My Name Is Bal Thackeray

In the middle of the Shiv Sena’s rampage against Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name Is Khan in Bombay, came the delightful news that someone had blackened Pramod Muthalik’s face in Bangalore just as he was preparing to oppose Valentine’s Day celebrations on Sunday.

I think it is rich that he should describe the act as “undemocratic” and against freedom of expression – as though such freedoms are the prerogative of just the bigots of this country and the rest of us have no democratic rights or freedom to do as we please, at all!

But that also brought to mind the fact that perhaps the Shiv Sena in Bombay has been the biggest loser this Valentine season. They are the original party poopers of Valentine’s Day celebrations – there was a time when Bal Thackeray had become synonymous with the term. I recall a friend in a raging fight with her husband who would not take her out to dinner one Valentine’s day one year. When this musty and old-fashioned gent started a spiel on Indian culture and traditions, my friend walked off in a huff, muttering, “There is no fun in asking Bal Thackeray out to dinner, anyway!”

Now the sainiks have no time to mount an attack as of yore on card and gift companies who might want to make a killing as people celebrate their love for each other. In any case, they have no reason. The Shiv Sena is now in the hands of Thackeray’s son Uddhav and he has no love lost for his divorced sister-in-law, Smita.

According to my information from inside Matoshree, the Sena only ever took up the anti-Valentine’s Day cause purely for reasons of personal pique. When they started the campaign sometime in the late Nineties, Smita was very thick with her father-in-law Bal Thackeray. And Thackeray Sr was pretty miffed one December when a very well-known card and gift company –which puts up huge Valentines Day hearts and arches all across urban India — refused to sponsor his daughter-in-law’s Mukti Foundation event in the battle against AIDS.

I am told that they had burnt their fingers the previous year – they were not paid their share of the dues even after several reminders and appeals and so decided to cut their losses by determining never to sponsor such an event ever again. None of Thackeray’s cajoling, pleading or threatening would budge this company.

So when Valentine’s Day came around a few weeks later in February, Thackeray decided to get even. For years after that the Sena vandalised all card shops and gift outlets on Valentine’s Day – and then, one year, it abruptly ceased. It must have been a coincidence surely that by then the reins had been handed over to Uddhav and his brother divorced that year. I believe Uddhav saw no point in opposing something that had caught on like fire, particularly for someone he considered no longer a member of the Thackeray household; indeed for someone he felt had no claim to the Thackeray name any longer.

It is also significant that Raj Thackeray actually encouraged the celebration of love soon after he formed his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena –he put up posters encouraging youths to learn ball room dancing (though that stopped after the first year when he received flak for encouraging westernisation among Indian youth).

Today, the whole world has seen how Shah Rukh Khan has stood up to Bal Thackeray and refused to pay up – yes, at the end of the day, that is what, I believe, this was all about. The Sena targeted Shah Rukh only because he had a film coming up and knew that producers and distributors would rather buy off the trouble than risk vandalisation and block crores of rupees riding on their films (that’s what Karan Johar did after all vis-à-vis Wake Up, Sid and Raj Thackeray). I salute Shah Rukh for keeping producers and distributors, too, from giving in to such low blackmailing tactics.

However, very few people know that much before Shah Rukh, one card company in India had silently determined not to give in to cheap arm-twisting and risked – even suffered – vandalisation and monetary losses for years before the Sena got off its back and the celebration of love began to happen in Bombay in right earnest.

Of course, the individual for whom these obstructionist activities were undertaken was herself organising highly expensive celebratory dinners for couples at her various restaurants across the city much before the vandalisation ceased, quite exposing the duplicity of the Shiv Sena in its campaigns – a point that has now been underscored by Raj Thackeray. For the first time I agree with Raj  – if the Sena can allow cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan to go forward unfettered, then they have an ulterior motive in targeting Shah Rukh Khan.

And that is not because he is Muslim or supported Pakistani cricket players. It is because he had a film coming up which had nearly a billion rupees riding on it. And opportunities like these are not something to let go of — if Your Name Is Bal Thackeray.

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