Film analysis of ‘Maharaj’

Thursday 04th July 2024 02:27 EDT

In the 1860s, journalist and social reformer Karsandas Mulji faced a legal battle for exposing sexual predators linked to a powerful godman. Over a century later, "Maharaj," a Netflix film depicting his life and starring Junaid Khan in his debut, faced a temporary release suspension due to objections from a religious sect. Following a Gujarat High Court review, the stay was lifted on June 21, affirming the film did not violate religious sentiments.

Based on Saurabh Shah's 2013 Gujarati novel, Siddharth P Malhotra's film dramatises the historic 1862 Maharaj libel case. This landmark event involved Karsandas Mulji, accused of defamation by Jadunathji, a prominent priest of the Pushtimarga sect in Bombay's Supreme Court. The case sparked significant public debate amidst British colonial rule in India.

Malhotra strategically shifts the courtroom scenes to the end of his film, likely to avoid the clichés of Hindi period dramas with their comical wigs and exaggerated accents. Instead, the film focuses on the intense conflict between Karsandas (played by Junaid) and Jadunath (Jaideep Ahlawat), known affectionately as JJ among followers. JJ, a charismatic leader, manipulates and exploits female devotees, while Karsandas, despite his own Vaishnavite beliefs, remains sceptical of his sect's superstitious practices yet loyal to his faith.

In his introductory scenes, Karsandas stands out for advocating widow remarriage and bridging social divides, such as sharing food with an 'untouchable'. The film drives his crusade against JJ, motivated by personal tragedy when his fiancée, Kishori (Shalini Pandey), falls victim to JJ's exploitation and takes her own life. Karsandas grapples with his role as a male saviour in a patriarchal society, while the narrative explores conflicting ideals in 19th-century Bombay—modernising reforms versus entrenched religious power. Some respite is offered in the form of Viraaj (Sharvari Wagh), who makes a late entry into Karsan’s life and joins him in his crusade against JJ. The film's production and art design, akin to a stage set, reflect a painterly quality through Rajeev Ravi’s cinematography.

The film vividly depicts JJ's powerful influence over his sect, consolidating wealth and power under his leadership. It critiques blind faith and personality cults while emphasising the essence of religion. The narrative also echoes the Janmashtami tale with a dramatic rescue of a pregnant couple by bullock cart at midnight. Junaid Khan earnestly portrays Karsandas, though his courtroom scenes lack dynamism. Jaideep Ahlawat impresses as the calm yet menacing JJ, contrasting sharply with Khan's character. Sharvari Wagh adds charm in her brief role, and Jay Upadhyay (Scam 1992) shines as JJ's cunning aide.

"Maharaj" remains relevant today as the events of 1862 resonate with contemporary mindsets

Speaking about the “Maharaj” controversy, Cinema academician, independent filmmaker and film analyst Rochak Saxena said, “The Vaishnavite sect Pustimargi alleged the film misrepresented their religious beliefs. This happened before the release of the film. This is also a rare case where not even the trailer had been put out. The film is based on a book, which is already out in public domain, hence I personally believe that the controversy was uncalled for. A Gujarat High Court order however temporarily halted the film's June 14 release based on these concerns. However, the film got a clean chit later and finally released on Netflix on June 21. It did invite a lot of publicity for the film, which resulted in heavy viewing of the film upon its release.”

Discussing the controversy of the 1800s case in Maharaj, he remarked, “The situation is strikingly similar to the audience's reception of the web-series ‘Ashram’ today. Many cases also came to fore on social media. It was evident that such incidents do happen. Asaram Bapu and Baba Ram Rahim cases are examples. The film ‘Sirf Ek Banda Kaafi Hai’ also talked about the same phenomenon. Ofcourse, there are criticisms as well. But where there is art, there will be criticism. What happens today in times of intolerance, the moment we point fingers at a person, it is misconstrued as pointing fingers at the religion. The Hollywood film ‘Spotlight’ is a classic example. Pakistani films, ‘Khuda Ke Liye’ and ‘Bol’ are also prominent examples. ‘OMG Oh My God’ has been a long running successful play, adapted into a film. In such times, it is important for audiences and people from all walks of life to understand that such films or series don’t tarnish the religion but only call out the so-called custodians who think they themselves are Godly. ‘Maharaj’ is relevant because an incident that happened in 1862 is very well connected to the mind-set of the people today, and it is important that we understand the difference between right and wrong well.”

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