Balkadu, or The Bitter Medicine of Bal Thackeray, is being released to mark the Shiv Sena founder’s 89th birth anniversary. But the film isn't about the man: it's about his often-corrosive message.

Balkadu articulates the party’s basic principles, including its unwavering position on migrants to Mumbai (not welcome), the general plight of the city’s Marathi-speaking populace (still terrible), the need to speak Marathi over other languages (can you survive in Chennai without Tamil?) and a call to action for its Maharashtrian followers (reclaim Mumbai by migrating to it by the truckload).

Balkadu opens on January 24, a day after the Shiv Sena’s leader’s birth anniversary. The party that he founded in 1966 is now a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government in Maharashtra. Balkadu is the brainchild of Sanjay Raut, the Shiv Sena’s representative in the Rajya Sabha and executive editor of the party mouthpiece Saamna. The movie has been produced by Sena follower Swapna Patekar. “Sanjay wanted to make the film to mark Balasaheb’s birthday, and the script was researched and written by Ambar Hadap and Ganesh Pandit,” said the 45-year-old director Atul Kale. “The script was filtered through Sanjay and Swapna, but the party has nothing to do with the movie.”

His master's voice

Balkadu stars Umesh Kamat as Balkrishna, a history teacher whose conscience is awakened after his school is threatened with closure. Balkrishna channels Thackeray’s spirit and personality and becomes a one-man vigilante force and preacher of the Shiv Sena’s main principles. Apart from galvanising the city, he also woos his childhood sweetheart Sai (Neha Pendse) away her North Indian fiancé Jehangir. Sai tells Balkrishna that she is engaged to Jehangir only because he has a well-paying job and two apartments in Mumbai  – a luxury apparently not available to middle-class Maharashtrians who are being forced by extortionate property prices to move out of their traditional neighbourhoods in the south and central parts of the city to the distant suburbs.

Balkadu uses a device previously seen in Lage Raho Munnabhai. The statements of various historical luminaries such as Subhash Chandra Bose and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi echo in Balkrishna’s head, but one figure begins to dominate. The acerbic and aggressive statements on the correct response to Mumbai’s state are in Thackeray’s own voice, Kale said. “We had close to a hundred recordings of his speeches and conversations, and we used sound engineering to patch them into the movie,” the filmmaker said. Thackeray usually paused after speaking a sentence, which helped the filmmakers eliminate the need for a dubbing artist and use the Shiv Sena chief’s own voice.

A birthday present

Kale said he was initially tense and apprehensive when Raut approached him to direct Balkadu. “One of the first things Sanjay asked me was what I knew about Thackeray,” Kale said. “I replied that I knew as much as the common man.” There was never an attempt to make a conventional biopic on Thackeray, one that would explore his early years as a cartoonist with the Free Press Journal newspaper, his founding of the political weekly Marmik, and the setting up of the party that has profoundly shaped Mumbai’s politics, economy and public culture since the mid-sixties.

“Balasaheb is such a big person, and there would have been too much research to go into,” Kale said. “There would have also been family matters to consider. We didn’t want to provoke anybody. We have made the film to speak about the Marathi people but also preach a bit to them.” Production started in August so that the movie could be completed in time for the birth anniversary.

Balkadu is most likely to be described as a propaganda film or a recruitment video for the party, which has suffered dissent, and high-profile exits in recent years, most spectacularly the departure of Thackeray’s nephew Raj in 2006. The movie describes Thackeray as an “action hero” and the only man apart from the warrior king Shivaji to worry about the plight of Maharashtrians. The opening credits are laid over a tiger’s roar to depict the party’s symbol and Thackeray’s political cartoons; the nativist politician’s visage and thoughts dominate the dialogue; the plot justifies the party’s repeated use of violence to enforce its demands. There is, quite obviously, no mention of the Shiv Sena's role in the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai.

Yet, Kale claimed that the film is more of a tribute to Thackeray rather than a mere amplifier for his thoughts. “Except for the song ‘Saaheb’, the movie is not really a propaganda vehicle for the Shiv Sena,” he said. “Otherwise we would have made the movie before the Maharashtra Assembly election in October.”