Maharaja Movie Review: Nithilan Saminathan’s ‘Maharaja’ has many “wow” moments, but they don’t result in an organic, cohesive narrative

Nithilan Swaminathan
The film stars Vijay Sethupathi, Anurag Kashyap, Natty Subramanian, Mamta Mohandas, Abhirami. The screenplay is so mechanically constructed that the emotional impact is muted.
Maharaja Movie Review

Maharaja Movie Cast & Crew

Production : The Route,Passion Studios
Music Director : B Ajaneesh Loknath

After Kurangu Bommai and now Maharaja, I think we can say that Nithilan Saminathan is a plot-based filmmaker – as opposed to a character-based filmmaker. This is not to say that a film that depends on plot cannot have solid character arcs, or that a character-based drama does not need a plot. But Nithilan’s films are so intricately constructed that surprise is everything to him, and this “big reveal” is attained by construction and contrivance meant to shock the audience. In Kurangu Bommai, this technique of hiding information and slowly revealing just what needs to be revealed worked relatively well. And – strangely, for that plot-based movie – it was the relationship between the characters played by Bharathiraja and PL Thenappan that gave the film its soul. That big monologue by the Bharathiraja character – that was everything. It established a friendship that defined the whole movie, from the breakup of an alliance at the beginning to the villain’s plight at the end.

There is no such through-line in Maharaja. The story is generic, and so are the events and the characters and their motivations. Things happen with such mechanical precision that the emotional impact is muted. Take the scene where a bunch of students are taken for a sports camp by their teacher (Mamta Mohandas). After the trip, when the bus drops each child off, the teacher does not check to see if a parent or guardian is there to receive the child and take them home safely. The child is dropped off, the teacher says bye, and the bus takes off. Because if this “construction” did not happen, then the story could not be set in motion. Take another scene, towards the end, where a cop (Natty Subramanian) gives us a shock. As a singular moment, it is super-effective – but how much better it would have been had we seen some of this cop’s work in arriving at that conclusion. At several points, it appears that connective-tissue moments or scenes have been cut off.

Vijay Sethupathi, in his 50th film, plays a barber named Maharaja. The sense of wealth is there in other names, too: Selvam, Thangam, Dhana, and especially, Lakshmi. Now, who is Lakshmi? The trailer kept us guessing, but the film gives away this plot point fairly early on. We know that Maharaja has a deeper motive than what he lets on, and these bursts of surprises are what keep us invested in the movie. There are many stunning “plot” points: the bit about the re-enactment of a crime, the reveal about a young girl, the scene where Maharaja sets out to do something good but his intent is foiled by cops, the big reveal behind the story Maharaja narrates to the cop, the shock that we are being manipulated by a different timeline… This is certainly a film that has been thought through. But these individual “wow” moments do not come together organically, cohesively. They exist as individual “wow” moments.

Perhaps Nithilan’s films may work better with smaller, tighter running times. Kurangu Bommai was barely an hour and forty-five minutes, and yet, barring the love angle, everything clicked. Maharaja is almost thirty minutes longer, and the padding shows. The Bharathiraja scenes are redundant. The police station scenes with Kalki Raja as a comic criminal are redundant. The surreal scenes with a snake are redundant. (And anyway, this kind of narrative is too mechanical for surreal asides.) The two scenes where Maharaja shows his superhuman strength – at a school, at a police station – are redundant. He is a typical, traditional hero in this typical, traditional revenge story, and this touch adds nothing to the character. The endless slaps Maharaja receives – again, redundant. Or let me rephrase that. Had this been a more emotional narrative, Maharaja’s series of humiliations would be a way to tell us what he is willing to bear in order to get what he wants. But since he has already been established as superhuman, this attempt to reduce him to a common man doesn’t work.

Vijay Sethupathi works. There is an early scene where he is stunned by a tragedy. It is such a bizarre and random event that he stands frozen in shock, and a second later, a single tear rolls down his cheek. It is a cold character in a cold movie, and we get an appropriately cold performance. But Anurag Kashyap, as the villain, does not work. The character is introduced way too late, and the scenes with his wife (Abhirami) do not define the man in any way. It is too early to say this, but character-writing may not be Nithilan’s strong point. When a rape survivor says she will stay strong, it sounds more like a message to the audience than something that comes through the character’s journey after the trauma  Maharaja is certainly watchable. Even if the first half tests your patience, the second half – especially after that timeline shocker – has its rewards. But I felt the same about this movie as I did after watching Garudan. It’s a great story, but the screenplay needed to have supported it in a much better way.

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Baradwaj Rangan

National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, former deputy editor of The Hindu and senior editor of Film Companion, has carved a niche for himself over the years as a powerful voice in cinema, especially the Tamil film industry, with his reviews of films. While he was pursuing his chemical engineering degree, he was fascinated with the writing and analysis of world cinema by American critics. Baradwaj completed his Master’s degree in Advertising and Public Relations through scholarship. His first review was for the Hindi film Dum, published on January 30, 2003, in the Madras Plus supplement of The Economic Times. He then started critiquing Tamil films in 2014 and did a review on the film Subramaniapuram, while also debuting as a writer in the unreleased rom-com Kadhal 2 Kalyanam. Furthermore, Baradwaj has authored two books - Conversations with Mani Ratnam, 2012, and A Journey Through Indian Cinema, 2014. In 2017, he joined Film Companion South and continued to show his prowess in critiquing for the next five years garnering a wide viewership and a fan following of his own before announcing to be a part of Galatta Media in March 2022.