Maharaj is scathing expose of sham gurus, blind devotees

Jaideep Ahlawat plays the title-role in Maharaj. Photo: Siddharth P. Malhotra 

We have had a few such illustrious products earlier, like the OMG franchise and Aashram, the web series. Once again, blind beliefs, superstition and everything that makes merchants (that’s the right word!) of religion flourish are tellingly exposed in a film. Yash Raj Films’ web debut feature film, Maharaj, is a scathing indictment of both uneducated and educated-yet-unenlightened folks, who fall prey to the unscrupulous “god-men” who label such evils as “parampara” (traditions) that must be followed. This, while filling their personal coffers and satiating their blatant sexual lust.

For that reason alone, this film is as much a must-watch as is the co-release, Hamare Baarah, which talks about the misrepresentation of Islam—this film opens up on Hindu religion’s unholy misuse.

This time, the story is real—a dramatized recount of the famous Maharaj Libel Case of 1862—that altered the life and cultural graph of innumerable followers of god-man Jadunath Maharaj, a.k.a. JJ. This ‘guru’ exploited nubile and even freshly-married young women sexually, abhorrently making it a perverse and visual experience for other followers to watch him in the act through multiple windows over the chamber in which he went about his carnal activities.

The opposition comes from young Karsandas, who has moved to his uncle’s home in Mumbai after the death of his mother and has a disposition to question anything his naturally evolved scientific mind cannot accept. Personally, he is deeply in love with, and engaged to, Kishori (Shalini Pandey), and when she is offered by her parents to JJ and willingly loses her virginity to him, Karsan revolts and breaks off the engagement. Kishori, having realized how stupid she has been and how JJ is far from holy, prevents her younger sister, Devi (Ananya Agarwal) from the same fate, and commits suicide as she cannot bear Karsan’s scorn.

Meanwhile, Karsan has been advised to look kindly at Kishori with the three words that he should apply to her—“Realization, Reformation and Rehabilitation”. But it’s too late to save his beloved, and an enraged Karsan vows to destroy JJ. His credo is—you do not need a “bridge” (intermediary) between God and you. You must merely be good. Karsan is now thrown out even by his uncle.

Dadabhai Naoroji comes to Karsan’s rescue and gives him support. Fiercely, Karsan, who is already writing articles of social interest, launches Satya Prakash, his own newspaper, to expose JJ.  But JJ’s snoops are everywhere and the first edition is burnt by his hoods. Karsan is soon disowned by his father as well, even as Viraaj (Sharvari Wagh), a vivacious young admirer, decides to join his newspaper to work for free. Love blossoms—overwhelmingly from her side first.

Finding Karsan determined to expose him, JJ, arrogant in his grandiloquent belief that he is all-powerful against this nonentity, decides that the only way to fight Karsan so that he is legally safe is to file a defamation case. The legal system is entirely British, including Karsan’s attorney, Arnsty (Jamie Alter, son of the legendary Tom Alter).

JJ makes sure those who will now back Karsan are removed either by coercion or threat. But Karsan is made of stronger stuff. Unexpected allies, including women who were JJ’s victims, come to his aid and Karsan wins the case.

After a fabulous Hichki, director Siddharth P. Malhotra shows further evolution with this film, which is released on Netflix. Everything is just right and well-executed. The cinematography (Rajeev Ravi) and the rest of the technical side (VFX, DI, production design by Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray, costumes by Maxima Basu) are perfect for the timeframe and subject. Shweta Venkat’s editing keeps the pace brisk and along with the script (Vipul Mehta) is realistic rather than showy and yet does not lose the entertainment quotient. Sneha Desai’s lines are again pitch-perfect for the ‘real’ tone of this movie, yet direct and trenchant in several places.

Though based on a court case, the film again follows a natural and real tone where exaggerations and ‘filmi’ tropes have no place. The drama that emerges is genuine, sans hyperbole of any sort, and so is the conclusion. Of course, the telling depiction of blind devotion (like when JJ, while entering the court, walks as always on the palms of his devotees!) shows how disturbing such gullibility can be.

The background score (Sanchit Balhara and Ankit Balhara) is expertly done, while the songs (Sohail Sen) are a mixed bag—not only in quality but in the mix of original and traditional numbers.

Junaid Khan, whose launch-pad this movie is, fits the character well. He is quite raw around the edges, but his sincerity is clear and his eyes quite expressive. Even if he may not seemingly be star material, he can clearly be a good actor.

Shalini Pandey is excellent in her limited role as Kishori, ditto Ananya Agarwal in an even more limited act as her younger sister, Devi. Sharvari Wagh is effective as Viraaj and Jai Upadhyay delivers as Khawas without going over-the-top. A special mention must be made of Utkarsh Mazumdar as Lalvanji Maharaj and Jamie Alter as Arnsty.

But the tower of this film is Jaideep Ahlawat. Words alone cannot describe his magnificent essay of JJ, whose fixed smile and unchanging expression change only when his menace overpowers, however, momentarily, his stoic and complacent ‘charm’.

The rest of the actors are all effective, with Priyal Gor as Leelavati, Meher Vij as JJ’s wife and Sandeep Mehta as Muljibhai leading the list.

A film that questions and hits out at regressive practices in religion, Maharaj will go down in movie history as a frontrunner along with several vintage classics and the contemporary OMG franchise. It is with such exemplary movies that the fake kind of films like PK, which hit out at a religion rather than at its warped interpreters, is also exposed. Never mind if there is a ‘starry’ connection between Maharaj and that film.

Netflix presents Yash Raj Films’ Maharaj  Produced by: Aditya Chopra  Directed by: Siddharth P. Malhotra  Written by: Vipul Mehta & Sneha Desai  Music: Sohail Sen  Starring: Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey, Sharvari Wagh, Utkarsh Mazumdar, Meher Vij, Sneha Desai, Priyal Gor, Vaibhav Tatwawadi, Edward Sonnenblick, Viraf Patel, Jamie Alter, Sandeep Mehta, Jay Upadhyay, Sunil Gupta, Ananya Agarwal & others





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