The upheaval facing Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s government in Maharashtra is being spun as an existential crisis for his Shiv Sena party. State minister Eknath Shinde is leading the palace coup that is threatening to dethrone Thackeray. Shinde has justified his actions by claiming that that his faction wants to reform the Shiv Sena from within.

“We want to carry forward Balasaheb Thackeray’s ideology,” he has said.

The question of who represents the party’s political future better – the accommodative Shiv Sainik or the hardliner – is also the theme of a recently released Marathi-language biopic of Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe. Pravin Tarde’s Dharmaveer: Mukkam Post Thane, starring Prasad Oak as Dighe, was released on May 13.

The hagiography celebrates Dighe’s exploits in Thane, which neighbours Mumbai. Dighe is the “Dharmaveer” of the title – a righteous Shiv Sainik who is the true practitioner of the party’s belief in instant justice, asserting authority through brute force and Hindutva.

Eknath Shinde has a starring role in Dharmaveer as one of Dighe’s most loyal foot soldiers. Shinde is the first name to be thanked in the opening credits. Also among those thanked is Ravindra Phatak, the latest Sena leader to ditch Thackeray for Shinde.

Kshitish Date as Eknath Shinde in Dharmaveer. Courtesy Mangesh Desai/Zee Studios.

Dharmaveer is firmly in the mould of propaganda films such as The Tashkent Files and The Kashmir Files. It’s only the second biopic on a Shiv Sena luminary after Thackeray (2019), produced by Sanjay Raut.

The film provides an alternate history of Dighe’s life as well of the Shiv Sena itself. Dharmaveer tells us how to think about recent events in Maharashtra: not as a possibly externally engineered crisis to enable the Bharatiya Janata Party to return to power in the state, but as an internal moment of reckoning.

Slickly produced and a hit at the box office (its net earnings are an estimated Rs 20 crore), Dharmaveer is now available on the ZEE5 streaming platform.

Dighe was credited with expanding Shiv Sena’s influence in Thane. He died on August 26, 2001, at the age of 50. The film begins with the arrival of a clueless television journalist in Thane on Dighe’s death anniversary. She loudly complains about her assignment and says that even a Google search has yielded no information on Dighe.

The Muslim auto driver who is ferrying the reporter around informs her that Google doesn’t know everything. The film moves between the present, where thousands of followers arrive at Dighe’s memorial to pay tribute, and the past, where we learn of how he came to be the uncrowned king of Thane.

Prasad Oak in Dharmaveer. Courtesy Mangesh Desai/Zee Studios.

“Dighe built his base at a time when political life was becoming increasingly criminalised,” Anupama Katakam wrote in Frontline after Dighe’s death in 2001. “Using unorthodox methods, he was able to blend religion, politics and social work to virtually rule over Thane district and neighbouring rural areas. He successfully played the Hindutva card and his supporters even bestowed on him the title ‘Dharma Veer’.”

Dighe “never contested an election or aspired for any post”, Katakam adds. “He had become the de facto Bal Thackeray of Thane.”

The film emphasises Dighe’s mesmeric appeal. The tireless leader’s every waking minute is spent on planting Shiv Sena’s saffron flags across Thane.

Wherever there is a saffron flag, there is Hindutva, Dighe declares. He carries out his promise by leaping to the aid of Hindus besieged by Muslim mobs during a communal riot. Dighe succeeds where the police fail, staring down a group of rioters like Rocky in K.G.F.

Yet, Dighe is no Muslim-hater. I don’t despise Muslims who wear skull caps but only Muslims who are jihadis, he says.

Dharmaveer. Courtesy Mangesh Desai/Zee Studios.

Dighe sets up a parallel administration, dispensing instant justice for major and minor complaints made at his daily darbar sessions. He becomes Thane’s version of Bal Thackeray’s “thokshahi”, or the rule of the fist. Among Dighe’s proteges who leads a violent campaign against dance bars is Eknath Shinde (played by Kshitish Date).

Why did you break a bottle on the dance bar owner’s head, a police inspector asks Shinde. Because nothing else was at hand, Shinde replies. Dighe snarls at the policeman: look at these goons carefully, you will be saluting them one day. We see Eknath Shinde in the next scene as a minister, being saluted by the police.

Dighe also helps Shinde overcome a personal tragedy. When two of Shinde’s young children die in a boating accident, he becomes suicidal but is healed by Dighe’s counselling.

A law unto himself, scared of nobody and the object of fear by everybody, Dighe bows only to one man. After he loses a local election because of cross-voting by one of his workers, his phone rings. It’s a call from Matoshree, Bal Thackeray’s residence. Dighe is visibly nervous and stammers while talking to Thackeray (played by Makarand Padhye).

Makarand Padhye as Bal Thackeray in Dharmaveer. Courtesy Mangesh Desai/Zee Studios.

The senior leader is shown to be extremely fond of Dighe. When Dighe insists on selecting his own candidate to represent Thane in the state Legislative Assembly, Thackeray smoothly brushes him aside but doesn’t punish him for his defiance.

Dighe’s regard for Thackeray is absolute. He washes Thackeray’s feet on Guru Purnima, the day students venerate their teachers. Dighe’s own feet are washed in turn by Eknath Shinde.

The film valourises Dighe’s actions and presents his crimes as necessary responses to police apathy and the slow-moving judicial process. Dighe vows to hunt down the traitor who lost him the election, and he does. The man is murdered, landing Dighe in court under the now-defunct Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. He gets bail because of a lack of evidence.

That’s not the only crime committed by Dighe in Dharmaveer. He has a rapist brutally beaten up and killed (bury his body where it will never be found, he tells his posse).

Eknath Shinde washes Anand Dighe’s feet in Dharmaveer. Courtesy Mangesh Desai/Zee Studios.

After an accident lands Dighe in hospital with a fractured leg, one of his visitors is a young Raj Thackeray (played by Anuj Prabhu). Get well soon, our mission of Hindutva has to spread far and wide, Raj Thackeray tells Dighe.

Uddhav and you are the future of Maharashtra, Dighe replies. This is the only reference in Dharmaveer to the son of the man whom Dighe worships and whom Eknath Shinde now wants cast aside.

Despite being on the mend, Dighe’s condition deteriorates overnight, and he dies from cardiac arrest (he is previously shown to have had a heart attack). Dighe’s anguished followers accuse the doctors of negligence and set the hospital on fire. Eknath Shinde is among the Shiv Sainiks who carries Dighe’s body out of the burning hospital.

Dighe’s medical records are destroyed in the blaze. A journalist at Dighe’s cremation idly remarks that the leader was too young to die of a heart attack. He was fine until the evening, how could he have died so suddenly, the journalist says.

Anand Dighe’s story isn’t over yet, the end credits warn us. Dharmaveer might be a puff piece for a departed Shiv Sainik, but it’s equally a panegyric to a living one.

Dharmaveer (2022).

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