There’s a scene in Thackeray which reminded me of the Nazi-era cartoon Of the Little Tree Which Wished for Different Leaves. In this short propaganda film, a man steals the leaves of a tree in the forest. The thief is a Jewish caricature: big nose, beard, shifty manner. It was made in 1940, three years before the Looney Tunes short Tokio Jokio, which caricatures the Japanese for American viewers.
Early on in Thackeray, in Mumbai’s Eros cinema, the audience is enjoying an animated short before the main feature. Cartoonist Bal Thackeray (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is in the crowd, and as he watches, the film on screen is replaced with one that’s forming in his mind. In it, people from various communities – primarily south Indian, but also Punjabis and Parsees – are bullying a hapless Marathi man. It’s a neat way of showing how the plight of the “Marathi manoos" was so all-consuming for Thackeray that he saw it wherever he went. I don’t know if he ever watched the Allied or Axis war cartoons, but he’d probably have approved of both.
Thackeray details Bal’s rise from cartoonist and agitator for the rights of Marathi people to founder of the Shiv Sena. And I do mean detail. The film is a Wikipedia page come to life, stopping at every major and minor signpost in Thackeray’s adult life. We see him address rallies, saying things like, “Now we won’t fold hands, we’ll break them"; launching the Marathi publication Marmik; starting the Shiv Sena, having the last word in meetings with Indira Gandhi and George Fernandes and Javed Miandad.
The anti-outsider plank of the Shiv Sena is brushed aside as the justifiable anger of an oppressed community. Still, the film waits a while to play its ugliest hand. Thackeray, by now king of Mumbai, goes to a Muslim neighbourhood and addresses a rally, asking the crowd to live together in harmony and not let politicians divide them along religious lines (very rich coming from him). The next scene shows Muslim men on the rampage, hacking people to death and setting a cop on fire. Every time we embrace them, they cut our throats, Thackeray tells his people. “Kuch nahi ho sakta hai unka (nothing can be done with them)."
Muslims are again shown as the first aggressors in the Mumbai riots, through a scene in which a Molotov cocktail comes to rest near a crying child. Children are again used in a scene showing the Mumbai blasts. The unspoken, obvious indication is that one community was massacring innocents and the other was protecting itself. Thackeray is asked in court about Sena men playing an active role in the riots. He gets away with saying that he visited riot-hit areas and controlled his people.
Director Abhijit Panse is a former Sena man, currently with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Additionally, the film is presented by Sena MP Sanjay Raut. A critical biopic was never on the cards; the only question, really, is how vitriolic it was going to be. Thackeray is 2 hours and 19 minutes, so the hate is spread out. The problem is, the scenes which exist only to praise Thackeray’s altruism and courage are bland. The nasty moments kept me engaged and enraged.
Sudeep Chatterjee’s photography, in black-and-white and colour, classes up the production: there’s a wonderful bit of framing with a shaft of sunlight, a sleepy man, a poster and a cat. Before he starts dressing like the older Thackeray, Siddiqui, in his white kurta and glasses, looks and sounds as he did in his last Hindi film, Manto. It’s a potentially great part and Siddiqui is never less than authoritative, but he can’t take us inside Thackeray’s head the way he did with Manto, mostly because there’s no desire on the director’s part to explore the psychology of his subject.
I’ll leave you with a scene from after the riots. Thackeray’s car is approached by a Muslim woman and her family. She asks to speak with the politician. Inside, she tells him that their house was burnt down and begs for his help. Thackeray agrees, saying his quarrel isn’t with her religion. He then notices her husband looking at his watch. It’s time for namaaz. Thackeray invites him to offer prayers right there. As the camera pans over to the man kneeling, a statue of a tiger comes into the frame and there’s a loud roar on the soundtrack. That’s the film saying: we’ll allow you to pray here, but don’t forget whose jungle it is.