Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Amrita Rao, Laxman Singh Rajput, Radha Sagar
Director: Abhijit Panse
Rating: 1.5 Stars (Out of 5)
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?
As a drama about a controversial life that thrived on tapping the frustrations of the Marathi manoos and the demonisation of other communities, Thackeray, produced by Shiv Sena Member of Parliament and Saamna editor Sanjay Raut and scripted and directed by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Abhijit Panse, enters problematic terrain in a dangerously cavalier manner and seeks to make a virtue of that act.
What glory can there be in being a bully in one's backyard? So the film goes to great lengths to project the protagonist as a politician who believed in the unity of the nation first and then in the well-being of the linguistic group that he represented. Even if that were true, sustaining the halo around the man is a tough call. The film ties itself up in knots in the process. It is forced to back-pedal repeatedly for the aim of justifying, if not fully erasing, the negatives associated with Bal Thackeray's politics.
On technical parameters, the crisply edited Thackeray is well above the average. The production design (Sandeep Sharad Ravade) and the cinematography (Sudeep Chatterjee) are first-rate. The background score, too, serves the purpose of not leaving scope for any doubt about what the film is trying to achieve.
Take, for instance, a sequence in which Shiv Sainiks attired in white flannels barge into Wankhede Stadium and dig up the cricket pitch ahead of an India-Pakistan game or the scene where Balasaheb himself, comedian Dada Kondke in tow, shows up outside a cinema hall and pulls down a poster of the 1971 Dev Anand-starrer Tere Mere Sapne so that the Marathi-language Songadya can resume its interrupted run, the shrill soundtrack puts a stamp of approval on it. Following the 'Save Marathi Cinema' act, Thackeray quips: "Ghar mera, bistar mera, sapne tere?" This film is only interested in extolling this 'us and them' binary that brought the Shiv Sena into being, like it or lump it. Did we expect anything else?
The film opens in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and with Thackeray standing trial on a slew of charges, including fomenting disharmony between groups. From this starting point, it goes into tame, black-and-white flashbacks arranged in no particular chronological order to present an account of his life from his stint as a cartoonist in Free Press Journal under the editorship of a south Indian in the 1960s all the way until the Bombay riots of 1992-93, with much else thrown in with an eye on rescuing Thackeray from the years of 'misrepresentation' that he is supposed to have suffered.
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 justifies violence without batting an eyelid, but takes care not to let the repercussions harm Thackeray's 'reputation' for 'fairplay' as he enjoys his beer and smoke-pipe and hobnobs with the who's who of the political firmament of the 1970s and 1980s. The parade of the powerful includes Vasantrao Naik, YB Chavan, Sharad Pawar and even Indira Gandhi (played with striking poise by theatre actress Avantika Akerkar), who is shown striking out Shiv Sena from the list of organisations to be banned during the Emergency.
Thackeray magnanimously goes to a Muslim festival, preens at his own generosity and then proceeds to demand of the minority community that they should participate in Hindu festivals. In the very next scene, we see the beginning of the 1984 Bhiwandi riots. Lest you think, Thackeray is personally to blame for the mayhem, a scene is inserted into the screenplay to let him assert that he has no ill-will towards Islam. To drive the point home further, he welcomes a riot-affected Muslim family into his drawing room. Why are you looking at your watch, he asks the man. The latter's wife pipes up: It is time for namaz. Thackeray offers the gentleman a prayer mat.
That, in essence, is the general drift of this exercise: a cinematic lionising of a political career that thrived on exclusionary, majoritarian muscle-flexing. Not a great idea in these fractious times. As provocative as the politics it celebrates, Thackeray is a film that is best left alone.