Man who’d be Shivaji

A ‘goonga’ actor speaks to Rishi Majumder on what it means to be Shivaji Maharaj

Photographer: NileshKulkarni

Pravin Shirole and Shivaji

The name Chattrapati Shivaji is known to come up in popular discourse quite often. And an observation such as: “The memory of Shivaji Maharaj is being exploited by political parties for their personal gains,” seems customary. But when you learn that this comes from an actor who has been playing the role of the revered emperor for 20 years in Jaanta Raja, a Marathi
play of epic proportion — last held at the BJP silver jubilee celebrations in the city recently — you get its full import.
Pune-based actor Pravin Shirole has been part of the play, whose
peculiar feature is that the actors don’t speak but lip sync the dialogues, which are projected via a recording so the audience (comprising thousands at times) don’t miss a word. “This has led to us being called ‘goonga actors’ by many film and theatre people,” jests Shirole. This goonga actor, who has played no other role, however, has much to say.
Jaanta Raja, written and directed by historian Babasaheb Purondhare, brings on a 3,000 square feet stage 300 actors, horses, elephants, camels and a set as high as a five-floor building. Purondhare wanted to make a play which wasn’t representative but life-like. His success at this is warranted by the fact that the

play has had over 700 shows, in India and abroad.
Theatre aficionados refuse to believe that Shirole is a performer. “People would ask me after having watched the show ten times — Where did Shivaji Maharaj go?” he laughs. “And these were educated gentlemen from metropolises, one of
them a journalist.”
He once jokingly told some disbelievers to wait at a particular spot where ‘Shivaji Maharaj’ would emerge from his car to make his stage entry. They waited there till end of the show and were aghast to see only Shirole alight.
“People line up for five kilometres to buy tickets,” he says.
“Thousands queue up over-night
with their families to make it to the ticket c o u n t e r when it first opens.”
Once, a multitude of villagers were known to
have sat out in the cold in the middle of winter, thereafter taking severely ill. “It’d be foolish to think we as actors can beget this response,” Shirole points out. “It’s Shivaji Maharaj.”
Once, Vijaysingh Mohite Patil had lent his horse to ‘Shivaji’ to ride into the show. The animal bolting sud
denly threw Shirole off, but being an experienced horseman, he managed to land on his feet. Patil later told him, “Thank God you managed; else Shivaji Maharaj would have fallen off our family’s horse.”
Recently rumours were rife in theatre and political circles that Shirole would use this image to contest elections. He dismisses them.
But these rumours may not be unfounded, after all Shirole is the only actor to have played this role. “The actor originally chosen for this role became so famous even before the play’s release that he contested the
Pune Municipal Corporation’s elections,” recounts Shirole, “He was so busy canvassing that he didn’t turn up for the first show.”
Hence, Purondhare, who had always thought Shirole, then a production assistant, would do well as Shivaji asked him to take the stage – even though he’d never acted before!
What astounds Shirole is that the other actor won the Corporation elections. “With no financial or family support,” he exclaims. “Just on Shivaji Maharaj’s name! The make believe actor has no complaints on that score.

Jaanta Raja

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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