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Vijay Sethupathi, Anurag Kashyap’s Maharaja explores love through three fathers; but what about women’s agency?

Maharaja is a film that will keep you engrossed for 2 hours and 22 minutes. The slow unraveling of a man as he heartbreakingly tries to find his ‘stolen’ Lakshmi is truly captivating. Nithilan Saminathan’s screenplay in Maharaja is one of the best in recent times, yet there is a feeling that the film’s core story could have been handled sensitively. Deciphering the good, bad and ugly of Maharaja. *Spoilers ahead* (Also read: Maharaja movie review: Vijay Sethupathi is fantastic in this thrilling story about a desperate father)

A story about three fathers

Vijay Sethupathi in a still from Maharaja.

If you look closer, Maharaja is driven by the decisions of three fathers out of love for their children. Every incident that unfolds in the film is driven by the movements these men make.

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Maharaja (Vijay Sethupathi) is a hairdresser who lives an idyllic life until one day the life of his child Jyothi (Sachana Namidass) is threatened in a home invasion. The lengths he will go to for her, which seem hilarious at first, become shocking as the film progresses. You know the meme of how a father doesn’t express his love verbally, but you know it because he shows it through his actions? Think that a hundred times.

Anurag Kashyap plays Selvam in Maharaja.
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Selvam (Anurag Kashyap) seems to sleep like a baby despite poor decision making as his child Ammu will get the life she deserves. Selvam won’t cross any lines on certain issues, but he will turn a blind eye as long as he gets what he wants for his daughter. Of course, this is going to bite him in the backside soon.

Morally gray police inspector S Varadharajan (Natarajan Subramaniam) will bend the rules if it means avenging a girl because he too has a daughter. He cannot help but put himself in Maharaja’s shoes once he realizes what he is looking for. Nithilan drives home the point by showing us how Varadharajan has a daughter of Jyothi’s age.

The journey these three men take, regardless of where they are on the moral compass, is what keeps you engaged.

The curious case of Lakshmi

Early in the film, Maharaja goes to the police station to report that Lakshmi has been stolen from his house. It is soon revealed that Lakshmi is not a person or a pet: she is an old, beaten-up garbage can. In a film as serious as Maharaja, Nithilan finds a way to inject humor into it. It’s funny that a trash can that saved a child from a freak accident is treated with such reverence.

But when Maharaja starts to annoy the police with his persistence, you wonder if he’s doing it all for a dumpster. Why would his house be ransacked and only a garbage can taken? And then of course the laughter dies as soon as you realize how Nallasivam (Singampuli) sickeningly compares a replica of Lakshmi to the smooth skin of a young girl. There is a parallel to the way men treat women.

The endorsed wives of Maharaja

A lot of Maharaja revolves around women paying the price for the decisions men make. But the female characters in the film don’t really get what they deserve, and most of them have no agency of their own.

Kokila (Abhirami) and Ammu are around whom Selvam’s life revolves. But he lies to his wife every time she asks him where he finds enough money for their daughter. Maharaja’s wife Selvi (Divya Bharathi) exists only to establish her husband’s trauma. Let’s not even get started on why Aasifa (Mamta Mohandas) is introduced in this story just because she is literally sidelined in scenes that have nothing to do with her.

Diva Bharathi and Sachana Namidass play Maharaja’s wife and daughter, Selvi and Jyothi, in the film.

While these underwritten characters may be forgivable (they aren’t), that’s not how Jyothi’s trauma is used as a plot device to justify the Maharaja’s desire for revenge. The graphic scene is played mainly for shock value. Objectively speaking, is it a mark of a good screenplay if the director can pull the rug out from under you even when the film is nearing its end? Certainly.

But once you finish watching Maharaja, once Selvam gets what he deserves, the nagging feeling remains that the end result could have been achieved without putting Jyothi through hell, just to make a point.

Did Maharaja have to go that far?

We are shown that it doesn’t take much to trigger Maharaja when it comes to his daughter. A scene where he begs, threatens and refuses to move until a director apologizes to Jyothi after falsely accusing her is proof. He does something similar later at the police station. Should Maharaja the man, the father, go so far? Probably not, but since when does parental love make sense? You believe in the madness and love for his daughter.

However, Maharaja, the film, could have used a deft hand in the way it handles sexual violence. Yes, Jyothi gets a scene where she refuses to be defined by what happened (another character doesn’t get that either). But did she have to go through it at all before Maharaja suffered a massacre? Why do women (without escapism, even in fiction) have to pay the price in men’s wars?

However technically proficient they are and however compelling their exploration of a man’s psyche, filmmakers clearly still have a long way to go in tackling gender issues with sensitivity.

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