Tinnu Anand played a version of him in Bombay, Amitabh Bachchan paid tribute to him in the Sarkaar series, but if there was one actor born to play Bal Thackeray, it was Nilu Phule. The thespian of Marathi cinema and theatre resembled the Shiv Sena leader so closely that it appears as though his character Gajanan Chitre in Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh is based on the political leader. Bhatt’s 1984 movie is not about the Shiv Sena, of course, and he will probably deny any resemblance between Chitre, a politician who tries to cover up the fact that his son has conceived a child out of wedlock ahead of a crucial municipal election, and the ailing Sena founder.
Saaransh is available online, thanks to the film’s producer and distributor, Rajshri Productions, which has put most of its back catalogue on its official YouTube channel. Here it is:
Bhatt’s most accomplished film was made in a decade when Indian New Wave cinema was at its peak. The New Wave’s insistence on realism in plot, acting and locations seems to have rubbed off on Saaransh. There is no flashiness or glamour in the treatment, no hurrying the pace of the story. Even the happy ending feels organic to the story rather than forcibly tacked on. Saaransh is a three-hanky film alright, but it is free of the sentimentality associated with mainstream cinema. The movie holds well all these years later, and contains lessons for present-day Mumbai despite being identifiably set in the 80’s.
Saaransh is partly a study of aging and partly a political thriller. The story plays out in Shivaji Park, the upper caste Maharashtrian-dominated central Mumbai locality that is not too far from the Shiv Sena headquarters. BV Pradhan, the retired headmaster of Bal Mohan Vidya Mandir, is aging terribly. His wife and he haven’t recovered from the death of their only son, Ajay, in a mugging incident in New York City. The Pradhans learn that Mumbai can be just as lawless when their new tenant, Sujata, who is the girlfriend of Gajanan Chitre’s only son Vilas, gets pregnant. Chitre’s hired goons unleash terror on the elderly couple, bringing the lawlessness that was a feature of the 80’s Mumbai into their middle-class apartment.
The early part of the story movingly explores the disappearance of meaning from the lives of the Pradhans. A sense of purpose returns when they decide to fight Chitre’s attempts to harm Sujata. Bhatt effectively maps their personal loss onto a larger erosion of grace in Mumbai. Adeep Tandon’s soft-focus cinematography captures several landmark locations in Mumbai, including the Shivaji Park promenade and the Asiatic Library heritage structure, which is witness to a riot in which Pradhan nearly loses his life.
The stellar performances of Anupam Kher—in his first film—and Rohini Hattangadi are deservedly acclaimed, but Phule is also superb as the venal Chitre, whose gravelly voice is at its sinister best when he’s calling out to his son. Phule’s rendition of “Vilaaas” alone is enough to merit an entry in any Best Villains in Hindi Cinema list.
(This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)