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Maharaj review: Weak performances and overdone male saviour complex

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Karishma Jangid
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Maharaj review

Despite its historical inspiration, "Maharaj" suffers from poor acting and a problematic protagonist. The film’s male saviour complex and regressive dialogues make it a frustrating watch.

I don’t consider myself a harsh critic; I’m fine with average content as long as it’s entertaining. Even if I watch a poorly made film, I usually move on. However, Maharaj is so infuriating to watch that one cannot help but be disappointed. Each scene is so regressive and repulsive that any potential entertainment becomes inconsequential.

Yash Raj Films and Siddharth P Malhotra’s film is based on the real-life 1862 Maharaj Libel case. Karsandas Mulji (Junaid Khan), a Mumbai-based journalist, is heartbroken when his fiancée Kishori (Shalini Pandey) commits charan seva for the local priest Jadunathji Maharaj (Jaideep Ahlawat). Charan seva is a polite term for the rape that Jadunath perpetrates in the presence of spectators under the guise of tradition. Hence, Karsan begins writing against Jadunath in his newspaper, leading to a defamation case by the latter. Thus, Maharaj is almost a biopic of the social reformer Karsandas Mulji.

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The film’s intentions seem noble, but it packs a lot of sinisterness. Khan, unfortunately, has debuted with an extremely toxic and misogynistic character. Karsan believes he knows better than women about their own lives. He does not respect uneducated girls. When Kishori practices charan seva due to her conditioning, his first reaction is to blame her and call her stupid. Everyone in the film, including Karsan, refers to non-virgin women as jhootan, or leftovers left by one man for another. The repeated implication is that women are supposed to give their bodies to their husbands first. In one scene, Karsan playfully but disturbingly says he will break Kishori’s legs if she leaves him. Later, Viraj (Sharvari Wagh) falls in love with him because he is seen as a saviour, but he is irritated by her mispronouncing 'sh' as 'sa.' The film is filled with a male saviour complex, focusing more on Karsan’s struggles than on the actual issues. It is extremely shocking that the film has been written by Sneha Desai, writer of Laapataa Ladies, and Kausar Munir known for Secret Superstar and Gehraiyaan

Maharaj's dialogues, though occasionally impressive, often try too hard to sound philosophical and become tiresome. They reflect the script’s half-hearted approach and political incorrectness. Everything the film criticizes- casteism, feminism, and hero-worship- it ultimately supports. For example, Maharaj starts with Karsan eating from a Dalit’s plate but continually references caste when discussing his profession. He is comfortable with caste divisions but advocates equality for self-satisfaction. By the end, he even proudly claims to be a Vaishnavite. Similarly, he criticizes the masses for worshipping Jadunath but when the masses regard him as a hero, he does not question hero-worshipping. He is the kind of man who proclaims, "Oh! I am a good man. I am a feminist," but his actions suggest otherwise. Karsan’s performative and selective activism is frustrating to watch.

Add to this Khan's bland acting that weakens the film significantly; even in the most intense scenes, he maintains a straight face. His dialogue delivery undermines his character's advocacy. Pandey and Wagh give promising performances, but the script offers them little and views them solely through Karsan’s lens, which is exhausting to watch. The biggest letdown is Ahlawat. Despite his impressive work in Paatal Lok, his potential is wasted here. Even his costume and hair seem more suited to 2024 than 1862. 

Don’t get me wrong; I am not opposed to men making movies about women. My only concern is that they shouldn’t do so at the expense of women. It doesn’t make you a hero; it makes you self-serving. And as artists, we must take responsibility for distinguishing between the two.

Maharaj is streaming on Netflix.

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