Thackeray review: Tasteful propaganda?

A scene from Thackeray.

Film: Thackeray

Rating: 3/5

Director: Abhijit Panse

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Amrita Rao

The scene is black and white. The camera pans across an office from the late 50s. The mise-en-scene is intricately crafted. We hear people talking in different Indian languages. But this is not background office noise. The languages are the foreground the director wants you to focus on. But the viewer isn’t asked to tell which languages are spoken; the point is to find out which one isn’t. It’s Marathi.

Produced by a Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut and directed by MNS supporter Abhijit Panse, it would have been surprising had the film not been biased.

And biased it is. However, unlike its relatively incompetent cousin, The Accidental Prime Minister, the film is excellently shot at least through the first half.

This half, most of it shot in black and white, is about the coming-of-age of Bal Thackeray, as opposed to the sole coverage of political events in the second half.

This gives the first half enough time to play around with a time period untouched by media coverage.

In one striking sequence, you see Balasaheb Thackeray (Nawazuddin) in a movie theatre. A poster says a Guru Dutt movie is running, possibly Kaagaz ke Phool.

But inside the theatre, it’s a series of short cartoon movies that Balasaheb sees, of a nature he may have drawn, on the silver screen. A bald man with "Marathi" written across his forehead or chest is thrown around, physically overpowered, and abused in languages other than Marathi.

You know the film has temporarily suspended its socialist narrative. It’s the victimhood of his people that he's projecting onto the screen. The fantasy is taken even further when people around him start laughing at these projections.

This layer of intricacy, whether you see Balasaheb’s people as victims or being xenophobic, elevates it beyond your average propaganda film.

And that’s just the beginning of a series of great shots, with detailed mise-en-scene and Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography.

Mumbai looks wonderful in the black and white, and even in very important scenes, the camera does not focus on the characters alone.

It’s lovely that the camera takes its time focusing on details that one does not generally expect in a propaganda film. The details are mundane: brass utensils, the chiaroscuro of leaves on the roof of a bus, ferris wheels, camels on beaches drawing carts, dogs near waves. But they are necessary details: a must to evoke the only major character in the film other than Balasaheb — the Maharashtra of the day.

Balasaheb may not have seen the Dutt film in the theatre, but it’s Dutt’s use of lighting that comes to mind in a scene in the Maharashtra Assembly where, even as the government is being criticised for its ineptitude to handle violence, a column of light cuts diagonally through the screen from the ceiling to the floor.

There are very few conversations in the film that do not centre on Balasaheb’s politics. Most of these few are between Mr. and Mrs. Thackeray (played beautifully by Amrita). He introspects loudly only around her, and these introspections grip you more than his public speeches do.

But the depth and the charm end with the first half, which concludes — in a trope borrowed from Schindler’s List — with one flower from Thackeray’s still-black-and-white garden slowly turning — surprise, surprise — saffron.

It’s all downhill from there. The first half fully fleshes out the Marathi identity angle; the second half is burdened with far too many angles for its own good.

These bits, which cover important historical markers from Hindutva to Babri Masjid to the Bombay riots of 92-93, are quickly brushed past, leaving you with fleeting glimpses.

There’s even one meeting between Balasaheb and a badly-acted Indira Gandhi about the Emergency in there, and the film, which takes Morarji Desai to task, lets go of Mrs. Gandhi too easily.

Shiv Sena’s relationship with the BJP is also underplayed, but given the precarious relationship that the two parties share today, that’s probably intentional.

Bad writing completely fizzles the film out by the end. In a scene after the Masjid demolition, where the Saheb says he holds nothing against Islam, you hear a tiger roar out of nowhere after he delivers his punch dialogue. Sigh.

With little introspection, zero character growth and few scenes where someone isn’t seen bullying someone else, this Bal Thackeray biopic may leave admirers of the leader stirred, but those indifferent to his legacy are likely to remain indifferent.

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Thackeray review: Tasteful propaganda?

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