In one of the scenes in the movie “Thackeray”, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray addresses a small gathering of fellow Marathis where he declares, “ If you don’t get your right through the provisions of the law, you should snatch it by taking the law in your own hands”. The largely Marathi working class audience is ecstatic at this and acknowledges Thackeray as a demi god of sorts who vents out their pain and agony of being treated as second rate citizens in their home state of Maharashtra and the Mumbai metropolis. This very conversation is at the centre of the biopic with Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Bal Thackeray.
The film “Thackeray” starring Nawazuddin as Bala Keshav Thackeray and Amrita Rao as Meena Tai Thackeray is produced by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut and Viacom 18 Motion pictures. This post is aimed at reviewing the film, about the relevance of Thackeray in today’s popular culture and the impact created by him in today’s political discourse.
‘Thackeray’ chronicles the life and times of the leader. It starts right from his days as a struggling and yet outspoken cartoonist at the Free Press Journal in Mumbai where he is sacked for the content depicted in his cartoons. The film covers his life and events in India’s history from 1960’s to the late 1990’s. The events include The Emergency in 1975, Shiv Sena’s formation and maiden election win in 1972, The Babri Masjid demolition, The Mumbai Riots, The Mumbai bomb blasts outside Shiv Sena’s office, assassination attempts on Thackeray’s life, India-Pakistan cricket matches and so on.. The film also looks in depth at his perspective on family, his newspaper “Marmik”, regional identity, his lifestyle and his undying commitment for the Marathi community and his brash, over the top commentary on life in general. The film ends with Shiv Sena forming a government in Maharashtra in 1995.
Why a Thackeray film?
Bal Thackeray has been described as India's first regional identity crusader. He bought out the issues affecting "Marathi Manoos", the average working class man in the Mumbai metropolis. Inspired by the late Maratha warrior Shivaji, Thackeray became a voice by virtue of his strong handedness of law and order in Mumbai and his army of semi goons who would vandalise and resort to violence at the drop of a hat. He created " Shiv Sena" (Army of Shivaji) and gave a religious/ethnic/regional touch to Identity politics. Thackeray also bought the ‘hyper Hindu’ to the Indian audience on television etc. The Shiv Sena spokesperson would use cuss words etc on TV to lambast opposition parties. One of its Rajya Sabha members was caught beating up an airline attendant. This “OTT” behaviour is quite the norm with most Shiv Sena spokespersons. Bal Thackeray himself would give striking indictments to celebrities/politicians regularly in his editorial in “Saamna”. He never minced any words.
Thackeray was highly controversial and would very often use his workers to break the law and 'discipline' other communities. He was also possibly the first political leader who owned his own newspaper which will echo his ideology to the common man. He started at the very bottom of the pyramid but lived life more like a self-fashioned demigod who would exercise ‘third degree’ and ‘self created’ law and order on targeted ethnicities. His life style of living in his own palatial house (Matoshree) , having his own daily assembly, having friends in all circles and instilling fear through his followers has become an inspiration for many people. It can be very well argued that given the countless number of legal cases lodged against him and the ‘Sena’ through the years clearly shows the perpetual disdain for law and order. But the counter to that is that the ‘Sena’ still controls the assembly and Lok Sabha from Maharashtra along with BJP.
Bal Thackeray has already been portrayed quite unabashedly by Amitabh Bachchan in “Sarkar” and that led to two sequels. So, there is enough reason to have a credible Bal Thackeray biopic.
Mincing no words or actions !
The film which gets into the very skin of Thackeray and Shiv Sena is possibly the most honest portrayal ever done on the controversial leader. The fact that the Director Abhijit Panse and producer/writer Sanjay Raut are both Shiv Sena leaders and enjoy full access to the Thackeray family ensures that the biopic captures every detail of the legendary politician. The Thackeray household, its construct, the Marathi food tiffin etc have been captured beautifully.
But what comes out most of Thackeray is his tongue in cheek attitude. In a scene he proclaims “ Throw the lungi walas out of Mumbai” referring to the way he was badly treated by South Indian businessmen in Mumbai. In yet another scene, a bunch of Shiv Sainiks go out dressed as cricketers in Wankhede Stadium and vandalize the pitch to stop the India-Pakistan cricket match following a meeting of Thackeray with Pakistani cricketer Javed Miandad.
The film is making no philosophical supremacy or the righteous. In fact it openly states the fact that Thackeray himself goes to Lucknow high court for the Babri Masjid demolition and admits to Shiv Sainiks assisting in demolishing the mosque.
The Poise and Panache of Nawazuddin as Balasaheb Thackeray
To pull off a man who orders violence at the drop of a hat and yet look suave is the challenge to play Thackeray. He was also a man of taste and good life. And at the same time created a voice for the downtrodden. To balance this oddball personality, a seasoned talent like Nawaz is important. He gets into the character like a chameleon. The fact that there are at least half a dozen situations where he openly embraces Hindutva and laments various ethnicities is very tough for an actor. But Nawazuddin triumphs by acing the walk, the wardrobe , the accent and the overall persona effectively. I think full marks go to Sanjay Raut and Thackeray family for this transformation.
“Thackeray” is an effective biopic portraying the many years and life of the controversial leader but it is also nuanced and is as unabashed as the man himself. But the film leaves no space for supporting characters as Nawazuddin is there in every virtual frame. The film also doesn’t give the opposite side’s perspective. It is unidimensional in some ways. But its production design, aesthetics are superb.
I would give this movie a 6 out of 10.
- Rahul Gupta, an avid movie and TV buff who learnt movie production at New York Film Academy and worked as a talent manager at The Gotham Group in Hollywood. In addition he runs a kids brand outfit and a start up fundraising practice in New Delhi.
(The views expressed in the article above are those of the author.)