Balasaheb Thackeray is said to have had a love-hate relationship with Bombay’s film industry. He apparently liked to be in the company of mega stars later in his life but the Kapoors, Chopras and Khoslas of Bollywood were one of his early targets as Punjabi outsiders. There are a few Marathi films based on him and his life and some Hindi films have shades of his character. Ram Gopal Verma’s Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Sarkar and its sequels have some parallels with his life but the full-fledged biopic on him is Abhijit Panse’s Thackeray.
But Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Balasahab Thackeray? The mealy-mouth, trigger-happy violent gangster of Wasseypur, the diminutive psychotic killer Raman Raghav who doesn’t even spare a young boy as the Hindu Hriday Samrat? It takes a minute to digest, but as you get used to the shiny wig, the prosthetic nose and the hoarseness in his voice, Siddiqui slowly slides into his character. As the film progresses, it becomes evident it couldn’t be all that difficult for the seasoned actor as Balasaheb Thackeray in Thackeray is strictly unidimensional.
The film is presented by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut and special thanks are to Udhav Thackeray and Aditya Thackeray, so it will be a hagiography and not really a biopic of the enigmatic leader is made clear from the beginning. The film does touch upon the thorny questions—in a courtroom scene the public prosecutor asks Thackeray, ‘Don’t you believe in democracy?’ to which he retorts: ‘But where is democracy? Which democracy are you talking about? If democracy is quietly bearing all the injustices around me, then I will speak up.’
In another scene, Thackeray is told his means are violent to which he says if you don’t get your rights lawfully then you have to snatch it (a version of which all mafia dons and ganglords in films have said from Vijay in Deewar to Velu Naicker in Nayakan).
Thackeray is a chronological account of his rise from a cartoonist in Free Press Journal (the trigger for a man who would go on to rule Bombay may have been a hyper-ventilating south Indian editor called Selvarajan who refuses to publish Thackeray’s sharp political jokes), to starting his own weekly, his belief that the Marathi people in their own city are being treated badly and denied jobs, his hatred for the outsider, (especially the south Indians whom he feels have usurped all the government job. And Punjabis in the film industry. There is a sequence when Dada Kondke, the Marathi slapstick filmmaker comes to him complaining the cinema halls are not showing his films. Thackeray goes personally to the theatre, brings down the Hindi film Tere Mere Sapne and puts up Kondke’s film), the forming of the cadre-based Shiv Sena, volunteers going door-to-door for membership, bringing the city to a standstill through violent strikes, getting adulation from the people and becoming a popular regional leader of considerable clout.
It’s a big-budget, well-mounted film with great production values, some scenes recreating the Bombay of the 1980s and '90s are done well, but at the end it’s a missed opportunity to delve into the mind of a complex man, with so many contradictions within him, and the other political leaders of that time, Morarji Desai, Sharad Pawar, chief minister Yashwantrao Chavan, George Fernandes, Indira Gandhi are mere caricatures.
Amitabh Bachchan’s Subhash Nagre in Sarkar is more optics about it being based on Bal Thackeray, it’s a clever marketing ploy as the trailer shows Bachchan in a somewhat Thackeray lookalike makeup, the big tilak on his forehead and the rudraskh tied on his wrists, but the film is really a desi The Godfather. Nagre does run a parallel government in Bombay, he does have the support of the poor and the powerless, but the means are clearly of a don rather than a political leader.