On the Movie Thackeray: Is Bollywood now Part of a Propaganda Machinery?

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Elections, at times, make cinema predictable. Bollywood has lived up well to this maxim in the year 2019. The upcoming general elections for the 17th Lok Sabha that will be held likely between April and May 2019 have made the Hindi film industry its biggest follower. The Accidental Prime minister and Uri: The Surgical Strike, the two films that hit the theatres on the same day of January proves the point.
While the Anupam Kher- starrer biopic depicted Manmohan Singh as a submissive leader depicted as remote-controlled by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Uri: The surgical strike chronicles the retaliatory 2016 Uri attack conducted by the Indian Army. Interestingly, these movies reflect the politicization of the Indian cinema by glorifying the Modi regime and demonizing its largest political opposition. Kher, who plays the role of the former Prime Minister, is a big Modi fan who has publicly supported him. The September 29 Uri attack boasted by the Modi regime by falsely labelling it as a surgical strike in order to fetch political gains was one of the most hyped and politicized events even according to the retired generals of Indian army.
After the release of the two films, Bollywood had another one in the line: Thackeray, making the prediction a fair game. This one is unique in its own way. Most importantly, it is the rise of saffron in the Indian cinema.
Thackeray, a biopic of Shiv Sena Supremo and a Maharashtrian controversial political figure Bal Keshav Thackeray, was released on 25th January this year. The film’s timing of release has two reasons: one it is the birth anniversary of its protagonist, Balasahab Thackeray, second it was only a day away from the eve of India’s Republic day.
The film has been judged as being a piece of propaganda. But, to me, it isn’t qualified enough to be called so. Propaganda has its own standards characterized by deceptive persuasion by giving selective information while propagating one’s own cause. Contrarily, Thackeray tells it all. Depicting the demolition of the Babri Masjid using flashbacks, he ridicules the judiciary by making fun of the questions posed by the lawyer.
Although, Thackeray doesn’t qualify for being a propaganda film, it passes the basic test of being a political film. If the date of release is an accident, accidents don’t happen in multiplicity. Also, coincidences are never as diverse as the making of this biopic has witnessed. Thackeray has intriguing coincidences: coming together of writer Sanjay Raut; producer Abhijit Panse and its protagonist, Bal Thackeray. It takes no genius but a bit of a curious mind to spot the common thread that binds the men together. They represent a common political ideology: the Hindutva.
Sanjay Raut, the writer and producer of the film, is an MP Rajya Sabha and a member of the Shiv Sena. He is also the executive editor of the Saamana, a Marathi newspaper run by the same party. Abhijit Panse, its director, is the former head of the Bhartiya Vidhyarthi Sena, the Shiv Sena’s student wing and currently a member of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), founded by Raj Thackeray (Bal Thackeray’s nephew) a breakaway from Shiv Sena. Lastly, Bal Thackeray, who is a protagonist of the movie, was a controversial Maharashtrian politician who founded the Shiv Sena in 1966.
Playing the controversial character of Bal Thackeray, Nawazuddin has come under severe criticism from various quarters. Although the versatile actor responded saying that he was an artist first, which has a lot of weight, it also raises some critical questions: Is a film only an individualistic effort that is a product of only the versatility and the professionalism of an actor or is it a joint creation that is based and dependent on the story writer, director and producer? Where from does the story line flow that ultimately is brought to life by the actors? The answers are obvious. Two things that essentially go into the making of a film, script and money, are almost every time external to the actors. Investing capital in project aims at gaining profit or propagating an agenda. So, a movie is not the outcome of an actor alone.
Thackeray celebrates the paradoxical patriotism of Bal Thackeray, a symbol of communalism, and a demagogic orator who exploited public emotions by his flamboyant speeches spilling hatred against Muslims and other non Hindu groups. Nawazuddin repeats the dialog “Uthao Lungi Bajao Pungi”, actually started by Thackeray which marks his hostility towards south Indians in Maharashtra.
The films starting scene of the court room where the Hindu fundamentalist politician makes fun of the judiciary reflects his ideals. His autocratic political philosophy lead to the breakdown of his own party in 2005 when Raj Thackeray broke away to form a separate political party due to the shift of leadership from Bal Thackeray to this own son, Uddhav Thackeray. Being the founder of Shiv Sena, a right-wing Marathi party based in Maharashtra, Balasahab had a divisive political philosophy that aimed to divide the state on the linguistic basis. Thackeray celebrates the anti Muslim stance and hatred of Bal Thackeray and his hostility towards the non-state workers in Maharashtra.
Balasahab was a man of paradox; so is the film. The movie Thackeray is an unapologetic and a shameless commemoration of the hate politics and the rogue authority of a man that contradicts its own underlying agenda of promoting him as a saviour of the nation. If the movie hasn’t succeeded (or may be not tried) to be a propaganda film, it would be gauged from the kind of reception that it gets from the audience. If it comes out otherwise, it would definitely prove my opinion wrong.

—The author is currently a research scholar at the Department of Convergent Journalism, Central University of Kashmir. He can be reached at gowharhassan11@gmail.com