'Thackeray' Isn't Effective Propaganda – It's a 139-Minute Hate Speech

Like the man himself, the film wants to take a spark – the unemployment among the Marathi youth – and burn down the city with it.

Quite early in Thackeray, Bal Thackeray (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) enters a courtroom amid a sea of reporters and policemen. We hear the judge’s voice, incriminating him on a series of charges. But the film’s gaze is elsewhere: first on a creaky ceiling fan, and then on old, dusty files in need of urgent intervention. Thackeray enters the room, and everyone starts to rise, even the judge. The message is obvious – Thackeray isn’t just above this case, but the judiciary itself.

Effective propaganda prides itself on being clever, using coded language to convey its message. It is a secret pact between the filmmaker and the audience, a kind of vulgar companionship that must not be made public. But even this kind of moviemaking isn’t easy, for it hinges on a dual narrative that both guides and deceives. 

Thackeray, we soon find out, isn’t interested in writing between the lines; it wants to scream – over and over again. If this film were a manuscript, large sections would have been underlined in bold italics. 

From this scene, Thackeray, segueing to a flashback, soon raises the stakes. We are introduced to a young cartoonist who is dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. He goes to watch a film and, in the cinema hall, finds himself surrounded by Parsis, Muslims and south Indians. The film he sees is about the humiliation of a regular Marathi man: He’s buried under debts, doesn’t have enough to eat, is frequently ridiculed.

The audience laughs; Thackeray is disgusted. He goes on to form the Shiv Sena, saying to his followers, “Bajao pungi, hatao lungi”; “Yeh saale South waale”; “Yeh mamooli log”; they roar in approval.

There’s no alternative narrative here, no scope of introspection. Like Thackeray, the film takes a spark – the unemployment among the Marathi youth – and burns the city with it. Thackeray is intercut between two portions: the present (centred on him in court, questioned by a lawyer for his involvement in the Babri Masjid case) and past (chronicling his life till the courtroom appearance).

A life in flashback offers a chance to attribute redeeming motives to nefarious actions. But Thackeray neither pretends nor tries. Asked about the Babri Masjid demolition, he says: “Action hai toh reaction toh hoga hi.” When the lawyer asks him about Lord Rama’s birthplace, Thackeray tosses it aside, making a joke out of it.

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The film is unapologetic about the man’s hateful politics; in fact, it endorses it and, in the process, reveals a political party whose leaders and members burn buses, intimidate businessmen, make death threats to political adversaries, and collude with the police during the time of riots, killing many innocents. 

In many scenes, Thackeray unfolds like a dystopia. “When India loses [in a cricket match], crackers are burst, sweets are distributed,” says Thackeray, addressing a crowd in the early ’80s. “We’ll participate in Eid, but you’ll have to celebrate Shiv Jayanti as well.”

Notice the difference: “participate” and “celebrate” – even when Thackeray is pretending to be inclusive, its heart glows with thousand tridents, ready to vanquish the ‘enemy’. 

Elsewhere, he says to a Muslim man, a victim in the riots who has come to seek help, “I don’t have a problem with your religion. I only have a problem with the kaafirs who use religion to spread hate.” That man stays quiet but says that he has to attend a namaaz. You can pray in my house, says Thackeray. A mat is brought out, the man kneels to pray, and the camera cuts to the great benefactor, who allowed a Muslim to practice his faith.

In another scene, karsevaks standing atop the Babri Masjid hammer at its wall. The scene cuts to the judge’s gavel striking the bench. The implication is clear: this is your justice, that was ours. How this scene, or many others, escaped the scrutiny of the censor board, the easily offended watchdog, is beyond comprehension.

Thackeray is also, of course, noble. In his own words, his work is “80% social service, 20% politics.” Add the customary jingoism: for Thackeray, the nation comes first, then the state. Did nobody inform the makers — director Abhijit Panse (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader) and writer-producer Sanjay Raut (the Shiv Sena member of parliament and Saamna editor) – that people from other states are part of the same country?

Thackeray is also credited with popularising vada pav. If this is the level of genuflection when the man is dead, I shudder to imagine this film if he’d have been alive. 

Nobody and nothing can save this film – not even with Siddiqui, a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh, taking the role of an Islamophobic, xenophobic politician. Siddiqui is a great actor but like any other artist, he cannot be excused from moral responsibility.

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Playing a ‘controversial’ character, with copious shades of grey, is a challenge that any actor would relish. It is different from endorsing the character. But Siddiqui’s case is not the same: He’s playing a real-life character and has often expressed gratitude for the role. By doing Thackeray, Siddiqui has shown that he’s at home in an industry he’s often ridiculed in the past; another opportunistic fence-sitter in that amoral world. 

For a film relying on vitriolic speech, Thackeray, quite curiously, is best captured in one image: a cracked photo frame of Mahatma Gandhi lying neglected on the floor. Thackeray is neither effective propaganda nor hagiography – it is a 139-minute hate speech.