Thackeray movie review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s film is not a whitewash, it’s a confession. 1 star
Director - Abhijit Panse
Cast - Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Amrita Rao
Rating - 1/5
Some films make it clear where they stand. In the case of Thackeray — written and directed by MNS leader Abhijit Panse, produced by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, editor of the party’s periodical ‘Saamna’ — there is no doubt about its allegiance. I walked in primed for a film back-pedalling extremism in order to justify the late Balasaheb Thackeray’s actions. I expected scenes depicting the politician as a warm and misunderstood figure, and a film that essentially turns him into a hero. This is not that film.
Thackeray shockingly relishes the most controversial aspects of the polarising leader’s legend. This film plays out like the origin story of a super-villain. We are shown a character who is a proud bigot, a man who indulges in hate-speech, likens himself to Adolf Hitler, and gives orders for erasure of mosques and for the killing of communists. This is not a whitewash, it’s a confession.
It is also a film made with polish — the high-contrast black and white cinematography by Sudeep Chatterjee is quite striking — that feels reminiscent of Ram Gopal Varma’s older, finer work. Charting the rise of a mere cartoonist to one of the most powerful political figures in the country, Thackeray even feels like a prequel to Varma’s Sarkar, a film that paid slavish tribute to the politician. Sarkar, however, had presented the leader as a man of nobility, while Thackeray presents him — exultantly — as a tyrant. See how much power he wields? See the way he threatens politicians, or reduces places of worship to rubble? See the way he gets a cricket pitch dug up? That’s our Tiger.
This may be why the film’s makers cast Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the main role, a man known for playing gangsters and psychopaths. Siddiqui revels in the character’s growing villainy, playing him with the irredeemable smugness of a bad guy from a 90s film. Sure, he wears the thick black glasses and sometimes gets the mannerisms right, but despite the big (and obviously fake) nose, he lacks the towering persona of the politician and never even attempts to speak with Thackeray’s distinctive tones. He sounds like the Nawaz we have come to know, like Ganesh Gaitonde or Faizal or Raman Raghav, someone increasingly drunk on power and eager to kill to get more of it.
The politics of casting Siddiqui in this part are messy. It is chilling to watch this Muslim actor crow about Hindu supremacy or celebrate the destruction of a mosque, to hear him indulge in full-blown hate speech without any room given for doubt. The film starts out with courtroom whataboutery as Thackeray, adjusting his saffron shawl and multiple rosaries, seems to be trying to explain away his behaviour, but as the film unfolds, the character boastfully owns up to all his extremism. He literally talks about himself as a second coming of Adolf Hitler, probingly at first, but later defiantly, proclaiming himself a Hitler for Maharashtra who will soon be one for the nation.
As a film, the acting is decent, the lookalikes are mostly good (the man playing Thackeray’s father, Keshav, is perfectly cast) and it looks crisp and well produced, with the majority of the film cleverly shot in black and white to depict another time. Despite the slick production and efficient making, the film feels exhaustingly long, primarily because it refuses to believe its protagonist has any flaws.
Still, Thackeray is competently and solidly put together, which is why — unlike the easily dismissed The Accidental Prime Minister — people may take this film and its rhetoric to heart. That is the most alarming concern. (Another cause for fear is the fact that this film ends with the words ‘to be continued,’ so we’re in for more of the Balasaheb story, and I assume the filmmakers are already auditioning Michael Jackson lookalikes for a cameo in Thackeray II.)
This film is either oblivious or blatantly self-aware, a work not of propaganda as much as it is a work of pride, the celebration of a legacy of violence. In an early scene the leader jeers at the idea of manhood as being measured by the width of a man’s chest, and later the film goes from black and white to colour with one flower turning orange, a shot that cruelly and unmistakably mocks the end of Schindler’s List. In the final reckoning, Thackeray should be considered a cautionary tale about the ugliness of hate speech. Saying revolting things does not make a revolutionary.
(The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. They do not reflect the views of Hindustan Times.)
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