Thackeray Movie Review Baradwaj Rangan
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Director: Abhijit Panse

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Amrita Rao

When the incendiary trailer for Abhijit Panse’s Thackeray landed, the actor Siddharth tweeted: “Nawazuddin has repeated ‘Uthao lungi bajao pungi’ (lift the lungi and *’#$ him) in the film #Thackeray. Clearly, hate speech against South Indians… In a film glorifying the person who said it! Are you planning to make money out of this propaganda? Stop selling hate! Scary stuff!” With due respect to Siddharth, that is perhaps the point. Thackeray is a warts-and-none propaganda film about a man who peddled hate and keenly fostered a sense of otherness (first South Indians, then Muslims). The trailer may be offensive, but it’s honest. The story is, after all, by Sanjay Raut, a Shiv Sena member and a Rajya Sabha MP. And this is, after all, an election year.

This scene occurs early in the film after Bal Thackeray (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has resigned from his job at the Free Press Journal. (His political cartoons proved too “sharp” for the spineless Tamilian editor.) Thackeray, subsequently, slips into a movie theatre. It’s probably the late 1950s. A poster for Kaagaz Ke Phool is on display in the foyer. Inside, as the camera sweeps across the audience, we see that Thackeray is surrounded by Tamilians, Sardars, Parsis, Muslims. (And everyone wears something that identifies them, like a skull cap or an ash stripe on the forehead; this is that kind of movie). And in their midst sits Thackeray, small, anonymous, undistinguished by any visible signs of the community he belongs to. The screenplay fails to tell us what exactly these people with roots in other states, speaking other languages, have done to squash the Marathi spine. At least, in narrative terms, that would have given Thackeray a few fleshed-out villains, instead of leaving its protagonist shadow-boxing with invisible antagonists. After the movie, Thackeray steps out and walks on streets whose sides are further reminders of the other. (A man he bumps into, for instance, spews cuss words in Malayalam.) And he thinks, “Inhe dikhana hoga ki Marathi manoos ghaati hoga magar ghatiya nahin.” (I’ll have to show them that the Marathis are not an inferior people.)

Soon, the common Marathi man is persuaded. One of them says, “In baahar waalon ke wajah se hum logon ko naukri nahin milti.” (These outsiders are why we don’t have jobs.) Another one picks up a stone, and stares long and hard at the signboard outside an Udipi hotel, advertising idlis and dosas. He hurls the stone, and… CUT TO a broken window in the Thackeray household. Thackeray is playing cricket with a bunch of children, and he exults, “Sixer maara.” The man is a cricket fanatic. But the big, lofted shot he’s really referring to, of course, is the sense he’s instilled in the Marathi people that their team has seen enough losses, and it’s time to get into attack mode. Hence the name of his new political outfit: Shiv Sena. It’s not a party. It’s a weapon-wielding army.

Thackeray tells a familiar story of a Saviour rising to protect his people, so why does it feel so distant?

And Thackeray is the captain. The film, accordingly, rewards this hero of the masses with an introduction shot befitting the hero of a “mass movie”. Thackeray opens in colour, in April 1994. (The painterly flashbacks, imbued with breathtaking depth by Sudeep Chatterjee, are in black and white.) A crowd is gathered outside Lucknow airport. The man emerges from inside. First, we get the back, draped in a saffron-hued shawl. Then, an overhead shot shows him getting into a car and driving away. Next, in the scene where he enters the court, he’s pushed inside by a throng in a visual reminiscent of commuters being swallowed up by the trains of his beloved city. A long shot follows, where he walks up to the witness stand — the spectators and applaud. Then, a close up of a hand wrapped in those trademark rudraksha beads, and finally, a swing-around to the face (with what looks like a huge prosthetic nose). I imagine the Mumbai theatres would have erupted with hoots and wolf-whistles.

Thackeray tells a familiar story of a Saviour rising to protect his people, so why does it feel so distant? After all, even the story of Hitler (whom Thackeray seems to view as a positive role model) can be told powerfully and empathetically from his point of view, helping us get into the mind of such a man. Take Nayakan, which, in a way, is the polar opposite of Thackeray: there, a Tamilian community, oppressed by a Marathi cop named Kelkar, gets their Saviour. And at least two developments in Thackeray are found in Nayakan, too: the first, when the protagonist arranges for an ambulance for his people, and second, when the city burns and the establishment has to request the protagonist (who’s in jail) to end the violence. But in the older film, we caught a glimpse of the atrocities being committed, and why there was the need for a Saviour. The emotional beats in Thackeray are much weaker. The generic screenplay sacrifices the who-what-why to make way for a series of events and punchy lines, underscored overscored by Amar Mohile, who never met a moment he couldn’t transform into a war cry.

And so we get the days at the Free Press Journal, where only two Marathis were employed. The inauguration of a new Marathi weekly. The protest against Morarji Desai’s visit. (It’s not a pees-full one. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The assassination of a Communist leader. The rebuke to a theatre owner who refuses to play Marathi cinema. A long meeting with Indira Gandhi after the Emergency was declared. And, finally, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, that embroils Mumbai in deadly riots and gets Thackeray to court. The prosecution lawyer (one among the many bad supporting actors, though not as mortifying as the actor playing Indira Gandhi) asks Thackeray if he was responsible for the incident. In real life, the writer of Thackeray, in fact, crowed, recently, “It took only around 17 minutes for us — the Ram bhakts — to bring down the Babri Masjid.” But the Thackeray in the film prefers rhetoric. He replies that he didn’t demolish the masjid. He merely swept it aside to make way for the Ram temple that existed earlier.

Thackeray is a warts-and-none propaganda film about a man who peddled hate and keenly fostered a sense of otherness (first South Indians, then Muslims). The trailer may be offensive, but it’s honest

Thackeray ties itself up in knots trying to show the leader as someone who wasn’t the authoritarian demagogue he’s portrayed to be. He says “Jai Hind” before he says “Jai Maharashtra” — yet, he doesn’t treat all Indians as equal. (This is a film whose background score echoes with both a Jai Shri Ram chant and Saare jahan se achchha, but at the end, the protagonist’s silhouette morphs into the outline of Maharashtra on the map of India.) We get a scene where he allows a Muslim to perform the namaz in his living room — yet, he won’t allow India-Pakistan cricket matches, and he will rename Aurangabad as Sambhaji Nagar. The closest we come to criticism is when his wife (Amrita Rao) sighs, during a beach outing, that he doesn’t have time for her anymore. But she’s barely finished the sentence, and he’s sprinting towards the sea, trying to save a little girl who’s wandered off. To ensure we know How Momentous This Act Is, the girl’s mother confirms that she doesn’t know how to swim.

Thackeray claims that politics is a dirty business, and so it should consume only 20 percent of his party’s time — the rest is for social service. Yet, a few scenes later, his party decides to contest the elections with the most divisive (some would say dirty) of issues: Hindutva. There is a movie to be made about how and why the very nature of India — the Europe-like jigsaw of cultures and languages — makes partisan politics inevitable. But the broad, whitewashed Thackeray isn’t that film. It does, however, offer proof that what goes around comes around. A few years ago, Shiv Sena hooligans prevented Nawazuddin Siddiqui from playing a part in a Ramleela programme. They said, “For over 50 years, no Muslim has been a part of the production. Why should this be allowed now?” And now, that same Muslim is playing their Supremo. Jai Hind.

Rating:   star
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