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An in-form Vikram stars in a middling film that is dense with meaning- Cinema express

Mahaan Movie Review: An in-form Vikram stars in a middling film that is dense with meaning

Mahaan may not be among Karthik Subbaraj's better work, but it’s still worth being kind to, if only for some fascinating writing choices

Published: 10th February 2022
Dhruv and Vikram in Mahaan

I've missed seeing Vikram perform. In Karthik Subbaraj’s latest film, Mahaan—a gangster extravaganza if you will—it’s a pleasure to see the actor in full flight and strive to lift the film along with him. He plays a character named… Gandhi Mahaan, who from childhood, gets mocked for the name. You see why—Gandhi and his principles are thought to be so pure that they have become aspirational and almost unattainable. “What’s your name again? Gandhi Mahaan? Lol.” The insinuation, of course, is that no man can become worthy of the name, and this suggestion that the great leader’s ideas could be beyond reach (and the general misrepresentation of his principles) is what Mahaan stands against.

Director: Karthik Subbaraj

Cast: Vikram, Dhruv Vikram, Bobby Simha, Simran, Sananth

It's a Karthik Subbaraj film, and so, our Gandhi Mahaan, fatigued of his squeaky-clean life and routine, grows into sin, corruption, and crime. Vikram is all swag in these portions as you can imagine, but I liked him even better in the latter portions of the film when Gandhi grows old, and turns jaded and lonely. Watch him in that reunion scene with his son, Dada (Dhruv Vikram), go from elation to horror to confusion. Watch him, from then on, wrestle with unstoppable love, confusion, sorrow, guilt… Watch him be the victim of this cocktail of emotions in every scene. Watch him be human and at the receiving end of punishment he knows he deserves. Vikram is wonderful in these spaces.

The film, not so much, and I say this with a really heavy heart. However, the film does have some admirable stretches of writing and filmmaking—that all-important scene between Sathya (Bobby Simha) and Gandhi is delicious in how it plays out slowly towards its Tarantino-esque resolution. It’s a mainstream film that operates under the limitation of doing justice to its star and also his son. And yet, Karthik Subbaraj manages to fill the material with meaning, subtext, philosophy, homages… It’s all quite dense.

In fact, perhaps a bit too much than this film, despite its 150-odd-minute runtime, is able to do justice to. Too much seems to happen too fast, and it doesn’t help that the film expects you to buy its many coincidences as well. Gandhi’s friendship with Sathya is a blur. The rise of Dada, Gandhi’s son, is a blur. The political rise of Gnanam (Vettai Muthukumar) is a blur. And above all, Gandhi’s own descent from being a poster-boy of purity is a blur. Before you can make peace, the film takes you across years, back and forth, through developments that filmmakers sometimes need whole franchises to cover. My most favourite of the many phases of Gandhi’s life is the earliest, when the Ambi-like Gandhi moves to the dark side, in search of the entertainment of sin and mistakes… and in essence, life. In a sense, the film argues that the absence of sin is perhaps the absence of life. And for that reason, Mahaan could well be seen as an affirmation of life, despite being as violent and dark. This almost oxymoronic quest of the film is quite fascinating to think about. Equally interesting is how this film, with all its period-hopping ambition and sprawling quality, is, in essence, an intimate story of two families. I enjoyed that Mahaan has all these ideas in its foundation; I liked that it speaks with love of sin and forgiveness, of regret and repentance, particularly through the character of Sathya—who, despite being the violent head of an alcohol company, comes across as a better person than almost everyone else around him.

Who’s a Mahaan? Is he a person who has never erred in life or one who has learned from his errors? This question is central to this film, and you can see this from its stand against extremism, covering both ends of sin and abstinence. The film’s opening quote, for this reason, is Gandhian: “Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.” All this rings quite relevant in today’s age of intolerant, hate politics that weaponises ‘purity’. While our films have always vilified the extremes of sin, it’s fascinating that Mahaan bravely stands against virtue-signalling abstinence devoid of empathy and forgiveness. And this is why I enjoy Karthik Subbaraj films. Even in a Mahaan that doesn’t quite leave you breathless with gratification, there’s so much to process and unpack, even if it’s not all explored to great satisfaction. Take something as straightforward as character names, and you will notice that a Gnanam is pitted against Sathyavan. It's hard to believe that it’s simply a coincidence that Sathyavan is a Christian character who can’t stand Gnanam. It’s hard not to think about Christianity’s conviction that Gnanam (knowledge) is sin. Without Sathyam, can there be a Gnanam? Again, Mahaan may not necessarily explore these ideas in their totality, but it likeably keeps trying to go beyond the obvious.

Is it a Karthik Subbaraj film if it doesn’t have homages and cheeky references? A Fistful of Dollars, Rajini films like Annamalai, Baasha, and the filmmaker’s own Petta… Given that one of the families in the film has ancestors who were freedom fighters, we have a Gandhi Mahaan, a Mohandoss, a Dadabhai Naoroji (named perhaps because the late leader went on to live in Britain, among the ‘villains’?). In this film, rather curiously, there are plenty of homages to Vikram’s own filmography as well. I thought of Raavanan when Dada (Dhruv) got all frenzied. I thought of Anniyan when an unconscious Gandhi suddenly sprang up to send the enemy flying. I’m pretty sure I thought of films like Gemini and Saamy as well, among other films.

How I enjoy watching Bobby Simha in Karthik Subbaraj films. In this director’s work, somehow, the actor seems liberated and challenged in a way he doesn’t otherwise. Like in Jigarthanda, here too, he plays a character well past his actual age; here, he’s even the father of a young man. In fact, in a sense, he feels like a reformed ‘Assault’ Sethu, a character who has done it all and now seeks silence and forgiveness. For that reason, he is a perfect foil to the avarice of Gandhi (“paththala!”). I also liked Sananth, who plays his son, Rocky, a spoilt young man, who hides much vulnerability behind a fun-loving exterior.

Right, right, what about Dhruv, you ask? He’s a looker, sure, and exudes charisma too. I’m not sure why he needed to play Dada as a deranged man though, which really keeps him at a distance and away from our empathy. All we get is a swift montage to chart his growth from childhood, and this urgency doesn’t allow to truly register the trauma of his upbringing. I enjoyed how Gandhi seems conflicted about him though. As for Simran’s Nachi, we don’t understand much of her. She’s unidimensional, a shrill nag who cannot be spoken to.

Can Santhosh Narayanan do any wrong? He comes up trumps again, or should I say, trumpets, given their use in this film? Testament to his good work is that Sathyavan-Gandhi confrontation scene and how wonderfully he uses the solo piano to register the shifting emotions and the ensuing tragedy. These are tasteful flourishes we have almost begun to take for granted in this filmmaker’s work (that basement murder scene is enjoyable too). Again, Mahaan may not be among his better work, but it’s still worth being kind to, if only for some fascinating writing choices. Where else are we going to see a hero called Gandhi who murders and drinks? Where else are you going to see a hero refer to his beloved son as a ‘chella naai kutty’? Where else, in this virtue-signalling era, are you going to see a drunkard hero make a passionate argument for the freedom to sin and make mistakes? Yes, this isn’t his best work, but remember that Gandhian quote the film opens with?

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