Nawazuddin as Bal Thackeray: Siddiqui playing the Shiv Sena founder

Cartoonist Satish Acharya, like many, when he heard that actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui was to play Bal Thackeray in a biopic, was the irony of it. In the cartoon, he drew the late Thackeray telling Nawazuddin, “Go back, Bhaiya! You are snatching our jobs!”

“I wanted to show how Bal Thackeray would have responded to a person from Uttar Pradesh playing him,” says Satish Acharya.

The Shiv Sena led by Thackeray has traditionally followed an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan, anti-migrant and anti-UP bhaiya template in its divisive brand of politics. It has worn this opposition on its sleeves, often resorting to physical assaults against taxi drivers and fruit sellers who hail from UP and earn a living in Mumbai.

The argument is that their presence in Mumbai robs the Marathi manoos of their jobs. It was a repeat of how the Tamilians were targeted by the Sainiks in the 1960s. Which is why the choice of Nawazuddin, a Muslim actor who hails from Budhana in Muzaffarnagar in UP, has raised eyebrows because it highlights the hollowness of the Shiv Sena’s staple political diet.

What makes this casting so ironical is that just last October, Nawazuddin had to pull out of the Ramleela performance in Budhana after members of the local unit of the Shiv Sena raised objections. A report in Hindustan Times quoted the Shiv Sena district head Mukesh Sharma as saying, “For over 50 years, no Muslim has been a part of the production. Why should this be allowed now? We went to the police and our members went around town to spread the word and urge people to stop this.”

Nawazuddin was quoted as saying he cancelled his appearance to “maintain peace” in the village.

From October 2016 to December 2017, Nawazuddin’s views about the Shiv Sena have clearly changed dramatically.

From expressing unhappiness at the intolerance to a Muslim playing Mareech, the golden deer in the Ramayana, to singing paeans to the memory of Thackeray is quite a distance to cover. While as an actor, Nawazuddin has the right to choose whichever role he deems challenging and in one of his tweets, he has described the role as the “Ultimate Dream of an Actor”, it is his over-the-top adulation of Thackeray that seems jarring.

“It’s an honour and pride to portray the Real King of the Country on Screen,” he tweeted. Did Nawaz really mean it or was it a case of outsourcing the job of tweeting to one of his agents? Did he not know that the person he referred to as “the Real King” was along with his Shiv Sainiks, blamed by the Srikrishna Commission for inciting violence against Muslims during the Mumbai riots in 1993 in which 900 people lost their lives?

Over the years, the Shiv Sena and its breakaway unit of Maharashra Navnirman Sena (founded by Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray), have routinely intimidated the film industry and Bollywood more often than not, has crawled when asked to bend. Brute muscle power has been the language of the Shiv Sena. It is therefore strange to hear someone like Amitabh Bachchan gush about Thackeray, ignoring the warts in his personality and the legacy he has left behind.

Would Thackeray mean the Shiv Sena would discard its anti-Muslim and anti-migrant template or would their love for the UP bhaiya be restricted to a Nawazuddin Siddiqui?

Purely from an actor’s perspective, the film industry and the theatre world have been excited over Nawazuddin landing this role. Especially because with prosthetics and make-up, Nawazuddin has managed to look the part. And going by his body of work so far, Nawazuddin can be expected to get into the skin of the character.

“It is important for an actor to be politically aware but he should not bring his political ideas to the role. That would be antithetical to the whole idea of the craft,” says actor Satyajit Sharma, who was Nawazuddin’s senior at the National School of Drama in Delhi.

Then there is a debate over how Thackeray will be portrayed since the movie is produced by Sanjay Raut, a Shiv Sena MP. With the movie set for release in January 2019, just before the Lok Sabha elections, it is more than likely that Thackeray will be portrayed only as a larger-than-life benevolent leader, a do-gooder of sorts.

Will it give an actor of Nawazuddin’s calibre the elbow room to bring in the greys into Thackeray’s character?

Actor Vinay Varma calls the Thackeray role “a good opportunity” for Nawazuddin. “An actor should not think about whether he agrees with the character’s views. He has to forget himself and only think like the character,” says Varma.

But Nawazuddin will not be the first person from UP to play Thackeray. After all, Ram Gopal Varma also cast an actor from Allahabad – Amitabh Bachchan – to play the Thackeray-inspired character in his Sarkar series.

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