An unforgettable finish makes this a winning thriller

Or let’s consider the barber and his workplace, a ‘saloon’—which is generally considered with contempt too.
 Vijay Sethupathi in Maharaja.
Vijay Sethupathi in Maharaja.

It’s strange, isn’t it—that we don’t really see the garbage bin as an object worthy of much respect. It seems generally to be a symbol of something ugly and dirty, even though it takes on the selfless task of clearing its environment of muck. This is an object quite central to Nithilan Swaminathan’s second film, Maharaja.

Or let’s consider the barber and his workplace, a ‘saloon’—which is generally considered with contempt too. In Maharaja, it’s not a coincidence that the protagonist (Vijay Sethupathi), who reveres a garbage bin as ‘Lakshmi’, works as a barber.

And rather ironically, it’s another place of service—a police station—that gets all the respect in our society, even though that’s where corruption and negligence seems rampant. It’s all rather unfair—as if Maharaja suggests that our world is rather cold and cruel, and not with any sensible design.

Maharaja is a world in which for no comprehensible reason a lorry rams into a home, destroying lives. It’s a world in which a man goes out of his way to help another but gets mistakenly identified as the enemy. There’s a lot more I’d tell you here if not for the spoilers. It’s a world of gut-wrenching pain, and perhaps for that reason, the striking images of the two main characters, Maharaja and Selvam (Vijay Sethupathi and Anurag Kashyap) are of them, at different times, screaming in agony.

The first half of this film hardly betrays such intensity, with small, disconnected pieces of the complex puzzle leaving us almost aloof. If you are quick to impatience, you might just process it all as frustrating lack of direction. Maharaja is a whodunit, and strangely enough, it’s also a whats-been-done. The story is hardly new, but the value is in the screenplay that masks the story simplicity in a deliberately complex design.

The film slowly unravels the curtains off the answers to the questions of ‘what happened’ and ‘who did it’, while presenting scenes from the past and present at once. The timeline of events is rather ambiguous for a while. During this period, some violence in the first half doesn’t quite register with meaning, even if the imagery is striking and provocative. It’s a film you have to work to piece together a bit in your head, as you are walking out, reeling from the intense end.

Maharaja’s is not at all a world for mirth. And yet, the film is a bit overeager to create humour for a while, perhaps because it’s worried about coming across as dry and cold. A few jokes work—like the opening scene in which a game of antakshari results in Maharaja asking for leave. However, the police station humour bits don’t always land. In a film about unspeakable darkness (or in any film for that matter), it’s surely not a wise choice to try and draw humour from a lathi crashing into a suspect’s buttocks.

To be fair to Sethupathi (whose 50th film this is), he observes incredible levels of restraint where another actor might feel tempted to sell out for humour. I think we are all quite fortunate for the actor’s refusal to do what mainstream star aspirants do. Intense, meaningful films like Maharaja benefit immensely from his presence and these unusual qualities. Another lead actor might have played up the masculinity, for instance.

Sethupathi doesn’t—and for his role of a ‘male saviour’, he also seems to get punished by the film in many ways. He is derisively called ‘kuppathotti’; he gets slapped about; he is forced to do menial tasks. Such is the cost of doggedness, it seems. In speaking about his performance, I particularly enjoyed that scene where his eyes identify a culprit on the basis of an offhanded gesture.

Even in general, he does so well in this film by not betraying his secrets but doing just enough with his performance to ensure that something seems constantly off. If Sethupathi observes restraint, Anurag Kashyap is allowed to cackle without restraint. If Sethupathi’s eyes hide emotions, Kashyap’s spill madness. Point, counterpoint.

It’s a film with many curious details that add to its likeable strangeness. There’s a man who supposedly has ears on his back. There’s a man who seems to possess super-human upperbody strength—a man who won’t let things go, in more ways than one. This man also strangely keeps rubbing people’s backs. A cobra features at one point, playing its (divine?) part.

My favourite moment is the coincidence of a balloon going off at one point that results in an unintended gunshot. Somewhere, a pendant of baby feet becomes an important symbol too. All these details ensured that I wasn’t processing this as just another film of its kind—and there’s enough subtext too, say, about deeper ideas like paternal love.

There’s a father who believes in quiet, hard work, and who takes pride in the smarts of his daughter. There’s another who gets a bit taken by expensive gifts, about overextending his means to provide luxuries. There’s more subtext in how they both handle losses: the constructive way, the destructive way. Point. Counterpoint.

In this film about horrible and horrified men, the women suffer. Maharaja’s wife is an early casualty. Another woman, the wife of a major character, dies a different sort of death. But the most important of all, Maharaja’s daughter (Jyoti)—in a crucial scene at the end—holds her own. This, to me, defines how we should perceive her and how we should not.

In very few films that deal with this topic, do we have a woman tell her protector-caretaker, “Please step out and give me a moment.” This is a girl who shows personality much earlier too—as she dispenses advice to her father, as she controls the reins at home, as she chases her dream and works hard at it.In the cruel world of Maharaja, violence, gore, abuse… they are all natural allies.

And yet, on occasion, I wondered if some hyper-violent moments served any deep purpose, apart from merely existing for shock value. A man is broken and destroyed at one point, and for all practical purposes, he’s finished. And that should be enough, but no, the film wants him truly finished. In another scene, a character gets found out and we know what’s about to happen to him.

And yet, the film sanctions the action with approval from the police—who the film establishes as untrustworthy anyway. It also lingers a bit too long, I think, on a disturbing moment—overeager to establish evil. Its handling of catharsis too is painted in one too many wild strokes of bloodlust.

Maharaja is a film about actions snowballing into disastrous consequences. A bad man goes to a saloon and takes a phone call. And that results in a chain of disturbing events. Perhaps that’s why this film begins, in the same setting of a saloon, with a game—antakshari—a game that’s, in essence, a chain of songs, one taking off from another. The film is a rather wild song though, one that breaks structures and seems out of tune for a while. However, that end flourish, with all that orchestral pain and violence, makes this a winning song.

Film: Maharaja

Director: Nithilan Swaminathan

Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Anurag Kashyap, Mamta Mohandas, Abhirami

Rating : 3.5/5

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