Thackeray Review: A Blind Love Letter to the Shiv Sena Supremo


Thackeray Review: A Blind Love Letter to the Shiv Sena Supremo

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Thackeray is an alarming, and deeply problematic film, but this was to be expected — its producer is Sanjay Raut, the executive editor of Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna, who represents Maharashtra in the Rajya Sabha, while its director is Abhijit Panse, a Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader. Raut is credited for the script, while Panse has written the screenplay. Neither has made any attempt to hide the fact that the movie is basically their love letter to the late Bal Thackeray, the controversial leader who shaped the political landscape of Maharashtra from the 1960s right until his death in 2012, and possibly even beyond.

But even the producer-director duo’s clearly articulated and unabashed allegiance can’t prepare you for the relish with which the film glorifies the ugliest parts of Bal Thackeray’s legacy. You walk into the theatre expecting a movie that attempts to justify and explain the decades of violence perpetuated by the Sena supremo, but what you’re subjected to is not a benevolent cover-up, but an ode to his ruthless and power hungry ways. The message is clear: Bal Thackeray was not misunderstood, he was right, and we must all be in thrall of him.

This unapologetic celebration of a man who proudly likened himself to Hitler, routinely ordered violence to silence dissenting voices, practised and propagated divisive and communal politics, and watched calmly as Mumbai was bruised by his blinded-by-devotion Sainiks avenging every perceived slight against him, is what makes Thackeray a film that is hard to stomach. The fact that it has been made and released in the current political climate, with Hindutva pride and anti-Muslim sentiment once again being inflamed and exploited for political gain, this time on a national scale, makes it even more chilling.

In an ideal world, a movie on the life of Bal Thackeray should be a cautionary tale for what happens when a person becomes an ideology, when he is put on a pedestal so high, he rises above question, above reproach, and even above the law. Thackeray, beautifully shot, crisply edited, and performed with masterful elegance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui — you can see his character’s arrogance and ego growing incrementally with every success that comes his way — is anything but.

Bal Thackeray is given ample opportunity to give rousing speeches about his love for the country.

Image Credits: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures

The movie alternates between what is a present-day court hearing, with Bal Thackeray on trial for inciting communal violence leading to the demolition of Babri Masjid, and the past, starting with Thackeray’s early years as a cartoonist at Free Press Journal, which he quit in 1960 to start a political satire weekly called Marmik. Bal Thackeray is given ample opportunity to give rousing speeches about his love for the country, how democracy, the government, and the judiciary had failed vulnerable, lower-class youth both in India and Maharashtra, as a dim-witted caricature of a public prosecutor mumbles and fumbles through his questioning. Needless to say, every pronunciation is greeted with inspired applause by the public packed into the courtroom.

From the very first scene to the absolute last, Bal Thackeray is painted as the hero of the masses, and the man who will secure a dignified life for “his boys” by taking, by force and violence if need be, jobs that should have rightfully been theirs but were usurped by “outsiders”. Indeed, Shiv Sena’s politics have always been rooted in polarising the masses by continuously flaming the othering sentiment among communities. Bal Thackeray’s political journey started by uniting Maharashtrians against migrants from other states, particularly the south of India, and when he had succeeded in terrorising them and there was no more political mileage to be gained by demonising them, he promptly refashioned himself and the Shiv Sena as the saviours of Hinduism against Islam, which once against thrust him into the spotlight.

In an ideal world, a movie on the life of Bal Thackeray should be a cautionary tale for what happens when a person becomes an ideology.

We never get to hear Thackeray’s more despicable statements — all the times he called Muslims “green poison”, or called for the formation of Hindu suicide bomb squads to deal with terrorism, equating Islam with cancer, calling for a visa system to gain entry into Mumbai, and many, many others. But we do see a token scene where he listens to the plight of one Muslim family after the riots, asserting that he wasn’t against the religion, offering the man a mat to offer namaz in his presence. The list of topics that the biopic glosses over is long and exhausting.

It is true that Bal Thackeray was seen by his followers as a fearless Tiger who would fight to his dying breath for their rights. But it is also true that the image was carefully constructed, meticulously cemented and brutally protected — even at the cost of the very futures he swore to protect. In her book, Hindu Hriday Samrat: How The Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever, senior journalist Sujata Anandan, who has tracked politics in Maharashtra for over two decades, details how Thackeray built his kingdom by inflaming the minds of underprivileged, uneducated youngsters through his speeches and editorials, hypnotising them into being willing to shed blood — their own and others’ in his name. The book also talks about how Thackeray, in later years, would deliberately keep his young followers uneducated, because his power depended on them being ready to indulge in violence, extortion, and even murder at his behest. Anandan writes, “An overwhelming majority of Shiv Sainiks were unable to reach white collar heights because they were only taught to snatch and grab whatever they could through fear or favour.” But, of course, none of these stories have a place in the movie.

As far as stories go, Bal Thackeray’s is one of the most compelling ones to emerge out of the political landscape of India. His is a provocative story, and it deserves to be told. But the fact that only his most loyal are allowed to tell his story, even today, six years after his death, tells us something about the influence he holds from even beyond the grave. And it’s not pretty.