Despite What the Film Shows, ‘Thackeray’ Wasn’t a Saviour

The three-minute trailer of Thackeray, a biopic based on the life and times of Maharashtra’s late cartoonist-turned-politician Bal Thackeray, has already gathered its share of controversy. This is hardly surprising. Thackeray was never far from controversy in what he wrote, drew, spoke and threatened. It would be fair to expect that the film, scheduled to be released on 25 January, two days after the leader’s birth anniversary, will attract its fair share of storm too.

The trailer allows a glimpse not only into Thackeray’s life but how his life and politics has been moulded – rather, revised – for the big screen. It shows Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who essays the titular role with flair, talk and walk, and speak and snarl like the man himself.

Also Read: ‘Thackeray’ to ‘Uri’: Political Films Rule Ahead of 2019 Elections

The situations, settings and dialogues hold a sense of déjà vu for those who have seen it all happen. There’s an eerie realism – posters that exhort the Marathi manoos to “wake up”, the reference to former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, Thackeray’s laconic sneers such as “it’s on my shoulders that your democracy stands,” open call to violence with “it’s better to snatch your rights with goondaism rather than beg,” and the first voice-over in trailer “only one man can calm Bombay at this time” referring to the 1992-93 riots that ripped the city apart.

Realism is not reality. That introductory line in the trailer, in fact, is a reversal of the reality that Bombay witnessed, and the Justice BN Srikrishna Commission probing the riots recorded.

Nearly 900 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured in the two phases of the riots in December 1992 and January 1993; a large proportion of them were Muslims.

The Srikrishna Commission’s report unambiguously stated that Thackeray, “like a veteran general, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate with organised attacks against Muslims” and held that his “doctrine of retaliation” was largely responsible for the “vigilantism” of his party’s activists.

Was Thackeray Really a Saviour?

To project Thackeray as the city’s saviour, then, calls for a leap in imagination. It is also an attempt at revising contemporary history, idolising a man who should have faced the courts for his role in that communal bloodshed.

Indeed, the trailer – and it’s logical to assume that the film too – glorifies the cult of political violence and hate-the-other ideology, which formed the basis of Thackeray’s politics since he founded the Shiv Sena in 1966.

That he changed the “other” in keeping with the demands of a situation means little to Sena loyalists. He, of course, started with south Indians, who he stated took away jobs from Maharashtrians, briefly trained his guns on Gujaratis, Sikhs and Bangladeshis, turned Muslims into hate-objects and termed Muslim-dominated areas of Bombay as “mini-Pakistans”, and then focused on north Indians.

That the Sena commands a strong presence six years after Thackeray passed away and can still give the Bharatiya Janata Party, its oldest and best ally through the Vajpayee-Advani era, a run at the polls shows that the ideology has not lost its appeal.

Neither Thackeray nor the party showed any remorse for their role in the riots. From the Thackerays to the last Shiv Sainik, they believe they needed to “retaliate,” forgetting that the law and order is the State’s responsibility; not that of vigilantes.

No Less Than Raut’s Ode to Thackeray

But biopics are rarely authentic or candid warts-and-all renditions of a subject’s life and thoughts. More often than not, situations and scenes are altered to suit the narrator’s point of view.

In this case, the prime mover behind the biopic is Sanjay Raut – the articulate and staunch Thackeray loyalist, journalist and editor of the late leader’s newspaper Saamana, and the Shiv Sena’s face in New Delhi with his Rajya Sabha membership.

Raut would be among the few non-family persons who saw Thackeray up and close for decades. He was, one could say, Thackeray’s words when the need arose.

When a leader’s arch loyalist produces a biopic on him, it is more likely to be a hagiography. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. What is remarkable is that Viacom 18 Motion Pictures hand-held the project, throwing its considerable clout and expertise behind it. The powerful all align on the same side, don’t they?

Even the three-minute trailer showed up the selective realism that the producers sought to gloss over. The Marathi trailer has a bit that the Hindi one does not; it shows Thackeray in his original political framework of heaping abuse on south Indians (the quintessential Sena or Bombay term for Tamilians).

In a scene, it has Thackeray refer to south Indians as “#%^*# yandu-gundu” and giving his infamous call “ Uthao lungi, Bajao pungi.”

The Hindi trailer offers no glimpse into this aspect of Thackeray’s peerless ideology. It’s obvious why the lines were deftly edited out. At its core, Thackeray’s politics are nativist and parochial in nature. But producers would not want their Hindi audiences to be put off a month before the film is even released.

The film perhaps has a reference to the headline that he gave one of the many “lists” he published in his weekly Marmik in 1966, of south Indians on payrolls in Bombay’s factories and offices: “Kaalcha Madrashi, thodyach divsat tupashi (the Madrasi came yesterday, he turned wealthy in a few days).”

Tamil actor Siddharth pointed out the dichotomy in a tweet and added: “So much hate sold with such romance and heroism… No solidarity shown to millions of south Indians and immigrants who make #Mumbai great.” But that hate was, indeed, a part of Thackeray’s political ideology. Realistic and convenient in Marathi; not so in Hindi.

That tweet was in sharp contrast to Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The ace actor called the role his “toughest ever” and then told us that the film was “unfolding the real story of Balasaheb Thackeray’s courage, wisdom and indomitable truth… the Tiger who was known for fearing none.” Rich in eulogy, generous in worship; parsimonious with truth.

That a “UP bhaiyya”, in Thackeray’s lingo, reprises the man on screen in an idolatry manner is an irony not lost on anyone. The actor would be better advised to stick to his awesome acting skills rather than glorify the man in real life too.

The timing of this film, as ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ based on Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure, is brilliantly poised to make it a tool in the campaign machinery for the 2019 elections. That said, I’d want to watch the first day, first show.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based journalist and editor, writes on politics, urban issues, gender and media. She reported on the 1992-93 riots and wrote extensively about Bal Thackeray for leading national publications. She tweets at @smrutibombay)

(This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

. Read more on Opinion by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsDespite What the Film Shows, ‘Thackeray’ Wasn’t a Saviour . Read more on Opinion by The Quint.