By Subhash K. Jha
Film: ‘Thackeray’, Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Amrita Rao, Directed by Abhijeet Panse, Rating: **(2 stars)
Bal Thackeray sorry Balasaheb Thackeray (in the film an unsuspecting character gets slapped by a Shiv Sena cadre for uttering the Demi God’s name without the reverential suffix) played the chauvinistic card with a masterminded focus. He knew how to tap the Marathi Manoos’ latent pride and also how to harness it into a violent outpouring.
Many of his opponents, including the unfortunate Morarji Desai (unfortunate, as he is played by Rajesh Khera) thought of his campaign to cleanse Maharashtra to be almost a ratification of Hitler’s Nazism.
Think Jews. Think Bihar and UP’s ‘bhaiyyas’ and the South Indian ‘Udupi’ restaurateurs being chased out of Mumbai by violent ‘sainiks’. Think Hitler. Think Trump. If you spot the difference, let me know.
The film on Balasaheb certainly does not squander the opportunity to portray the man as infinitely intolerant of migrants. Yes, the Great Man wanted scums out of his state. That he was indeed in favour of ousting migrants from Maharashtra was a well-known fact. But did anyone ever think that his blatant chauvinism and his politics of ethnic cleansing would one day be so unabashedly celebrated on celluloid?
Writer-director Abhijeet Panse celebrates Balasaheb’s spirit of separateness with a straight forwardness that we immediately recognise as a sign of traditional entitlement which sanctions certain behaviour among males as “normal”.
Just as it is “normal” for women to fry pakodas (fritters) in the kitchen while men crack sexist jokes in the drawing room, it is “normal” for a national leader to make flagrant speeches about “bajoing the pungi of people in a lungi”. (The censor board of course forgot that the Constitution allows freedom of expression only as long as it doesn’t hurt the sentiments of any community or individual).
For outsiders – and who is not an outsider these days – the normalising of cultural marginalisation may seem like a celebration of a culture of anarchy and despotism.
Sanctioning bloodbaths is not something we associate with charismatic national leaders. But here he is, Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing Balasaheb as a man who wanted Maharashtra only for Marathis.
Siddiqui plays Balasaheb as impatient intolerant man of many words and even more action. At the start we see him quit his job as a cartoonist to start his own Marathi paper. In Panse’s Maharashtra in the 1950s there are migrants everywhere jostling pushing and bullying Marathis on the streets and out of their jobs. Something has to be done and who better equipped to tap into Marathi pride with a hammer?
Apparently the inflammatory speeches are all used in the film just as the Great Man made them. Balasaheb had a hypnotic hold over the audience. Nawaz seems to think he has a similar sway . In his last film he recited Saddat Haasan Manto’s revolutionary thoughts with a fervent lucidity that gave the actor a sense of ownership over the words. Here the Balasaheb speeches sound deeply ironical coming from an actor has been marginalized on many levels in different stages of his life.
Nawaz and the film’s director choose to overlook the irony of an ethnic leader saying the nation always comes first to him.
“I always say Jai Hind first, and then Jai Maharashtra,” Nawazuddin’s Balasaheb proudly tells Avantika Akerkar’s Indira Gandhi.
Mrs G’s arched eyebrow at that declaration is truly a chart-topping moment in a film that legitimizes hooliganism and elevates extra-constitutional muscle power to the summits of validation. There are some interesting unknown actors playing Balasaheb’s devotees and I just loved the veteran who plays his father and mocks the ‘Saheb’ in his son’s name in a way no one else would dare.
Nawazuddin plays the cartoonist-politician-deity with the crafty casualness of an over-confident actor who is rightly arrogant about his skills. The other actors, including poor Amrita Rao as the Great Man’s shadowy wife walk by in the gallery of bhakts anointing and celebrating the cult of Thackerayism with a religious fervor.
Come to think of it, this could have been a great mythological film if only there was not so much violence and bloodshed. But hey, there is also redemption. After a brutal communal riot we see Balasheb bring a Muslim family to his home. He even allows the man to do his namaaz in his living room.