Last week, I saw Thackeray, the movie, and no one was more surprised to be sitting in a depressingly shabby multiplex in Bandra than I was, watching a film that I had dismissed on hearsay and review as the result of hagiography married forcibly to propaganda.
The reason I went to see it was because of a curious response to the film by a foreign media student who had never even heard of the man, was completely unaware of the back story, but was interested in the responses it evoked. “I went to see what people were talking about, that he was such a great man, but from what I saw, he was not appealing. So I don’t know why people are calling it propaganda and hagiography. He did not come across as a powerful leader,” she said, getting tangled in knots, trying to get words out in a language that was not her own.
Curious, I thought. If the film is being criticised as propaganda, its messages should be subtle enough and sustained enough to influence even people who did not care for him into believing that he made a positive difference to Mumbai, then Bombay. That fails to come through at all, and what one is left with is the sense of a man whose ego was notoriously fragile and who could pretty much be manipulated into taking courses of action that impacted everyone but himself. Resigning from his job as a cartoonist at this very newspaper because he was “an artist, not a labourer”? Let’s do it grandly, with a cartoon!
Ordering a hit on pesky commie Krishna Desai? Do it like the depiction of Richard II, crying out against Thomas Beckett, “Will no one rid me of this man?” And the classic “Hatao lungi, bajao pungi” movement against South Indians in the early ’60s, merely makes one cringe, so crass is the depiction of its blunt vulgarity.
The story line and dialogue don’t help to change your mind either. And the scenes of his self-proclaimed softer side are so ham-handed as to be unbelievable. A Muslim family from Behrampada (of all places) was allowed to take refuge in his house and even say namaz as Mumbai burned. Seriously? Sitting on a beach with his wife, even rescuing a small child in danger of straying into the sea, even ticking off the parents about responsibility. Touching! Sternly instructing his lieutenants about ensuring that all women in Mumbai should feel safe.
This from a man whose actions changed the city forever, drove deep schisms in society and pushed levels of political discourse to a new low. I still remember the rage I felt, hearing of his remarks about the revered Ahilya Rangnekar and Mrinal Gore during public meetings. And the first time I was actually attacked while coming home from work after midnight was following the Babri Masjid riots of January 1993, when “peace’ prevailed in a city filled with people looking suspiciously at one another.
If not propaganda, then hagiography? Which, I should point out, was not meant to be a pejorative to start out, being the story of the lives of saints. The modern use of the word is negative, implying an uncritical look at a public figure, ignoring the warts, piling on the praise.
In that case, Thackeray, the film, has actually failed the man it was seeking to eulogise. While recounting the building of a legend, it actually manages to show the tacky façade that nevertheless enchanted millions in Maharashtra into seeing him as saviour, messiah, their very own Hitler. It is not a pretty picture, and I doubt that the film will win new converts, As for the converted, they aren’t likely to admit to mistakes!
I even objected to the look of Thackeray, whom I remember as tall, imposing, fair complexioned. Siddiqui, in contrast looks downright freaky at times. But perhaps that is just me.
I remember phoning Balasaheb sometime in early 1993 to tell him an American journalist wanted to meet him. “No foreign journalists,” he said, expectedly, having been rattled by some earlier interactions with them. “You come, if you want. We can talk. No foreign journalists.”
Discouraged, I brought the conversation to a close with “Jai Maharashtra”. And he replied, “See you.”
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