'Maharaj' movie review: Junaid Khan's debut film is good, but boring

'Maharaj' movie review: Junaid Khan's debut film is good, but boring

Junaid Khan, Shalini Pandey in 'Maharaj'

Junaid Khan, Shalini Pandey in 'Maharaj'

It is a rare privilege for any film to reflect the destiny of its subject. In the 1860s, Karsandas Mulji, a journalist and social reformer, was dragged to court over an article exposing the sexual abuse of a powerful religious leader. More than 150 years later, Maharaj — a Netflix film based on Karsandas’ life and starring Aamir Khan’s son Junaid in his first role — had its release temporarily suspended following a petition from members of a religious sect (this was, unsurprisingly, accompanied by calls for a boycott on social media). Lifting the stay on June 21, a week after the film was set to premiere on Netflix, the Gujarat High Court ruled: “After viewing the film, this court did not find anything objectionable that would hurt the religious sentiments of the petitioners or any sect.”

Based on Saurabh Shah's 2013 Gujarati novel, Karan P Malhotra's film presents a dramatisation of the landmark 1862 Maharaj defamation case, an example of mediation by imperial British judges between religious conservatism and progressive reform in a subjugated nation. The case took the form of a defamation suit filed against Karsandas by Jadunathji, a high priest of the influential Pushtimarg sect of Vaishnavites. The case was fought in the Supreme Court of Bombay – as it was then known – and attracted widespread public attention and debate. Karsandas, editor of a Gujarati-language weekly Satya Prakashsuccessfully defended himself in court and was awarded a reward (which, as it turned out, was less than the total expenses he incurred during the trial).

Jaideep Ahlawat in 'Maharaj'

Jaideep Ahlawat in 'Maharaja' | Photo Credit: Kanishk Ingle/Netflix

Interestingly, Malhotra has moved the courtroom events to the final stages of his film. In retrospect, this is perhaps a wise decision on the part of the filmmaker, as such scenes in Hindi period dramas are characterised by comical wigs and exaggerated accents. Instead, the bulk of the film is framed as a battle between Karsandas (Junaid) and Jadunath (Jaideep Ahlawat), fondly called JJ by the followers. A charismatic man, JJ casts a spell on his flock, exploiting the vulnerabilities and ideas of female devotees and sexually exploiting them. Everyone seems to be under JJ's spell. Only Karsandas, himself a believer and a Vaishnavite, seems untouched by this, as he grew up questioning the superstitious practices – though not the faith – of his orthodox sect.

In his opening scenes, Karsan Das emerges as a beacon of virtue in a conservative world, advocating widow remarriage and smilingly borrowing chutney from the plate of an 'untouchable'. The film also presents him with an intensely personal motive for rebelling against JJ and exposing their sexual escapades to the wider public. Karsan's fiancée, Kishori (Shalini Pandey) – one of the priest's many victims – takes her own life after Karsan breaks off their engagement in disgust. He is made to realise his mistake: being obsessed about his fiancée's “honour” and not giving her a chance to free herself. From a modern perspective, Karsan comes across as a 19th-century male saviour; in fact, the film is full of men arguing about women's rights. There is some relief in the form of Viraj (Sharvari Wagh), who enters Karsan's life late and joins his campaign against JJ.

Maharaj (Hindi)

Director: Karan P Malhotra

Mould: Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey, Sharvari Wagh, Jai Upadhyay

Run-time: 131 minutes

Story: The real-life story of a journalist in 1860s Bombay and his crusade against a powerful, lascivious priest

Early in the film, a narrator describes the trading port of Bombay as “more of a concept than a city.” Malhotra and his writers give us a glimpse of the conflicting ideas and ideals that shaped India at the time: the modernising zeal of reformers like Karsandas and Dadabhai Naoroji, the intimidating influence and wealth of religious chieftains like JJ, the confusion and uncertainty of the masses. The production and art design are largely set-like – as was the case with another YRF production, jayeshbhai jodaarSet in modern Gujarat – Rajeev Ravi's cinematography, however, has a striking, painterly quality.

The film shows in vivid terms the terrifying hold JJ had on his community (we are told he became the face of the sect, attracting wealthy patrons on his own and consolidating power in his hands). At the same time, the film balances its critique of superstition and the cult of personality through an integrated portrayal of religion. When JJ bans him from visiting the temple (so as to force Karsandas to apologise), the young man responds by setting up a picture of Lord Krishna under a peepal tree and leading the crowd in an aarti. Much later, there is a sentimental echo of the Janmashtami story, in which a pregnant couple is dragged out of a bullock cart at midnight.

Junaid Khan is earnest and sharp as the hardworking Karsandas – he has Rami Malek's chin – though still miles away from becoming a compelling leading man: he's dull, especially in the courtroom scenes. You can see Jaideep Ahlawat – an effortless portrayal of the cool-faced villain – occasionally suppressing a smile when observing his opponent's ordinariness. Baarish has a 1970s-style confrontation between hero and villain; Ahlawat raises his voice just once, and that's enough to show the gulf between the two actors. Sharvari Wagh infuses charm and oomph into her limited scenes, and Jay Upadhyay (scam 1992) is low-key wonderful as the scheming ally of J.J.

Tamil film released earlier this year Annapoornani It was removed from Netflix following complaints of right-wing trolling and hurting religious sentiments. Maharaj — simple, quiet and self-deprecating — might have slipped under the radar if not for the sensibilities of our times. That Netflix has released this film, the debut of a major star kid, without any hype or fanfare, let alone a trailer, underlines the level of caution streaming platforms are currently exercising. It turns out the simple message Maharaj Progress is rarely, if ever, a straight line.

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