THE BAL (POWER) OF BAL THACKERAY

TERROR: After the post Babri Masjid bomb blasts in Mumbai, Bal Thackeray used the Shiv Sena to attack all the Muslims in Mumbai, including judges and senior managers in companies. Bal Thackeray could paralyse Bombay which became Mumbai because of him. At his death, Mumbai came to a standstill. His supporters saw that the city shut down

The unchallenged bahubali of Mumbai until he died was the cartoonist-turned-Sarkar, Bal Thackeray. The political party that Bal Thackeray founded, the Shiv Sena, was a army which could terrorise even the chief minister of Maharashtra. When Muslims were targeted after the Bombay bomb blast by Dawood, senior Muslim professionals had to beg with Thackeray to spare them after the then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar washed his hands. Thackeray also terrorised the film industry with both father Amitabh and son Abhishek playing lead roles in a film based on his life

By Ali Peter John

ON THE day the Hindu Hriday Samrat Balasaheb Thackeray, one of the most powerful, popular and controversial leaders of the country and Maharashtra passed away; it was time to wax eloquent about the man who ruled the hearts of millions of people during the last 40-odd years. People from all walks of life used all the best words possible to make the world aware of what a great leader he was and how very close they were to him and how he had played a very vital role in their own lives and even in the industry.

The film industry was no exception. All the stars and superstars vied with one another to praise the departed supremo. They praised Balasaheb to the high heavens and prayed for his soul to rest in peace. The only man who had the courage to come up with a description that was so very true was director Anurag Basu who said, “it is indeed a very great loss. He was a man who was loved, admired and feared in equal measures.”

I and many like me who have watched the growth of the Shiv Sena under the leadership of Balasaheb and his interaction with the industry and its celebrities will vouch for every word used by Basu. His word was as powerful in the industry as it was in any other field. He had complete control over the industry. He was the “Government” and the “Court” for it, because as one leading star that had a strong bond with Balasaheb said, “as long as we had him with us and on our side, we had nothing to fear or loose. He was one man who could do what no Government or Court could. He could do things within hours or a day or two, what all the other authorities could not do in several years.”

The very fact that all the major stars started rushing to “Matoshree”, the residence of Balasaheb from the time news spread about his being critical was proof enough to show how “loved, admired and feared” he was. Among the stars who stood outside ‘Matoshree’ during all the four days he was fighting his battle with death were Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Salman Khan with his father, Salim Khan and brother Arbaaz Khan, Sanjay Dutt and wife Maanyata Dutt, Govinda, Nana Patekar, Manoj Kumar, Madhur Bhandarkar, the three Kapoor brothers, Randhir, Rishi and Rajiv, and Suniel Shetty. The entire industry came to a sudden halt. All the new releases including the two big ones, ”Jab Tak Hai Jaan” and “Son Of Sardar” were brought to a stop before they could take off. All shootings of films and serials were called of until further notice. Never before in the history of the industry had it reacted the way it did, even when any politician, even those in power died. If this was not the way the industry showed how much it “loved, respected and feared” this great leader who was a regional leader whose name meant many things to the politics of the country, I don’t know what is…

Yes, Balasaheb Thackeray had a very strong bond with the industry because he was always a great lover of Hindi cinema and its stars. He often told stories about how he had seen Hindi films when he was in school and how he even “bunked” classes to see the latest release in one of the theatres in central Mumbai, “only for five annas or 10 annas because I could not afford buying a ticket for any higher price and if caught by my father who was a true patriot would be thrown out of the house”.

Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray grew into a young man and took up a job as a cartoonist with “The Free Press Journal of India” on a monthly salary of `150. He later left the job and with the support of some friends started a small magazine called “Marmik” which was more of a collection of his own cartoons. The most popular page of the magazine was the last page on which the latest Hindi film was reviewed. It carried no byline, but with time all his readers knew that it was Bal Thackeray who was the reviewer and he soon became one of the popular and also one of the most feared critics, especially among those who knew the Marathi language.

After a few years Bombay which was going through a transition, saw the rise of a young leader called Balasaheb Thackeray who had formed a party of his own, inspired by the Maratha warrior, Shivaji Maharaj. The young man with his powerful oratory and his way of taking the masses into confidence took charge of Bombay and slogans like “bandh” and “bahishkar” (boycott) invented by him were followed by his people like sheep.

It was always his dream to see his power work in the world of Hindi films and he soon saw his dream come true on his own terms and conditions. I have been witness to how some of the biggest names in the industry were forced with no other option but to reach out to him to seek his support and he took great pleasure in granting them their wishes.

