For any theatregoer in Maharashtra between the ’60s and late ’90s, the name Ashrunchi Zali Phule (Tears turn flowers) was synonymous with three things — houseful shows, stellar performances by stalwarts such as Prabhakar Panshikar, Chittaranjan Kolhatkar, Kashinath Ghanekar, Faiyyaz and Ramesh Bhatkar at various points in time, and above all, a storyline that was “timely” at any given time.
The play, written by Vasant Kanetkar in 1966, revolves around two key characters — Vidyanand, a virtuous professor of mathematics, who is also a literature lover at heart, and his disciple Lalya, who comes from a background full of turmoils. In the initial period of the play, the role of Lalya was essayed by Ghanekar, a dental surgeon-turned-actor, who almost ruled the Marathi screen and stage in the ’60s and ’70s.
Actor, writer and director Subodh Bhave, who portrayed Ghanekar in his 2018 biopic Aani Dr Kashinath Ghanekar, first thought of reviving Ashrunchi Zali Phule for the promotion of the film. While the time constraints at the time delayed the process, it did result in bringing back to the state Kanetkar’s masterpiece. The first show was held on May 1, during Maharashtra Day, in Nashik, Kanetkar’s hometown. Notably, the play inspired not only the 1966 Bollywood classic Ansoo Ban Gaye Phool for which Kanetkar word Filmfare for Best Story, but also the 1984 movie Mashaal, starring Anil Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman.
In the storyline of the play, the obstinate Lalya is helped to get reformed by Vidyanand and goes on to become a police officer. Around the same time, the control of Vidyanand’s college is usurped by a politician with criminal nexus Dharmappa. While attempts are made by Dharmappa to turn the educational institute into a money making business, it is Vidyanand who stands in his way. To get rid of Vidyanand, Dharmappa hatches conspiracy with Vidyanand’s own people to falsely implicate him for misappropriation of money. The prison term sees his transformation from a forthright and honest man to a coldhearted criminal, determined to take revenge of those involved in his entrapment. Vidyanand takes help from his childhood friend turned trickster Shambhu Mahadev to not only attain notoriety in the criminal world as a smuggler, but also destroy those who destroyed him.
The play goes on to portray a complex encounter of former teacher-student turned criminal-police officer, where Vidyanand finds atonement in being apprehended by his beloved student.
Panshikar immortalised the role of Vidyanand by playing it throughout till 2002, till the age of 71, in the record 1,111 shows of the drama under the banner of Natya Sampada. Bhave portrays Lalya while Shailesh Datar plays Vidyanand. When asked whether there was pressure of comparisons with stalwarts such as Ghanekar and Bhatkar, who have played Lalya, Bhave said, “When I had acted in Kanetkar’s Lekure Udand Zaali, I found myself thinking about comparisons. And that was one of the important reasons for my failure in that case. Since then, I have made sure that I will never compare myself to past performances. Every actor gives something unique to the character. In the movie on Ghanekar, I played Ghanekar part of which is also portrayal of Lalya, but here, it is simply Subodh Bhave who is portraying Lalya.”
He adds, “Most of the audience is new to Kanetkar’s masterpiece. Though the play dates back to the ’60s, the very fabric of its storyline along with the conflicts and politics as shown in it, are of eternal relevance. It is getting an overwhelming ‘houseful’ love till now. It is a rewarding feeling.”
Speaking about the process of the revival, senior theatre personality Pratima Kulkarni, who is directing the play now, says, “The process has been undoubtedly a learning experience. We had to keep in mind that images associated with the play in the past were larger than life. While the play has been edited for reducing the length, the main script is untouched. We have not added our bricks to the Taj Mahal built by Kanetkar. As he himself has said in the preface of the play, that it is about the perpetual tussle between the right and the wrong along with its complexities. Our attempt has been to carry Kanetkar’s thoughts to today’s audience.”
Two other important and equally complex characters of Vidyanand’s doctor wife Sumitra and Shambhu Mahadev have been portrayed by Seema Deshmukh and Umesh Jagtap respectively.
While the team has promised to put up shows across Maharashtra and also places outside that have a sizeable Marathi audience, it has decided to only stage 51 shows. “I find it difficult doing the same thing for a long time. There are people who have done it for decades and with the same energy, it is not something I enjoy doing,” says Bhave, who is also one of the producers along with Dinesh Pednekar, Manjiri Bhave, Rahul Karnik and Abhijit Deshpande. The music is by Milind Joshi and the stage and light arrangement is by Pradeep Mulye.