Maharaj review: prehistoric anti-women disaster

Junaid Khan makes his debut in a Netflix movie that tackles blind faith and abuse of power. But what could’ve been a 19th-century #MeToo story is a typical Bollywood male saviour project.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic, who has been reviewing movies and TV series since 2015. He has written for NDTV and SlashFilm.

Junaid Khan in Maharaj Netflix movie
Junaid Khan as Karsandas Mulji in Maharaj // Photo: Kanishka Ingle/Netflix

Early into Maharaj—the new Netflix movie loosely adapted from Saurabh Shah’s book of the same name, which chronicles a famous libel court case from 1862—at the end of a frivolous song-and-dance sequence, a religious leader who’s known to prey on young, betrothed women walks up to his next victim as she celebrates Holi. The Maharaj (Jaideep Ahlawat) grabs a fistful of coloured powder and smears it across Kishori’s naked chest, essentially marking her. It’s disturbing. But for Kishori (Shalini Pandey) who worships him, it’s a moment of unbridled joy. She thinks she’s the chosen one, picked to perform a vital religious ritual. Her aunt says as much to her face. So, when she finds herself all alone with the Maharaj in his palatial room, she readily gives in to everything he asks of her.

Minutes later, the film’s protagonist comes storming into the room, having discovered his fiancée is in bed with someone else. Karsan (Junaid Khan) may be a journalist who passionately advocates for women’s rights at home and social reform in public. But he is what modern-day critics would term a pseudo-liberal. Instead of recognising the warped power dynamic and decades of societal brainwashing she’s gone through, Karsan blames Kishori. When the Maharaj notes that he ought to be satisfied with his leftovers, Karsan remarks: “I can’t digest leftovers. Not of food or honour.” A guy who believes in widow remarriage is also a first-class proponent of victim blaming. Maharaj makes it impossible to look at him as a hero for the rest of its 131-minute runtime.

Maharaj thinks it’s feminist but it’s the opposite

But it’s not just that Karsan throws Kishori under the bus—the movie does, too. The above scene ends with Karsan walking away from his fiancée and making the moment all about himself. (He cries like he’s the victim.) Maharaj—directed by Siddharth P Malhotra (Hichki), based on a story and screenplay by Vipul Mehta (Carry on Kesar)—isn’t just a crime against women, it’s also a crime against filmmaking. The film displays no understanding of how to approach these delicate scenes. Incapable of deftly highlighting the nuances, it opts for broad strokes. The ominous beats feel out of place. The comedy doesn’t have the right level of sinister. And the happy-go-lucky moments aren’t paired with near enough context to offset the sincerity.

Note: Major spoilers ahead.

Shalini Pandey in Maharaj Netflix movie
Shalini Pandey as Kishori in Maharaj // Photo: Kanishka Ingle/Netflix

All along, the script does wild mental gymnastics to convince itself it’s on the right side. When Karsan cuts off all ties with Kishori—rather than be the guide and support system she needs—she’s made to look like the villain for not being able to see through her blind faith. In her time of great need, Kishori (regrettably) turns to the person she worships. She briefly cuts through the fog, only for Maharaj to use that opportunity to rub her actions in her face. The film implies Kishori could never be enough for Karsan because she’s not a virgin anymore. (Ew.) Not satisfied with that, it takes it up a notch and fridges the character. Karsan decides to wage war against Maharaj—the same guy who wouldn’t fight for Kishori in the flesh. Hello male saviour!

Women are entirely disposable for the Netflix movie

But it’s not like the rest of the film is a torch lit in the name of Kishori. Less than 15 minutes after losing its only speaking female character, Maharaj introduces a new one in Viraaj (Sharvari). She exists not because she has a vital place in the story but merely because the Netflix movie needs a perky face. (She also serves as comedic relief due to her incorrect pronunciations.) And it’s not like she has a journey of her own. Five minutes in, she’s working for Karsan for free and offered her hand in marriage. Karsan declines because he doesn’t want to stray from his objective. Except that’s exactly what happens to the film. As Viraaj tries her best to romance him—we launch into another unnecessary song—Maharaj forgets where it is going.

Her true purpose is revealed only later: Viraaj, too, is a victim of the Maharaj. With Karsan having failed one woman, he’s given another in roughly the same position to save. On one level, the introduction of a second female lead and love interest signals how desperate Maharaj is to move on from Kishori. But more importantly, what it shows is that you cannot exist as a woman in this world if the Maharaj hasn’t touched you. Every female character in Maharaj is defined by the title character’s abuse. That narrow imagination results in a prehistoric film.

