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More controversy brews after stay order on movie ‘Maharaj’

ByMeena Iyer
Jun 15, 2024 08:53 AM IST

Shah’s novel is the dramatic retelling of the story of Karsandas Mulji, played in the film by Junaid Khan who was a journalist and a Vaishnavite

Mumbai: A stay by the Gujarat High Court has not just put a question mark over the debut of actor Aamir Khan’s son Junaid Khan, but has also pitted several right wing followers against one another.

Bollywood actor Aamir Khan (C) with his sons Junaid Khan (L) and Azad Khan (R) celebrate Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in Mumbai on April 11, 2024. (Photo by SUJIT JAISWAL / AFP) (AFP)

The film, Maharaj, is based on a landmark libel case of 1862 that was filed by a leading Vaishnavite figure, Jadunathji, against journalist and social reformer Karsandas Mulji. While the case, filed in the Bombay High Court is real, the film is based on the 2013 novel about the case, written by the bestselling Gujarati writer Saurabh Shah. His other works include Ayodhyathi Godhra (From Ayodhya To Godhra), Modi No Virodh Sha Mate (Why the opposition to Modi), Modi Sha Mate Modi Chhe (What makes Modi, Modi).

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Shah’s novel is the dramatic retelling of the story of Karsandas Mulji, played in the film by Junaid Khan who was a journalist, social reformer, champion of women’s rights and a Vaishnavite himself who through his writings took on the priestly class of the community. It culminated in his campaign against the sexual exploitation by the all-powerful Maharaj, played in the film by Jaideep Ahlawat. Mulji took on the Maharaj over a practise called charan sparsh done by women but which became eventually a euphemism for deeper exploitation. Karsandas Mulji’s expose in his magazine Satyaprakash of this exploitative practice led to a libel case which became the celebrated Maharaj Libel Case.

The film based on the book, produced by Yashraj Films, was ready last year but could not find a theatrical release. It was then acquired by Netflix and was to drop at 12.30 pm on June 14 as per a media release.

However, a bunch of petitioners led by Bharat Zaveri, Girish Dani and members of the Pustimargi sect approached the Gujarat High Court two days ago seeking a stay on the film on the assumption that it showed the Vaishnav sect in a bad light. According to the petition, the film would “likely incite feelings of hatred and violence” against the sect. Though the movie has been cleared by the Central Board for Film Certification and Shah’s book has been in the public domain for over a decade, the petitioners fear that the “film may hurt public sentiments at large with its reportedly controversial depiction of certain characters and practices”. They have also written to the ministry of information and broadcasting separately to stall the film’s release.

On Thursday, Justice Sangeeta Vishen of the Gujarat High Court stalled the film’s release until June 18 when the matter next comes up for hearing. Adding to this objection, Bajrang Dal leader Gautam K Ravrija said they too objected to the movie but on account of the fact that a story based on schisms in Hindu society was being depicted by a Muslim man in real life.

While he remained unavailable for comment after the Gujarat High Court stay, the writer Saurabh Shah posted photos of himself at the Bombay High Court on X on Friday evening and wrote: “About 170 years back in time, a young Gujarati Vaishnav writer-journalist named Karsandas Mulji would be summoned to this building for the Maharaj Libel Case of 1860-’62 when he was just 28-30 years old. Jadunath Maharaj had sued him for the amount of 50,000 (today’s 5 crore) for alleged defamatory article. Today, this very building gives strength to another Gujarati Vaishnav writer-journalist to stand steadfast against mighty odds.”

Shah found support from the Gujarat-based deputy editor of the right-wing website Op-India, Meghalsinh Parmar, who praised Shah for his contributions towards the Hindutva ideology. “Do you really think a person who is ideologically committed and who worked extensively for Hindutva would write an anti-Hindu book and defame his own Dharma?” he wrote exhorting people to watch the film.

However, the legal counsel for the petitioners, Keyur Gandhi, told HT that the number of people joining the petition was only set to grow. “The petitioners are not just the Vaishnav community in Gujarat or India, there are around 25 trusts from across the world, including New York, Kenya among other places who have written in to say they are joining the petition to oppose the release of the film because they fear the film is trying to put the Vaishnav Samaj or sect in a derogatory manner,’’

Gandhi added that though the film had been ready for over a year, the production house had not released any teaser or trailer of the film as is the usual norm. “Why such secrecy?”’ he asked.

Despite several efforts to reach them, the film’s actors, its director Siddharth P Malhotra, the producers Yashraj Films and Netflix remained unavailable for comment.

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