Before the opening credits of Abhijit Panse’s “Thackeray”, a somber voice reads out that the film does not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings, defame anyone, or endorse any sort of violence. This last disclaimer is crucial, because throughout the film, especially the scene leading up to the climax, the subject of the biopic, Bal Thackeray, goes against this very principle.
In fact, in what is supposed to be the film’s final rousing moment, Thackeray says as much. “In a system, it sometimes becomes necessary to resort to violence,” he tells a courtroom, and neither he nor the film are apologetic about it. Not that you would expect a film produced by the Thackeray family and his Shiv Sena party to be critical of its founder. This was never going to be an impartial film, but Panse’s biopic is blind to even the irony that is openly on display.
Thackeray is shown as a champion of Marathis, who he claims are being systematically ousted from their own land by migrants from other states. The film starts off with his resignation as a cartoonist in a newspaper and then starting his own weekly magazine. There is no subtlety at play here – the dialogue, much like Thackeray’s speeches in real life, is no-holds-barred.
“We eat food from South India, watch Punjabi cinema, drink Irani tea,” Thackeray muses to himself. He gets shoved on the street by a rude South Indian who curses him loudly, and while watching a movie in a theatre, imagines the Marathi man being pushed around similarly until he is ousted from his own land. The solution to this, we are told, is to snatch what you don’t have.
The movie tracks its protagonist’s rise from a local trouble-shooter to the pinnacle of his party’s success – victory in the 1995 assembly elections in Maharashtra. This is one of the many ironies in the film – Thackeray declares his disdain for democracy and proclaims that India “needs a Hitler” but still fights elections. His men burn down Muslim houses and murder people, but because he allows a Muslim to pray in his house, Thackeray is supposed to be redeemed.
He is shown to be provoking violence, sending scores of young party workers to jail, while he himself sits in the safety of his house drinking the choicest of wines. But all this is done with a straight face. Of course, all this would be impressive only to those who have drunk the Kool-Aid. To an impartial viewer, the events in the film provide no context to the Maharashtra that Thackeray shaped considerably, whether for good or bad.
Even Nawazuddin Siddiqui, otherwise a reliable performer, seems out of sorts and never quite gets under Thackeray’s skin. Amrita Rao, who plays Thackeray’s wife, has the cosmetic role of providing endless cups of tea to visitors and gaze at her husband dotingly.
Not that “Thackeray” was ever going to be anything but a hagiography, but films like these underline the need for good, impartial and well-made political films. Given how obsessed we are with politics, we deserve better films about it and the men who shape our nation.
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