Dev Anand was a friend of this new leader ever since he became one and always called him “Bal”. I was at one of the huge meetings addressed by the leader who was now called “Saheb”. It was during the meeting that he called for a boycott of one of Dev Sahab’s films, “Sau Crore”. The reason was that the heroine was a certain girl called Fatima Sheikh who Balasaheb said was a Pakistani. The next morning I was with Dev Sahab; he had never looked so desperate before. I knew the reason and simply asked him if he had any ego. He said, “what ego, I am willing to do anything to save my film which is due for release two days later.” I gave him the personal number of Balasaheb Thackeray and asked him to call and ask for a personal meeting. Balasaheb was thrilled that “the Dev Anand” had called him. He asked Dev Sahab to come to his house at 3pm the same afternoon. When Dev Sahab reached Balasaheb’s house he was shocked to see hundreds of people waiting and clapping for him. A red carpet was spread out for him and Balasaheb himself came out to receive him.

He then took Dev Sahab to his own room. Dev Sahab explained his problem to Balasaheb and told him that Fatima was an Indian girl and not a Pakistani. Balasaheb took it very lightly and told Dev Sahab that his speech at Shivaji Park was “sab hamara politics hai, aap worry mat karo, main sab theek kar doonga.” The next day Balasaheb wrote a piece on the front page in “Saamna”, his party’s mouth piece and said that he had made a mistake and asked his readers to go and see Dev Sahab’s film…

A similar but more serious incident involved the villain, Pran. He was facing a major crisis which involved his own property in Union Park in Bandra. I gave him the same “key” that I gave Dev Sahab. He got the same invitation, the same reception and the same respect from the Thackeray family. I don’t know what happened and why. All I know is that Pran Sahab called me home in the evening and was in a jubilant mood. The next morning all the English dailies carried full page ads with Pran Sahab thanking Balasaheb — for what, I still don’t know and now will never know.

Balasaheb had worked many such “miracles” for various other stars, even character actors. He had a special liking for Amitabh Bachchan. He not only visited him in hospital after the “Coolie” accident but also put an entire team “on duty” to help the Bachchans in their hour of crisis. Some years passed and Balasaheb had called for one of his many “bandhs”. That same day Amitabh had to take a flight to Maldives where he was invited as the chief guest on their Republic Day. Amitabh asked Balasaheb for help and he was taken to the airport in an ambulance which was the plan of Balasaheb, sources say. Their friendship was very strong until the end as Amitabh proved during the last days of Balasaheb and even after his death.

At one stage Mithun Chakraborty was “like my son” for Balasaheb and Mithun called him “Daddy” and touched his feet in public. But something serious went wrong between the two and it was the reason why Mithun is said to have left Mumbai and  settled down in Ooty from where he returned after years when Balasaheb grew older and mellow Something similar happened between Balasaheb and Govinda.

Balasaheb’s family soon got into films. His son, Bindumadhav turned into a producer, but died in an accident when his was in his early 30s. His daughter-in-law, Smita Thackeray who was married to his eldest son, Jaidev and divorced, also turned producer and a leader of the industry.

He had a very soft corner for Lata Mangeshkar,  “without whom life would be impossible, during all my problems her voice is the only power that keeps me going. Thank God for giving me and the whole world a didi like Lata Didi, someone who can never be born again.”

He had major problems with Dilip Kumar when Dilip Sahab accepted the “Nishaan-E-Pakistan”, the highest honour from Pakistan. His party cadre created wild and vulgar scenes outside the thespian’s house until the two old friends had a talk and the problem was solved.

Balasaheb loved attending muhurats and any other film function and enjoyed the company of the stars with his warm German beer and some of the best cigars.

How powerful he was among the most powerful film personalities can be gauged from this incident. The actress, Ashwini Bhave had produced her first Marathi film and had arranged a special screening only for Balasaheb and Yash Chopra. Yash arrived early and took his seat and was in a good mood. It was only a little before the film could start that Balasaheb arrived with his security and by some chance took a seat next to Yash who was visibly shocked to see Balasaheb sitting next to him. Balasaheb called out to Yash and said, “kya re, Yash, hamara Marathi film tumko achcha lagta hai ki nahi?” and Yash just said, “Ha ha ha, bahot achcha, bahot achcha”. Balasaheb then asked him, “Phir tum Marathi film kyu nahi banaata hai?” Yash, said, “banaunga banaunga, jaldi banaunga.”

It was interval time and Yash wanted to run away, but he saw Balasaheb standing in a corner and watching him even as he talked to Ashwini. Yash called me to his side and whispered, “Meri to jaan hi nikal gayi. Mai bahot baar ghabraya hoon, lekin aaj jaise ghabraya, vaisa kabhi nahi ghabraya hoon. Iss aadmi mein kya hai? Ye to sirf pachchas pound ka ek aadmi hai, lekin isme itni saari taakat kahan se aati hai?” I told Yash ji that there were many others who were asking the same question and waiting for answers.

This incident happened more than 15 years ago. Little did they or I know then that both of them would die within 10 days of each other.

Yeh sab ooparwala hi ka khel hai, aadmi uske saamne sirf ek khilouna hai, chaahen woh Hindu Hriday Samrat ho ya romance ka badshah ho.

Mumbai-based Ali Peter John is a veteran film journalist who worked for Screen, the film weekly of the Indian Express Group, for over 40 years, and has seen the highs and lows of tinsel town.

 

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