Like the other aspects of his life, the scenes outside the hospital where Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray is battling for his life resemble some film. Picture this - Everyone from politicians to actors or the powers be are making a beeline to see the ailing Shiv Sena supremo and in the bargain have to bear the brunt of the crowds gathered outside who are beyond the control of police. Couldn't this be easily mistaken this for a scene straight out of Agneepath or Sarkar, the desi version of Ram Gopal Varma's The Godfather.
No other politician in the recent past has inspired films like Bal Thackeray. A cartoonist from The Free Press Journal, Thackeray rose to dizzying heights of power and became someone who could control Bombay with the slightest movement of his finger. The cigar-chomping-channa-and-beer guzzling politico of the late 1960s who enjoyed many such sessions with Dilip Kumar on his terrace, Thackeray enjoyed getting his pictures clicked with stuffed tigers while perched on a throne like chair when he didn't hang out with film stars or do what politicians were meant to do. He is a leader who perhaps redefined charisma; for there is no better explanation for someone who looks like a caricature himself. The first time Thackeray's real life image inspired the reel was in Narsimha where Om Puri's Baapji left nothing to imagination. For a film that played highly on ancient Indian mythology, Narsimha's story was set in a modern day Maharashtrian town that resembled Bombay and perhaps that's the reason it ended up trading the greys for extremes blacks and whites. If the half man-half lion hero Narsimha (Sunny Deol) was everything good, the villain Baapji had to be an unapologetic personification of evil yet somewhere Om Puri managed to get a certain streak within Baapji that made him plausible.
They might be slightly better off and even a little more adventurous but till the mid 1990s filmmakers weren't used to depicting reality on screen. They'd go to great lengths to whitewash facts with fiction and make it almost unrecognizable. But when it came Thackeray rules were different for it was the man himself who dictated the terms when it came to matters relating to him. Mani Ratnam's Bombay (1995) showed a Thackerayesque character in an insightful light and even hinted at being regretful for inciting his followers in a certain direction during the riots on which the film was based. One would think that Ratnam's approach would have guaranteed a clear run with the Censors, which it did, but things hit a roadblock when Amitabh Bachchan, the distributor of the film, previewed the film for Thackeray. Thackeray ordered Ratnam to undo the suggested repentance and once that happened the leader happily blessed the film.
If you are wondering why Thackeray continues to inspire filmmakers both off and on screen then the answer couldn't be simpler. Truth is often stranger than fiction and in Thackeray's case where he traversed life on the kind of crests and troughs that he did is just the stuff scripts are made of. It's natural for any octogenarian to find living tough with each sunrise but try telling that to his people who, given a chance, would thrash the doctors treating him for a shoddy job! If one were to observe things as they played out then is there any difference between a Haji Mastan, a dockhand who became a gang lord, and Bal Thackeray, a professional cartoonist who played the regionalism card and became the most powerful entity of a city? They both instilled a certain level of fear in the people and yet those they served revered them but today one's a forgotten page in history while the other is a leader of men. Irrespective of their nature, Thackeray's actions got a people a certain sense of identity and while generations that followed the so called oppression that Thackeray fought seek refuge in the benefits he bestowed upon them, his work can't be seen in isolation. One could criticize Bollywood for not even attempting to look at some other aspect of Thackeray's persona but truth be told even Balasaheb wouldn't endorse such a script.
Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience across print and electronic mediums.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
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