By – Gautam Benegal 

A year after being hauled over the coals by the Shiv Sena for his audacity as a Muslim in attempting to play a part in his village Ram Leela, Nawazuddin Siddiqi stars as Bal Thackeray in the upcoming and widely anticipated biopic on the radical rightwing Shiv sena supremo.

Bal Thackeray who died in 2012, held openly anti Muslim views and the Sri Krishna Commission report held several of his party members responsible for the riots in Mumbai in 1993 in which, reportedly 900 people died.

There is no doubt that an actor must enjoy the freedom to portray any character he wishes to, without being judged. But when Nawazuddin tweets his grief at an intolerant society banning him in a Ramleela because of his Muslim identity, and a year after that says in a video message, “It’s truly a great day for me. I am fortunate to have got an opportunity to enact the role of such a great personality which any actor in the world would love to do. I am sure Balasaheb will inspire and bless me in this venture,” the disconnect is glaringly obvious.

Nawazuddin also tweeted, “It’s an honour and pride to portray the Real King of the Country on Screen” taking care to thank Uddhav Thackeray, son of Bal Thackeray, Sanjay Raut, a senior office bearer of the Sena, and Amitabh Bachchan.

One twitter user tweeted “The irony is Bal Thackeray spent his whole life crying that UP migrants will take Marathi’s jobs. Finally a U.P migrant is playing him on screen!”

For his part, Amitabh Bachchan gushed at the launch of the film, “I have had a very personal and familial relationship with Balasaheb Thackeray. I used to attend every function when Balasaheb invited me…he was like a father figure…”

It is one thing for Sambhit Patra, a BJP spokesman and a politician to bestow the mantle of paterfamilias to the nation to Narendra Modi, but quite another for a highly respectable superstar, and a role model to at least three generations to refer to an infamous personality like Thackeray, not too many years his senior, in the same terms.

Yet, this is not an isolated phenomenon as many will be quick to point out.

The late Sunil Dutt, star and Congress MP was a regular visitor and supplicant to Bal Thackeray’s home, Matoshree when his son was sent to prison under the stringent Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act also known as TADA for possessing illegal weapons. Mr Thackeray then called up the Congress’ Narasimha Rao, who was Prime Minister, to lobby for Sanjay Dutt and the Central review committee recommended bail.

The stranglehold of the Thackerays on Bombay’s film industry is well documented and needs no recapitulation. Balasaheb gave “protection”, friendship and support to individuals and groups when needed, and there was hardly any film personality, big or small, who did not pay obeisance to him at his residence at crucial moments in their career.

A K Hangal was one of the few exceptions. In 1993 Hangal had applied for a visa to visit his birthplace in Pakistan. He was invited by the Pak consulate in Mumbai and attended the Pakistan day celebrations, immediately incurring the wrath of the Sena.

Bal Thackeray denounced him as a traitor. A call to boycott his films was made, his effigies were burnt and his scenes were deleted from films. Yet Hangal did not bend.

Even the legendary Dilip Kumar once announced that Bal Thackeray should be called a “lion” and not just a “tiger.” (However to his credit, he turned down the Sena chief’s directive in 1999 during the Kargil war to return the Nishaan e Pakistan, Pakistan’s highest medal of honour. )

For the nervous and jittery Bollywood fraternity for whom crores are at stake, crawling when asked to bend is not new.

In 1976, In the midst of Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi and his goons were terrorizing the country through compulsory mass sterilizations. A musical evening was organized to promote Sanjay Gandhi’s 5 point program. No film star from Bombay dared refuse. They all turned up, including RD Barman and Dilip Kumar . The one exception was Kishore Kumar. He famously told off V.C. Shukla “You pay me, I will come!”

Having a spine comes at a cost. A furious Sanjay Gandhi ordered All India Radio to stop playing Kishore songs. He was banned on AIR and Doordarshan. At the end it took scores of film producers to lobby and revoke the ban. Later in his interview to Pritish Nandy in 1985, Kishore said, “No one can make me do what I don’t want to do. I don’t sing at anyone’s will or command. “

Given that the entertainment industry, (and that would include sports as well) is not only a huge revenue earner, as well as a crowd puller with its own vast constituencies, it has always been a soft touch for politicians who turn to it when convenient.

The dynamics of this relationship range from the outright coercive to the symbiotic feeding into a wide gamut of vested interests. The media for its part taps into this universe of convenience, fear, and greed, and piggybacks all the way to the bank with ratings based on controversial comments, tweets, and ostentatious “cultural” programmes. Fringe local outfits like the Karni Sena latch on to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati to push themselves on national center stage, and grassroot politicians like Pannalal Sakya, from Guna, MP, level accusations of anti-nationalism at Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma for marrying in Italy, to be noticed by the party bosses.

A mammoth self perpetuating profit sharing machine has been set into motion with its various cogs and wheels moving in perfect unison, with film stars, politician, godmen of various hues and stripes, and the media, which could mean anything from the once prestigious house of Bennett and Coleman to the scurrilous PostCard News that reportedly operates from some bus stand in Udupi, all jumping into the fray and emerging triumphantly with daily trophies.

The endorsements of public figures, well established in their spaces of privilege, naturally favor the status quo. That would mean a natural affinity towards conservatism, orthodoxy and traditionalism, and thus they make for natural allies with the Right Wing.

During the days of demonetization one was treated to the theatre of the absurd when public personalities who had absolutely no background in economics or were least invested in the daily travails of the poor, gave glowing tributes to the sagacity of the government.

One is reminded of the film “Mephisto” (1981) set in Hitler’s Germany, where Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) craves center stage. After years spent slogging it out in provincial theaters, he’s grown sufficiently desperate that when the Nazi party effectively offers to make him a star, he doesn’t hesitate. Great roles and plenty of praise accumulate quickly, and Hendrik revels in his success. He dreams of ultimately playing Mephisto, and to that end blithely overlooks the profound moral compromises of his situation.

Such a self serving system not only promotes denial to real world realities and disconnects, it also validates different demographics. To address these different strata, one has a Chetan Bhagat tweeting to the New Middle class in the faux intellectual vocabulary of the newly initiated sophisticate, a celebrated artist like Shuvaprasanna claiming that Mamata Banerji is a great artist thus making her fan happy, and the Page 3 of a newspaper read by the upper classes covering the thugs of yesteryear in society parties, signaling that they have bridged the great divide from disrepute to respectability.

And what of the consumers, we the people, in whose hands the rudder and rein of this great democracy lies? We have been reduced to gathering sound bytes like shiny baubles, fussing and crooning over them, bickering bitterly and possessively over them in social media, only to discard them the next day, when new tidbits are thrown at us.

The ethical and moral building blocks that an informed democracy is based on have been gradually undermined by eroding the critical abilities of citizens and reducing them to trivia junkies, and we are well down the slippery slope of kakistocracy.