Maharaj-Junaid Khan
A Maharaj poster featuring Junaid Khan

Maharaj Movie Review: Junaid Khan’s debut is too lukewarm to make a furore about

Jaideep Ahlawat and Junaid face-off in this squeaky tale of man vs godman
Maharaj(2 / 5)

Maharaj finally sees the light of day. After getting green-lit by the Gujarat High Court, the film is now streaming on Netflix. It faced the wrath of the right-wing as soon as its plot and poster were out. Petitions were filed, hearings were heard. But the film, in itself, is more mole than mountain.

It is an extraordinary coincidence (or not) that Junaid Khan makes his Bollywood debut with a film where he plays a man crusading against the powerful tenets of religion. Trotting on the road taken by his father Aamir Khan in PK (2014), he takes up the baton to call out the bigotry of godmen. Only, he does it with extreme caution. When he critiques the wrong practices of his religion as social reformer Karsandas Mulji, he follows it up with justifications like, "I am not against religion, but the wrongful handling of it by a few." When this is not enough, the makers insert shots of him praying in the temple, with eyes closed and hands joined, as a prayer is heard in the form of a song. Even if being part of a film where he talks about the irrationality of religious practices was just life coming full circle, doing damage control is a more conscious choice. He plays a character from the eighteenth century but clearly speaks to the present, both through the critique of religion and an unnatural subservience to it.

Directed by: Siddharth P Malhotra

Starring: Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey and Sharvari

Streaming on: Netflix

It really makes a strong case for how mainstream films need to have disclaimers in the beginning and in their filmmaking methods. You lay a few embers but drown them in liters of cold water. Due to this, in Maharaj, the helplessness of the makers because of the polarising times they operate in becomes a recurring motif. There is always a looming self-consciousness that makes them explain their case lest they face the wrath later. However, one may wonder, why choose to make a film on such a subject in the first place then if there’s going to be a whole lot of explaining to do? The answer is not very far. It is a matter of resounding relevance for today’s times when we have sexual predators acting as godmen like Yadunathji Maharaj (Jaideep Ahlawat) all around us. There are some big ones, who are exposed and put behind bars and still continue to have a large following among devotees, unlike the film’s resolution where the man meets his fate.

In this context, the fact that a case about a mass sexual abuse took place in 1862 and was won by Karsandas (played by Junaid in the film), the man who brought it to everyone’s notice, speaks a lot. It may make anyone turn the pages of history to find out the what, why and how. The film does the same as it quickly gives a timeline of Karsandas right from the day of his birth to his inquisitive nature growing up where he would trouble everyone with his questions. With credits running on and a baritone voiceover to assist, we see the major building years of his life unfold in minutes. It remains static all along, focusing more on throwing facts from his early life, instead of creating any memorable scenes that leave a sparkling effect. Cinema does have the ability to compress time but not at the expense of limiting emotional release, perhaps?

The storytelling remains simplistic and ordinary as Karsan grows up to be a fine young man and is about to get married to Kishori (Shalini Pandey). But tragedy strikes when Yadunathji Maharaj chooses her to do his charan seva on the colourful occasion of Holi. After some graceful dancing by Shalini through an awkward pairing with Junaid, we are introduced to the core conflict where the Maharaj manipulates her into giving him sexual favours. It is part of an age-old ritual where young girls are offered to godmen by their fathers or husbands, in order to bring them the boons of God. However, it gets a bit unpleasant later, as Karsan distances himself from Kishori, blaming her completely for what happened instead of seeing her as a victim in the larger scheme of things. The dialogues make him seem ‘holier than thou’, as he goes to belittle her for not knowing better even after studying. It feels forced and out of place for a character like Karsan. He is introduced in the film as someone who eats from the plates of the oppressed castes without a pinch of hesitation. His show of progressiveness feels tokenistic as he reacts rather harshly to his wronged lover, underlining the shallow treatment.

There are more such rhythmic jolts in the screenplay. It operates straightforwardly with a disordered mix of unclever twists, repetitive jokes and monologues filled with moral lessons. It places its bet on its leading man Junaid Khan, giving him scenes where he has to bring all his emotions to the forefront. He cries, smiles and tries to give a tough fight to the smirks of Jaideep, whose wicked soul protrudes on his face without any effort. Just one look at him and his viper-like calmness manages to send chills all over. On the other hand, Junaid isn’t as striking as a protagonist should be. He is just likeable; there is sincerity in his appeal, but there is something mechanical in his outlook. He has an undercooked, hesitant and nearly awkward personality that doesn’t quite jell up with his character. He will just make you believe in the good fight but fail to turn you into its foot-soldier. In the singular shades of his performance, it is the over-zealous presence of Sharvari Wagh that lifts the film from the clutches of monotony in the second half. A special appearance indeed.

With Maharaj almost getting banned before its release, Junaid has got a just welcome into the industry. Anything less would be ironic for him. After all, can one evade the ‘sins’ of the father? PK released in the election year in 2014 at a time when the country was at a threshold of change. Cinema then was not as much of a threat from fringe elements as it is now. Ten years later, Maharaj releases in another election year, when times have guided a shift in storytelling. Now, there’s fear of rightful self-expression. The camera is trembling and there is no room for poetic justice.

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