It's still one of the most talked-about days in Mumbai. Not just because Michael Jackson performed for the first time in this city, but because, pretty much like the rest of his life, his visit was as much about controversy as about music.
Jackson’s show was planned for Nov 1, 1996 by the organisers Wizcraft and the Shiv Udyog Sena, an outfit then floated by Raj Thackeray to generate employment for “locals”.
Everyone was looking forward to seeing Jackson. He was the hero of the pre-MTV generation, and Bollywood idolised and imitated him. He was adored by actors and dancers, by lyricists (Javed Akhtar called him a ‘complete entertainer’), choreographers (for Farah Khan, he was like a guru) and even classical singers (Shubha Mudgal, among others). And for the MTV generation, he was the icon they wanted to see up and close.
The drama started much before Jackson landed, with the Shiv Sena coming in for flak for promoting Western culture while professing Maharashtrianism. The Sena was in power, and before the concert, Chief Minister Manohar Joshi had to field all sorts of questions — ranging from why the government had given tax concessions to the organisers to whether the state was aware of Jackson’s controversial past. To the latter, Joshi responded saying, “He won’t do anything of that kind here.”
Jackson landed in a private jet on October 30, 1996 wearing a military-style jacket and aviator sunglasses. He was welcomed at the airport by actress Sonali Bendre in a traditional nine-yard sari. As he emerged from the airport, he was welcomed by dhol and lezim players, and danced to some lezim steps before making his way through a crowd of screaming youngsters and heading towards the Oberoi, where he stayed during his two-day visit.
That afternoon, he met Sena chief Bal Thackeray and his family at Matoshree. Thackeray’s line — “he even used my toilet” — is still an oft-quoted one, but another one was forgotten. A pushy reporter asked the Sena chief if Jackson looked like a man or a woman. “Somewhere in between,” was the quick reply.
Michael-mania was building up across the city. The concert was to be held past 8 pm that Friday at the Andheri Sports Complex, but Jackson’s diehard fans queued up from 2 pm — and were in let in around 3.30 pm. They screamed as Jackson emerged on the huge D-shaped podium in a cloud of smoke.
Jackson started with ‘Scream’ and went on to thrill the young crowd with ‘Say Say Say,’ ‘Beat it’ and other numbers, chanting “I love Mumbai” between songs and even managing “Sab se pyara Hindustan” once. He ended with Jai Hind.
The Sena faced a backlash from its core constituency of middle-class Maharashtrians after the show; the opposition went to town asking if this was Marathi culture. Thackeray said, “We must accept him as an artist… His movements are terrific — you can’t dance that way. You will end up breaking your bones.” The Sena supreme mourned the death of Jackson on Friday, calling him “a great artiste”.