The release of a biopic of a Hindu chauvinist leader in India—and its promotion by the Bollywood film industry—only shows the growing acceptance of a Hindu theocracy in a country otherwise known as the world’s largest secular democracy.
Directed by Abhijit Panse, Thackeray is the story of Bal Thackeray, a well-known Hindu supremacist who controlled India’s financial capital of Bombay. It later came to be known as Mumbai partly because of his pressure. He was the cofounder of the Shiv Sena—a party that promoted Maharashtrian nationalism in the western Indian state that includes the city.
Thackeray, as the film reveals, was pained to see how Maharashtra's original inhabitants were mistreated by those from other parts of India who dominated businesses in Bombay. Through the Shiv Sena, he promoted regionalism and targeted Tamils and other ethnic groups, whom he thought had marginalized his community. His supporters began by attacking signs in other languages. The renaming of the city as Mumbai—an Indigenous name—was the culmination of these efforts.
Thackeray began his political career after giving up his job as a cartoonist with the Free Press Journal. He gradually evolved into a Hindu nationalist leader from a regional leader who ran a parallel administration in Maharashtra, where local police officers openly supported him.
The film does not hide Thackeray’s prejudice against non-Maharashtrians and Muslims. Ironically, Thackeray is played by a talented Muslim actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who was born in Uttar Pradesh. Migrants from that state were also targeted by the Shiv Sena in the recent past.
This is despite Thackeray openly supporting a campaign to demolish an ancient mosque in Uttar Pradesh in 1992.
The film also clearly shows how blatantly he advocated for razing a mosque that the Shiv Sena and its ally, the currently ruling right-wing Hindu Nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), claim to have been built by the Mughal emperor Babar after destroying a temple at the birth place of a revered Hindu god, Lord Ram.
The film not only glorifies Thackeray by blaming the marginalization of Maharashtran people on outsiders, it also tries to justify his role in anti-Muslim violence of 1993 in Bombay as a reaction to Muslims' “lack of loyalty to the nation”.
An important aspect of the film shows the self-proclaimed secular Congress party patronizing Thackeray to consolidate its support in Maharashtra in the 1970s.
He supported the national emergency imposed by the then Congress leader and prime minister, Indira Gandhi, to save the Shiv Sena from being outlawed. This demonstrates how far he went to establish himself as a die-hard "patriot" who not only believed in regional nationalism, but also in Hindu nationalism.
The real story of Thackeray isn’t complete without looking into the story behind the making of the film and the way it has been promoted. The timing of the film is very significant as it comes at the start of the year, just as India is heading for the next general election in the summer of 2019.
Since cinema is a powerful medium to reach voters, those in authority do not want to miss this opportunity to gain maximum support for Hindu nationalism.
Bollywood steps up for BJP
It's no coincidence that Thackeray was released shortly after two other controversial movies with potential to help the BJP polling prospects.
The Accidental Prime Minister and Uri: The Surgical Strike were released on January 11. While the first one takes a dig at the Congress, particularly former prime minister Manmohan Singh as a “weak prime minister”, the latter is based on an anti-Pakistan military operation by the Indian army.
The second one actually shows a lookalike of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, as an effective prime minister who knows how to deal with a hostile neighbouring country.
Siddiqui is a versatile actor and is free to play any role to earn his livelihood, yet he has openly stated that he feels fortunate to have been picked for the role pf Thackery and has chosen to remain silent on his legacy of hate.
If this weren't enough, Amitabh Bachchan—a living legend of Bollywood— has also showered praise on the film.
It’s a shame that the movie about a man who openly challenged democracy and the Indian constitution was released a day before Republic Day of India on January 26, as this coincided with the anniversary of Thackery's birth.
By promoting enmity between different communities and regional and religious chauvinism, Thackery directly defyied the Indian constitution, which guarantees religious freedom and diversity. India's Censor Board often creates too many hurdles for filmmakers, yet it showed great leniency to Thackeray as it rationalizes bigotry and hate just as the world is grappling with increasing populism.
A movie about a minority extremist was banned
This is in sharp contrast to what the Indian establishment has done to films that glorified minority religious extremists. A case in point is Dharam Yudh Morcha—a Punjabi movie based on Sikhs' campaigning for extra powers for the state of Punjab and concessions to their minority community. It was banned in 2016.
The film glorified Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a fundamentalist Sikh preacher who frequently used similarly harsh language as Thackeray against non-Sikhs, particularly Hindus. Bhindranwale was fighting for regional autonomy for Punjab and had a big following among Sikh youth, as well as many supporters within the Punjab police.
He too was upset with the mistreatment of Sikhs by a government that was bent upon scapegoating the community to polarize the Hindu majority. Much like Thackeray, he also defied democracy and believed in violence as a justifiable means to get justice. He too ran a parallel government until he died fighting against the Indian army in 1984.
Even as there were many similarities between the campaigns of Thackeray and Bhindranwale, the response of the Indian establishment was very different. Whereas Bhindranwale was killed and continues to be seen as an enemy of the state, Thackeray was co-opted through electoral politics and was given a state honour after he died in 2012.
The difference in the reception of the two films, therefore, isn’t surprising and only reinforces the general belief that there has always been two set of rules in India: one for the majority and another one for minorities.
If a filmmaker can be allowed to contextualize and sanitize the chauvinism of Thackeray, then this freedom should also be given to others,
Otherwise, the Indian establishment should acknowledge that their nation is really an exclusionist Hindu state operating under the garb of secularism.