Thackeray: Nawazuddin Siddiqui towers over this otherwise disturbing biopic
Movie Review by Surangama Guha Roy (Rocheston Certified Movie Critic)
When the life of one of the most controversial figures in Indian politics is scripted into a film by a current MP of the relevant political party, one enters the theatre with an inkling of what to expect already. And Thackeray does not disappoint in that respect. It is an unabashed exercise in glorification of the late Balasaheb Thackeray, an enigmatic but ruthless figure who took up the cause of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ in Maharashtra.
It is difficult to critique a film whose very subject acts as a site of dispute, and one which prides itself unapologetically on the legacy of violence left behind by the title character. Yet, one has to start somewhere. So, for our point of departure, let us start with the performances delivered by a competent cast.
The film traces the life of Bal Keshav Thackeray, who gave up his career as a cartoonist to launch a political magazine called ‘Marmik’, and would in time become the firebrand leader of the right wing nationalist party – the Shiv Sena. Nawazuddin has large shoes to fill as he slips into the skin of the larger-than-life personality that was Bal Thackeray. He gives a scintillating performance, his unwavering nonchalance somehow magnifying the cold-hearted brutality of the violence his character unleashes. Yet, despite his otherwise powerful act, he is limited by the lack of depth afforded by the script and ends up playing a largely one-dimensional, unlayered role. Amrita Rao is given little to do, as the writers fail to delve deeper into Meenatai Thackeray’s role as the backbone of Balasaheb’s public life. The others too, including fine actors like Prakash Belawadi, Sanjay Narvekar and Rajesh Khera remain pretty much in the background as Nawaz owns every frame he walks into.
The script is well-edited, and the monochrome used to differentiate the past from the present is both soothing to the eyes, and interesting. It makes sense for a film based on such an immensely controversial character, to begin the narration with a court room scene, as Thackeray is charged, presumably, with instigating the demolition of the Babri Masjid. However, what was disturbing, even more than the content of the film, was the way the audience reacted with jubilation when Thackeray dismissively declared on screen that the mosque had been built on holy ground for the Hindus. As the film progresses, and the wolf whistles continue, a scary prospect emerges, for this is not a half-hearted fictitious godfather the audience may or may not be convinced of, rather a proud retelling of the life of a maverick, yet controversial leader.
Released simultaneously in Hindi and Marathi, Thackeray is a biopic that revels in its honesty, with very little effort made to sugarcoat the steely titular character. True, there are scenes where Balasaheb rises above religious divisiveness, even as his boys indulge in communal rioting. He lends his shoulder to a dead party-worker, as he looks a police officer in the eye, holding the nation’s twisted democracy responsible for the death of the comrade. While these scenes, far and few between, could masquerade as moments of redemption, vindication is clearly not on the agenda. There is a brutal honesty in this, one that the audience needs to wrap its head around.
Thackeray is a film about a powerful political persona, brought to life by an actor who towers over an otherwise disturbing narrative. The film itself is little more than an event by event account of Thackeray’s life, unlayered and simplistic. But Nawaz shines, as he so often does, making the 2 hours 19 mins run time worth our money. What needs to be seen though, is whether the film justifies a sequel worth watching. Like everything else about Bal Thackeray, this too time will tell.