Sharvari in Maharaj Netflix movie
Sharvari as Viraaj in Maharaj // Photo: Kanishka Ingle/Netflix

Maharaj is poorly made and poorly told

The Netflix movie begins in 1832 with the birth of our protagonist, Karsandas Mulji, in a tiny Gujarat village. At age 10, he loses his mother and is sent off to Bombay. Alongside, a stately museum documentary-type voiceover—provided by Sharad Kelkar—drops bucketloads of exposition about his orthodox Vaishnav background, how Vaishnav Gujaratis operated in the British-run city, and the other characters you may or may not meet. A big issue here is that the movie tells us how to feel about every step of Karsan’s life. But the chief problem is that there is no storytelling—Maharaj drops a bunch of names as if they are Gandhi and Tagore. (The only real household name in this film is Dadabhai Naoroji.)

Jadunath Brijratan Maharaj—or rather JJ, as the film and everyone in it continually refer to him—is part of the weird setup too. He’s first mentioned in a throwaway line but doesn’t show up on screen until we’ve heard and seen five other characters interact with each other. When he does arrive onscreen, he gets a hero’s entrance. The kind that might be more fitting on some mythological soap opera. From the cinematography to production design to the background score, the treatment is exactly what you would expect of a cable TV programme. (Clearly, Ahlawat needed the paycheque, for he’s stuck playing a one-note smirking fellow.)

Speaking of acting, newly minted nepo-baby Junaid Khan—the son of Aamir Khan—makes his feature film debut here as Karsan. I don’t think Junaid is great in the role, but the script is just too bad for this to be a true judge of anyone’s acting ability. Are nepo kids really so desperate to get into the industry that they don’t care what kind of roles are available?

A mockery of court procedure

Following multiple false starts, Karsan and the Maharaj lock horns. After the journalist publishes damning accusations against the religious dude in the press, JJ pushes for Karsan to apologise. That’s all he wants for the bulk of the film, actually. There’s no mention of a libel case for well over an hour and the Netflix movie only steps into a courtroom for the final 20 minutes. But even when it gets there, Maharaj is deeply flawed. When it’s not indulging in comic relief thanks to the Maharaj’s manservant (Jay Upadhyay), it makes a mockery of court procedure. The presence of judges and lawyers is entirely performative. The finale is all about giving Karsan—a man who’s shown no real remorse, no moment of vulnerability, and no reason to root for him—a platform.

Jaideep Ahlawat, Jay Upadhyay in Maharaj Netflix movie
Jaideep Ahlawat as Jadunath Maharaj and Jay Upadhyay as Giridhar Khawas in Maharaj // Photo: Netflix

Crucially, Karsan’s grandstanding monologue rests on Vaishnavism. Religion, in fact, is central to the film on the whole. Maharaj takes great pains to establish that he’s a devout follower. The film wishes to tackle how blindly people behave in the name of religion. By attacking JJ, Karsan isn’t betraying his people. Religion isn’t about a few individuals—it’s about doing the right thing. Sometimes, that means you must rebel, go against your leaders, and fight for real progress. The film says being deeply religious—even in an orthodox system—and doing good can go together.

No hope for India?

Through Karsan, Maharaj also notes that religion ought to be a private matter and not in the public square. But maybe the film is too optimistic. After all, it’s arriving in a post-Ram Mandir world which has shown us just the opposite. It’s releasing in an increasingly Hindu nationalist India where films and TV series are routinely self-censored if not worse. Netflix is so scared of offending the masses that there’s a secondary disclaimer of sorts—a paean of sorts to Vaishnavs—in the end. Regardless, religious fundamentalists attacked Maharaj even before seeing a frame of it. They demanded a ban on the movie, completely missing the irony of such a move given what the film is about.

It’s been over 160 years—a hundred and sixty years if spelling it out serves to emphasise. Maharaj is about a case that’s older than the country itself. Yet the response to the film is proof that 2024 India is not far off from 1862 India.

Maharaj released on Friday, June 21 on Netflix worldwide.

Akhil Arora

Comments

2 responses to “Maharaj review: prehistoric anti-women disaster”

  1. Bhadresh avatar
    Bhadresh

    Really disaster movie, disappointing performances, very poor storyline, not worth to spare time.

  2. There is a genre of movies in India that just looks like Amar Chitra Katha in motion. This is not meant for that thinking person, as Karsan’s one-liner says.

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