This movie is related to Bal Thackeray’s life from 1960 to the 90s, which is the founder of the far right political party called Shiv Sena in Maharashtra State.
It is opening on Thackeray led to a court in the 90s to be judged as a culprit of hatred incitement in the wake on the Bombay riots (1992 - 1993), and which lead, among others, to the demolition of the mosque of Babur. After this quick introduction, the movie is taking us to Thackeray working as a cartoonist in 1960. Starting from this moment, we will follow Thackeray’s ascent from a newspaper employee to an iconic political figure, from time to time, interrupted by a quick return to his judgement at the court previously shown. The movie is focusing on the 1960 - 90s part of life of Thackeray. A sequel could be expected as we are informed at the very end of it with a « to be continued » text shown.
Before getting to the heart of the matter, I would like to share my first reactions to this film. I've watched it without knowing much about Thackeray, only what I quickly read on Wikipedia before, just to get at least a bit of context. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s play is perfect and quite impressive, and the way the movie is shoot is well done. However the biggest problem I’ve seen is relying in the movie’s substance. Filming technics and scriptwriting tips are fully used to be at the service of Thackeray’s heroic image. My first feeling is that I was watching rather a political propaganda then a simple biopic movie … which was indeed quite expected when I saw afterwards that the movie is based on a story written by a former member of Thackeray’s party Shiv Sena, Sanjay Raut.
So, if we take back the title of this article, I have already answered to the question. It’s indeed rather a propaganda content then a real biopic. However, I will share with you few points I took note of, to justify this opinion I get to.
1/ Bombay in the 60s
Thackeray is depicted as a man who is fed up of seeing Marathi people (people born in Maharashtra, 'sons of the soil' as he is calling them) not well considered for work and education. According to him, better places in the society are all grabbed by strangers. Thus, I wonder to know what was the real situation of Bombay at that time.
First, what is important to understand is that Bombay is historically considered as an important trading hub since medieval ages due to several migration waves, Arabs, Portuguese, British ones. By the mid of 20th century, Bombay became the financial capital of the country, and more than a half of the people were migrant people.
Following India independence declaration in 1947, a Bombay State had been created, including the Bombay State made up with British India (the "Bombay presidency") and other states. It included various ethnic groups with their own languages, which lead to protestations from these different communities. In 1960 and following major communities pressure, Bombay State had been dissolved into two main states based on linguistic criterion : Gujarat and Maharashtra. When Thackeray left his job, Maharashtra State had been created the very same year, Mumbai as its capital (Bombay in Marathi language).
At that time, Mumbai was (and still is) an attractive place for work due to the boom of different industrial sectors such as movies, textile, pharmaceutical. We already have in mind that in 1950, as written above, it’s up to the half of the population made up with migrants. Unfortunately, I haven’t found migration figures for Mumbai in the 60s, but we can sensibly assume that we are around the same figures, even higher due to the economical trend. In the context of a new state creation, an affirmation of the Marathi community spirit while Mumbai's economical boost consolidating his multicultural situation, frictions were to be expected.
Coming back to Thackeray himself, he created Marmik in 1960, a satirical cartoon newspaper, to denounce migrants' preferential treatment. Critics were first mostly driven against migrants from the South part of India, before dealing with Muslim people in particular. His position will be consolidated with the creation of his political party Shiv Sena in 1966.
2/ Thackeray, a Marathi hero ?
All along the movie, Thackeray is depicted as a providential man for Marathi people, taking their defense. To contribute to this image, our man is mostly shown as a flawless person, having answers to all questions asked to him, even ridiculing the lawyer during his jugement. Tiger’s roaring can even be heard each time he is saying kind of scathing words ... giving a surrealist impression.
Thackeray is also shown having an open mind, especially with the Muslim community, giving them an opportunity to build a common society project. He is also letting a Muslim man praying at his own home.
Later on, the 1984 Bhiwandi riot episode is showing few Muslim men assaulting (without any obvious reasons) the Shiv Jayanti procession. This episode is called « The Betrayal » (hindi word used is « दगा » which means « cheating », but in English subtitles, it’s translated as « betrayal »), which leaves no doubt about who is the bad guy in the story… This part of the story is used to legitimate using violence against Muslims, seen afterwards in the rest of the film.
Thus, Thackeray seems to combine major qualities, such as tolerance and having right all the time (as no one can answer back to all his punchlines), using violence against his own will, which is building this strong hero image.
3/ Few historical adjustments and reminders ...
To better understand the weird and uncomfortable impression I had regarding some parts of the movie, I looked deeper in the historical background.
First of all, let's talk about the 1984 Bhiwandi, as this part appeared to me the most biased one.
What is not specified is that Shiv Jayanti procession had already been banned since riots happened in 1970. A commission had even been formed following this dramatic event. Final report called the Madon report had blamed, among others, Shiv Sena for their acts of violence against Muslims. Since, procession had been banned for 14 years until … 1984. This part of the story is not mentioned in the movie ...
