Maharaj Review: Junaid Khan Tries Gamely To Rise Above The Tameness Of The Script

Maharaj Review: Jaideep Ahlawat towers over everything and everyone else in the film with an understated performance that exudes creepy mendacity.

Maharaj Review: Junaid Khan Tries Gamely To Rise Above The Tameness Of The Script

Jaideep Ahlawat and Junaid Khan in Maharaj. (courtesy: netflix_in)

The defamation case that Maharaj fictionalises with a fair bit of dramatic flourish was of historic importance. However, the Netflix film, notwithstanding the controversy that delayed its release, is anything but groundbreaking.

The YRF-produced period drama raises important questions of timeless relevance but loses the plot somewhat by choosing soften its pivotal postulations. It resorts to storytelling means that are disappointingly effete and undermined by equivocation.

Adapted for the screen by Vipul Mehta from Saurabh Shah's bestselling Gujarati book of the same name and directed by Siddharth P. Malhotra, Maharaj is a middling launch pad for debutant Junaid Khan. The actor is unable to break free from the limitations and burden the enterprise places on him.

The newcomer plays a young 19th century Bombay journalist whose zeal for social reformation in an era of great flux puts him on a collision course with a predatory holy man. Khan tries gamely to rise above the tameness of the script. It's a losing battle.

A certain degree of performative stiffness creeps into his fleshing out of the kind of fearless crusader that the audience can instantly root for. He is unfailingly industrious in that endeavour but is unable to conceal the enormity and extent of the effort that it demands.

Maharaj picks a real-life story that is certainly not devoid of intrinsic merit. More than 160 years ago, a journalist, inspired and encouraged by social reformer and political leader Dadabhai Naoroji, crosses swords with a powerful religious leader of the Gujarati Vaishnav sect who wields enormous power over the community and sexually exploits his female devotees.

The clash reaches the Supreme Court of Bombay when a combative Karsandas Mulji (Junaid Khan) publishes a daring newspaper expose and Yadunath Maharaj (Jaideep Ahlawat), head priest of a haveli (a religious order located in a specific temple), files a libel suit.

The man of religion is a charlatan who believes that he is continuing a hoary tradition and performing a divine duty by deflowering just- married women or teenage girls offered to him by their husbands and parents respectively.

The community sees the surrender of body and mind to the lust of the venerated Yadunath Maharaj, JJ to his disciples, as a way to earn the blessings of the Almighty. The godman perpetuates the myth and his followers unquestioningly buy into it. "This is both devotion and tradition," the maharaj says when Karsan confronts him.

Karsan is driven his radical ideas regarding women's education, widow remarriage, banning of the veil, abolition of untouchability and blind faith. He articulates his revolutionary thoughts not only to an enraged family headed by an orthodox maternal uncle but also to his would-be bride Kishori (Shalini Pandey).

He also writes articles in Dadabhai Naoroji's Anglo-Gujarati newspaper Rast Goftar to spread awareness about social evils. Maharaj is about one extraordinary man's fight against a powerful spiritual guru. It is also about an all-out battle between religious manipulation and individual resistance. But the film also addresses several other significant themes that have relevance across time and societies.

These centre on the dangers inherent in creating personality cults, the importance of free thinking in a society where large segments of people fall prey to indoctrination and the risks that uncompromising, intrepid journalism is inevitably fraught with.

In an emotionally charged exchange between Karsan and his fiancee Kishori, the former insists that one needs intelligence and wisdom, and not religion, to tell right from wrong. But he soon figures out that devotion, like love, is blind.

In another scene, a senior priest from Yadunath Maharaj's haveli advocates rationalism. One who does not ask questions isn't a true bhakt, he says to Karsan when the young man is wracked by doubt about the efficacy of his lone fight against an evil practice. And a religion that cannot provide answers, the old man adds, isn't a true religion.

Karsan is not exactly alone in his war against the gatekeepers of religion. Viraaj (Sharvari Wagh), a feisty woman who has trouble with intoning sibilant sounds, materialises out of nowhere and joins his newspaper as a proofreader without pay. Her backstory, revealed later in her own words, explains her enthusiasm for the job and Karsan's mission.

The undeniable pertinence of the issues that Maharaj addresses is undermined by its over-reliance on pretty visuals. But that is not to say that cinematographer Rajeev Ravi and production designers Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray are to blame in any way for the film's lack of genuine heft.

There isn't a single frame in the film that is less than perfect in terms of framing and design. Maharaj is Sanjay Leela Bhansali lite, a glossy production minus the eye-popping sweep and scale of a film by Bollywood's emperor of excess.

Maharaj is more intent on creating a dense sensory experience than on evoking distress and disgust at, and disdain for, the depredations that humanity is often subjected to in the name of organised religion.

We do sense the ugliness and depravity inside the massive mansion that represents the eponymous character's clout, but what we actually see comes neatly wrapped and delivered through means that borders on the overly coy and cautious.

To be fair, the craftsmanship on show in Maharaj cannot be faulted. The film is marked by consistent technical finesse, with Rajeev Ravi's camera never going wrong in bringing alive the period and the place. Especially striking are the hues of gold and russet crated in the maharaj's spacious bedroom by a combination of fire and smoke.

Jaideep Ahlawat towers over everything and everyone else in the film with an understated performance that exudes creepy mendacity. He never raises his voice and holds on to a near-beatific expression broken only by a variety of suppressed smirks, crooked smiles and all-knowing grins, all hallmarks of a man who thinks he is God and wants his flock to turn a blind eye to his dark deeds.

For all the elements that work in Maharaj, there is a whole bunch of others that don't. A period drama that has so much to say has never felt so inert and ineffectual.


Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey and Sharvari


Siddharth P Malhotra