A personality like Bal Thackeray cannot be contained in one film – he requires a sequel. That is what the makers of Thackeray allude to, as the film ends on a ‘to be continued…’ footnote. This is an account of the Shiv Sena supremo’s life, produced by the party’s MP Sanjay Raut, so you have a fair idea what to expect. Thackeray is a superhero here, painted to the demi-god status that his supporters gave him, his words frequently punctuated by a tiger’s roar. This is a glowing tribute, with no room for any greys in its protagonist. So it ends up as a one-sided, distorted, saffron-hued take on Thackeray’s political rise and clout over Maharashtra.
To be fair the film, directed by Abhijit Panse, is engaging in parts, chiefly because it’s powered by a carefully-calibrated performance from Nawazuddin Siddiqui who breathes life, and fire, into the character of the controversial Hindutva leader. The irony of watching Nawaz mouth Thackeray’s incendiary speeches against Muslims, and against outsiders taking away jobs from the Marathi manoos, will not be lost.
The film begins with Thackeray’s appearance in court before the Srikrishna Commission, when he was accused of inciting violence against Muslims in the 1992-93 Bombay riots. It sets the tone for this hagiography – Thackeray’s journey from a cartoonist in the 1960s to an iconic political figure is repeatedly intercut with these court scenes during which he expresses his extremist views and reveals his razor-wit.
The over-two-hour biopic depicts the Shiv Sena’s history of violence, but it is always defended by Thackeray’s fiery rhetoric. It’s the ‘eye for an eye’, ‘reaction to action’ justifications for strong-arm tactics, violence, and even murder that make this film difficult to stomach. Often, the politico is seen sneering at even the idea of democracy. At one point, a jailed Thackeray tells George Fernandes how the nation needs a Hitler, and Fernandes wryly remarks, “There is a dictator, born in you.”
Nawaz has big shoes to fill but he slips into Thackeray’s skin – impassive, impenetrable at times, walking fearlessly into situations, capturing the magnetism and mannerisms of Thackeray, from his love for cricket, his beer-swilling, cigar-smoking, satin-kurta persona to the indulgent family man. It’s a gripping performance, and the film stands on his shoulders. Amrita Rao plays his wife Meenatai with all heart, especially in one scene as she breaks down while reading his letter from jail.
What hampers the film is, naturally, the bias. Here is a man without flaws, and this results in a one-note propaganda project. It’s a shame because there’s some genuine craft on screen. The film is shot skilfully by Sudeep Chatterjee, and early scenes of Thackeray’s cartoons popping from the page are nicely done. But it’s all in service of a skewed narrative.
I’m going with two out of five for Thackeray. If there must be a sequel, it calls for more honesty, less halo.
Rating: 2 / 5