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It still feels like yesterday to filmmaker Hansal Mehta. In 2000, at the time of the release of his film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, he was viciously thrashed, his office vandalized and face blackened by Shiv Sena youth leaders. Later, he was summoned to Khar Danda and made to apologize in front of over 20,000 local people and politicians. All for an innocuous dialogue in the film that they thought was disrespectful towards their community. The incident is the closest that Mehta came to experiencing the power of Bal Thackeray. “He created this culture of fear and his entire cadre came to thrive on it,” he says.
Filmmaker Govind Nihalani never met Thackeray but recalls how the Shiv Sena had initially disapproved of his 1987 TV film Tamas. “It was perceived as anti-Hindu, as though I had suggested that the riots had been engineered by the Hindus. They supported several PILs against it,” says Nihalani. However, unlike Mehta, things eventually turned out amicably for him. Thackeray saw Tamas and liked it, specially Om Puri’s searing performance. The PILs then ceased to matter.
There’s a long laundry list of such incidents in Bollywood. Thackeray’s unwritten authority and clout have run deep in the industry. No wonder they whisper his name and Godfather in the same hushed breath yet refuse to be openly quoted on him. Even when he is no more. Understandable, considering some of the most influential names in the film industry have been at the receiving end of the Sena offensive. Deepa Mehta’s Fire was stalled for denigrating Hinduism—because its lesbian heroines happened to be called Radha and Seeta. Dilip Kumar was berated for refusing to return Pakistan’s highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Imtiaz and A.K.Hangal was labelled a traitor for attending Pakistan Day celebrations at the Mumbai Consulate. SRK’s My Name Is Khan was threatened with a ban. All for the superstar’s criticism of the teams not bidding for Pakistani cricketers in the 2010 Indian Premier League.
“They have been the extra-constitutional authority in the state,” says Mehta. So, many have had to knock on Thackeray’s door voluntarily. Mani Ratnam had to incorporate cuts suggested by Thackeray to get a clean chit for Bombay. Ram Gopal Verma had to organize a preview of Sarkar for him, that fortunately, met with his whole-hearted approval and endorsement.
“People in the industry are respectful and cautious of not being on their wrong side,” says Nihalani. “It has always been a good thing to be in the good books of Balasaheb,” says veteran journalist Rauf Ahmed. It all boils down to survival strategies and market compulsions. “They have been exerting coercion and Bollywood hasn’t had the spine to stand up to them. Everyone chooses to be reverential because of their tremendous nuisance value,” says an insider. Last decade the clout has been on a relative decline and has, in fact, got transferred to Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. So Karan Johar had to apologise to Raj for the use of Bombay instead of Mumbai in Wake Up Sid.
For Mahesh Bhatt he was an aggregate of disparate memories. So, on the one hand there was the Thackeray who “approved” Bhatt’s Saaransh despite their fears that the portrayal of the villain Gajanan Chitre might raise his heckles. It didn’t. On the other hand was the unfortunate incident when the Shiv Sena literally drove Pakistani cricketer Mohsin Khan back to his country when he sought to set base as an actor in Bollywood. Bhatt who was with Mohsin when he went to meet Thackeray remembers it as a "heartbreaking scene", "a painful memory". "His coterie attempted to browbeat, belittle Mohsin," he recollects.
But behind this legacy of fear was also a man beholden to cinema. Thackeray is said to have been very fond of films and one his sons, the late Bindamadhav Thackeray produced the 1996 film Agnisakshi. So did daughter-in-law Smita Thackeray. Within the industry Nana Patekar has been an active members of the Shiv Sena and the party has supported the Bollywood workers’ union called Bhartiya Chitrapat Sena. Besides, Pritish Nandy and Lata Mangeshkar were nominated to the Rajya Sabha on Shiv Sena ticket.
Thackeray actively sought glamour and friendship with stars. Many personalities he locked horns with also came to be his admirers and buddies. Sanjay Dutt owes his freedom to him. Thackeray got him bail in the TADA case so after his release from the Arthur Road Jail Sanjay first went to Siddhivinayak and then straight to meet Thackeray. He stood by the family throughout the funeral last Sunday. Amitabh Bachchan found help from him when critically ill and also when facing the public wrath on getting implicated in the Bofors case. He even intervened in petty squabbles like music composer Nadeem’s alleged affair with Mala Sinha’s daughter Pratibha.