A personality like Bal Thackeray cannot be contained in one film – he requires a sequel. That is what the makers of Thackeray allude to, as the film ends on a ‘to be continued…’ footnote. This is an account of the Shiv Sena supremo’s life, produced by the party’s MP Sanjay Raut, so you have a fair idea what to expect.
Director: Abhijit Panse
Writer: Abhijit Panse
Stars: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Amrita Rao, Radha Sagar
Times Of India
Balasaheb Thackeray, as he was fondly called by the public and his peers, was an influential leader and an equally controversial figure. His political career had many fiery moments characterised by crowd-cheering speeches, some of which resulted in riots and violence, too. The film presents both the applauded and the less appreciated shades of Thackeray’s life and career. Powered by a stellar performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, this biopic rises above an inconsistent screenplay, to present an intriguing political career.
The director takes some smart decisions, like presenting most of the first half of the film in black & white. The monochrome helps establish the period setting of the film, as the production design by Sandeep Ravade, assisted by CGI shots, recreate the old Bombay quite well. The film also features a lot of real political leaders with their actual names and the casting is bang on. But, the inconsistent screenplay doesn’t help the film at all. The director also gets a bit indulgent on occasions, employing ambitious cinematic transitions (a hammer banging on the top of the Babri Masjid swiftly transitioning into the judge’s gavel in Court) that stick out like a sore thumb.
Writer and producer Sanjay Raut doesn’t distort facts from Bal Thackeray’s story. The riled up speeches, the unapologetic candour and the larger-than-life persona is presented without a veil. While the honesty is commendable, it comes across that the lead character’s political motivations lack clarity. Perhaps a more seasoned writer could have fleshed out Thackeray’s character and eccentricities a lot better. But its Nawaz’s nonchalant performance that overshadows the flaws and leaves a lasting impact.
Some films make it clear where they stand. In the case of Thackeray — written and directed by MNS leader Abhijit Panse, produced by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, editor of the party’s periodical ‘Saamna’ — there is no doubt about its allegiance. I walked in primed for a film back-pedalling extremism in order to justify the late Balasaheb Thackeray’s actions. I expected scenes depicting the politician as a warm and misunderstood figure, and a film that essentially turns him into a hero. This is not that film.
It is a film made with polish — the high-contrast black and white cinematography by Sudeep Chatterjee is quite striking — that feels reminiscent of Ram Gopal Varma’s older, finer work. Charting the rise of a mere cartoonist to one of the most powerful political figures in the country, Thackeray even feels like a prequel to Varma’s Sarkar, a film that paid slavish tribute to the politician. Sarkar, however, had presented the leader as a man of nobility, while Thackeray presents him — exultantly — as a tyrant. See how much power he wields? See the way he threatens politicians, or reduces places of worship to rubble? See the way he gets a cricket pitch dug up? That’s our Tiger.
This film is either oblivious or blatantly self-aware, a work not of propaganda as much as it is a work of pride, the celebration of a legacy of violence. In an early scene the leader jeers at the idea of manhood as being measured by the width of a man’s chest, and later the film goes from black and white to colour with one flower turning orange, a shot that cruelly and unmistakably mocks the end of Schindler’s List. In the final reckoning, Thackeray should be considered a cautionary tale about the ugliness of hate speech. Saying revolting things does not make a revolutionary.
A personality like Bal Thackeray cannot be contained in one film – he requires a sequel. That is what the makers of Thackeray allude to, as the film ends on a ‘to be continued…’ footnote. This is an account of the Shiv Sena supremo’s life, produced by the party’s MP Sanjay Raut, so you have a fair idea what to expect. Thackeray is a superhero here, painted to the demi-god status that his supporters gave him, his words frequently punctuated by a tiger’s roar. This is a glowing tribute, with no room for any greys in its protagonist. So it ends up as a one-sided, distorted, saffron-hued take on Thackeray’s political rise and clout over Maharashtra.
The film begins with Thackeray’s appearance in court before the Srikrishna Commission, when he was accused of inciting violence against Muslims in the 1992-93 Bombay riots. It sets the tone for this hagiography – Thackeray’s journey from a cartoonist in the 1960s to an iconic political figure is repeatedly intercut with these court scenes during which he expresses his extremist views and reveals his razor-wit.
The over-two-hour biopic depicts the Shiv Sena’s history of violence, but it is always defended by Thackeray’s fiery rhetoric. It’s the ‘eye for an eye’, ‘reaction to action’ justifications for strong-arm tactics, violence, and even murder that make this film difficult to stomach. Often, the politico is seen sneering at even the idea of democracy. At one point, a jailed Thackeray tells George Fernandes how the nation needs a Hitler, and Fernandes wryly remarks, “There is a dictator, born in you.”
For a critic, this film is a massive challenge. It requires separating the lead actor from the rabble-rousing politician he portrays on screen. The performance is stupendous, not the least because Nawazuddin Siddiqui refrains from slavish imitation of Bal Keshav Thackeray. But the worldview of the leader whose biopic this is chillingly disturbing. So as you watch an outstanding screen performer get into the skin of the Shiv Sena founder, you cannot but squirm at the words and ideas that he spouts.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui absolutely nails it – another glowing feather in a bulging cap. He is so good that the film needs nobody else to propel it forward. What is worrying is that the biopic draws strength from the performance and stops at nothing to put up a spirited defence of a political career built on untrammeled power and prejudice. It leads to an inevitable question: should an actor exercise ethical judgment when he chooses a role or should he opt to be a professional and do his job no matter what sort of vision he is called upon to propagate?
The film expectedly thinks nothing of whitewashing the ominous, unsavoury aspects of the rise of Thackeray – there are a couple of sequences of the man delivering incendiary speeches against outsiders taking away jobs and pushing sons of the soil into a corner. He coolly intones: “Pungi bajao lungi bhagao (Sound the bugle, throw out the lungi-wearers, read South Indians)“. Not much later, he thunders: “Lal bandar ki jaat ko yahaan se mitana padega (The Red monkeys must be eliminated)”. Leftist legislator Krishna Desai is murdered in a subsequent scene and the film does not even pause to offer a moral perspective on the heinous act.
The film opens with Balasaheb facing trial in a court-room which has a judge with a South Indian accent, and a lawyer who is made to mouth tough questions, only so that Thackeray can shut him up with smart reversals, which then becomes the last word on the subject. All demagogues are expert at pitching their point-of-view as the only truth, and Thackeray has no trouble in proudly terming himself the ‘Hitler of Maharashtra’,
as he was the only one with the best interests of ‘his people’ at heart.
Irony doesn’t just die when Thackeray mouths these things. Almost every moment in the movie is a death of irony, the biggest of them being that Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an outsider on both counts of community and religion, plays Balasaheb Thackeray. That Nawaz plays him with flair and conviction, spewing his brand of persuasive polarisation only to make it appear as the most reasonable thing, is the deepest cut.