MUMBAI, Jan 23 (Reuters) - An Indian film looks set to whip up sentiment against immigrants in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, by lionising a deceased right-wing politician and endorsing his often divisive policies.
“Balkadu”, or “Bitter Potion”, produced by a prominent lawmaker of the Shiv Sena political party, opened in India’s most cosmopolitan city on Friday, the birthday of the party’s firebrand founder, Bal Thackeray, who died in 2012.
The film, made in the Marathi language spoken in the surrounding state of Maharashtra, which is roughly the size of Italy and has a population of about 112 million, spews venom at outsiders who come to Mumbai to find work.
“It was an issue close to Balasaheb’s heart,” said producer Sanjay Raut, referring to the party’s founder. The film would help the Shiv Sena reach out to the young people of today, he added.
The influential regional party has long espoused an anti-immigrant stance, accusing arrivals from the rest of India’s 29 states of stealing jobs from sons of the soil, usually those who speak Marathi as a first language.
Descendants of the original inhabitants of a city that now numbers 21 million find themselves in a minority and resent the migrants. Government data shows fewer than 30 percent of registered voters identify themselves as natives.
The protagonist of “Balkadu”, a schoolteacher who hears Thackeray’s voice in his head, tells immigrants they are welcome to stay as guests in Mumbai but have no rights.
The voice of Thackeray, a one-time newspaper cartoonist, is heard in dialogue spliced in from real-life speeches, exhorting natives to hold on to their city.
“The movie is an entertainer, but it is also a message to the Marathi youth, who were feeling rudderless after Balasaheb’s death,” said Raut.
Last year his party returned to power in Maharashtra, as the junior member of a coalition headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Shiv Sena’s reins are now held by Thackeray’s son, but it is no longer the powerful force of the 1990s. Thackeray’s estranged nephew broke away in 2006 to form a rival party.
Playing on xenophobic tension that has simmered for decades, the movie blames “parasitic” immigrants for everything from unemployment to women who marry outside the community because few Marathi men own homes in the city.
At one point, the protagonist justifies violence against immigrants, a stark reminder of attacks that outsiders in Mumbai have faced over the years.
Santosh Patkade, 20, who moved to Mumbai three years ago from the neighbouring southern state of Karnataka, said he would watch “Balkadu” as he is curious about the film and its message.
“If we don’t stay here, who will?” asked Patkade, who dishes out food in an office canteen. “What will happen to the poor people?”
Opening in more than 450 theatres across Maharashtra, “Balkadu” got an unusually wide release for a Marathi-language film, although mainstream Bollywood films can open on up to 3,000 screens countrywide.
At the film’s climax, Maharashtrians living in the suburbs storm the city to reclaim their right to live there.
“Yes, people compare Thackeray to Hitler, but so what?” asks the protagonist. “Yes, there has been violence against immigrants, but so what? That is why the world has noticed the Marathi man.” (Editing by Robert MacMillan, Tony Tharakan and Clarence Fernandez)