Almost the same scenario had been repeated in 1984. However, before the procession, in april 1984, Thackeray made a public declaration, saying that Muslims are :
A cancer on this country. Its only cure is operation .... Oh, Hindus, you take weapons in your hands and remove cancer from its very roots.
In a tense atmosphere, Shiv Jayanti procession had nevertheless been maintained, but it quickly degenerated. Shiv Sena activits were seen to assault Muslims :
Looting and burning (of) Muslim houses, shops, and factories.
as reported by Thomas Blom Hansen in his book Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay.
Enlightened by these elements, the way Bhiwandi episode had been told in the movie is obviously problematic due to major lack of context and a biaised introduction to the facts.
Let's analyze closer Thackeray himself. Tolerance loaned to him can be questioned, following choices he made for the creation of his political party. Its identity breeding ground fully lies in war. Indeed, it’s named Shiv Sena meaning « the army of Shivaji », and related to the hindu Chhatrapati (emperor) Shivaji Bhosale, founder of the Maratha Empire. It had been founded in reaction of multiple Muslim invasion waves since several centuries. In the 17th century, Shivaji Bhosale is fighting back both the sultanate of Bijapur and the Mughal empire. Therefore, the figure of this emperor is carrying a heavy imaginary in hindu nationalism, re-used by far right idea spheres. By the way, the Shiv Jayanti procession at the core of the 1970 and 1984 Bhiwandi episodes, is celebrating the anniversary of this Emperor.
The symbol of the party is a bow and an arrow, reminding of the hindu god Ram. All this to say that it’s quite hard to believe in a comprehensive and open minded Thackeray whereas everything used to found his own political party is connoting war.
We can also add the fact that Thackeray is well known for multiple controversial comments, especially against the Muslim community. For instance, in 2007, he qualified Muslims as "green poison".
A lot of substance is used to embellish Thackeray's image, but there is a major oversight in the same time. We are spectator of Thackeray's political ascent, seeing him creating Marmik just after quitting his job as he felt being censored. However, we don’t know what is his own ideology path he took to have such opinions, which could have been interesting. I read that his father had a huge impact on his son’s political ideas but it’s clearly not shown or told, it’s a real pity for a movie focusing on a political figure.
4/ The place of the movie in today’s context
It's interesting to ask ourselves why this movie has been released in 2019. Before going forward, I would say that these explanations shared below are my own interpretation and it can naturally be discussed.
Shiv Sena has recently dealt with a lot of political turbulences. To better understand present situation, let's get a bit of a context.
Getting back 30 years ago, Shiv Sena and BJP (far right party of Gujarat and current ruling party with Narendra Modi as prime minister) made up a coalition to stand legislative elections in Maharashtra state, side by side. This political partnership lasted until ... 2018. Indeed, Shiv Sena decided to break ties with the BJP for multiple reasons, and stands 2019 legislative elections on their own. In such context, Shiv Sena needs, from my opinion, to reactivate the aura around Bal Thackeray to reaffirm the party identity, as it was massively shaded by Narendra Modi’s popularity. And this movie could have been part of such seduction, communication operation for electoral purposes.
After a major political crisis, Uddhav Thackeray, son of Bal Thackeray, has succeeded to get the chair of Maharasthta Chief Minister. We can temper this victory specifying that Shiv Sena owes this victory to a new coalition that has been constituted with few other parties called Maha Vikas Aghadi, allowing them to beat BJP.
Regarding the reception of the movie, most Indian medias haven’t been fooled by it. They saluted the talent of Nawazuddin Siddiqui while regretting the story of Thackeray told with an obvious excess of partisan feelings. However, for less educated people, it can be harder to double read the movie and having enough critical mind to be aware of the political message conveyed.
On the overall, the film is well made but the substance is clearly and deeply problematic, as it’s relying on lies (distorted reality to the advantage of Shiv Sena) and showing Muslim community as violent people with whom no discussion is possible. It’s a final judgment of this community, these latter not even able to defend themselves. This movie is not allowing the spectators to have any doubt on who the "bad guys" are.
It’s a serious matter as, in the same time, India having Modi as prime minister since 2014, Muslim community is already suffering a lot of violence more than ever.
To end properly this article, let's recall us a sentence told by Robert Brasillach which I think is relevant here :
History is written by the winners.
Bal Thackeray and his relatives
Shiv Sena party and other political parties involved
Bhiwandi riots 1970 and 1984
- http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF files 29/the_story_of_the_bombay_riots.pdf
- Violence Against Muslims in India: The Dark History, Saif Samir
- Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay, Thomas Blom Hansen
Bombay riots 1992-1993
Maharasthtra & Bombay history
Indian medias' review