective piece.

Kailash Waghmare, the lead actor, was inv­olved with the production from the beginning. Kailash has since acted in the lead role in the Marathi film Manatlya Unhat. Kailash and Meenakshi were also the first inter-­caste couple from their village to live-in together; they got married recen­tly. “She taught me the ways of the city. I was miserable here,” says Kailash, whose parents make baskets and brooms in the village. He is the first one from his village to complete his Masters and has now settled in the city of dreams. Well, sort of. “Only my body is here, my heart is in my village,” he says. Even the youngest mem­ber, Vasundhara, who plays Kail­ash and Meenakshi’s daughter, says she has adj­usted to Mumbai and its crowded trains scare her no more. And a connection with the great king: Jambsamarth, the village where Rajkumar, Sambhaji and few others live, is known as the birthplace of Samarth Ramdas, a Bramhin saint said to be a teacher of Shivaji.

But the journey for Shivaji Und­ergrounds cast hasn’t been easy. Ashwini Bhalekar, who plays party-hopp­ing politician Akka, one of the str­ongest characters, took 25 shows before she could tell her mother of her role. “I discovered fre­e­dom with this group. When the show was scheduled in Aurangabad I told my parents to watch it and then decide. My father had been supportive. After my mom saw the show she was also convinced about my decision. From not knowing what I was doing to memorising my schedules—that’s the journey my mother made,” says Ashwini, who went on to act in award-winning Elizabeth Ekadashi and is also completing her PhD from Aurangabad.

Not just the actors, even producer Bhagwan Med­hankar admits feeling inc­re­dibly lucky getting to produce a play like this. Yet, a no-holds-barred play like this—which has been attacked by right-wing outfits—could not have been easy.

Gajendra Tangde, after failing one subject in his 12th standard exams, was working the fields, unsure of his future. His older brother, knowing Tangde’s pot­ential, stepped in and handed him over to Rajkumar. He went so far as to sell their cattle so that nothing came in the way of this energetic actor with tremendous stage presence. Now, he has acted in a movie directed by Rajkumar and in another by Sandesh Bhandare.

The Shivaji Underground team is a family and supports each other in crisis. Rajkumar says how each actor gave his all for the play.

While Gajendra may have a promising career ahead, if there’s anyone who has truly made it, it’s Kailash. After winning awards and acting as lead in a Marathi film that was promoted and liked by Anil Kapoor and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kailash is now working with Sunil Shanbaug. However, he rues the fact that some people would still slot him as a poor villager from rural areas. When his parents atten­ded his film premi­ere and clicked a picture with Nana Patekar, little did they realise that the image would be used for drought coverage. “I app­reciate the work of all NGOs.... I have no qualms in saying I am from a village, but to use that picture as a ‘drought photo’ is terrible. It keeps showing up on social media and news channels every now and then.”

Cast members of Shivaji Underground rehearsing at Jambsamarth village

The Shivaji Underground team is a family and stands for each other in times of crisis. For example, when the team met with an accident last year, in which a backstage artist died, they were beside the grieving family and helped the other injured actor recover. This was Pravin Dalimkar, who plays Yamraj, who has  the wittiest and the most profound lines. “This team has been wonderful. Now, even when I play a small role in a serial, people on the sets respect me, saying ‘this guy is from the Shivaji play’. I was the last one to join the team; when I saw director Nandu Madhav sitting and sewing something on the rehearsal, I knew this was my kind of place,” says Pravin.

Rajkumar Tangde, who has acted in films like Deool and Jau dya na Balasaheb, and is now making his own film on labourers who cut sugarcane, says it is unimaginable what the actors have given for making this the play a success. “Each has given his or her heart and soul, every single show for the past five years. They show no signs of slowing down.” As they performed yet again for the 52nd anniversary of Shivaji Mandir, the palpable energy and passion of the team carried the sound and thoughts of Shivaji down to the last member of the audience des­pite the creaky sound system.

As the team wraps up, some leave for shoots the following day; some plan to hang around for auditions. Narayan casually mentions that he recently let go of a film offer as it did not match up to the lofty idealism of the play. “What we have received is invaluable; we will not do any­thing that disturbs that ethos even sligh­tly.” This is the guiding spi­rit that pulls people to Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla even after 500 shows.

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