Vijay Sethupathi, Anurag Kashyap’s Maharaja explores love through 3 fathers; but what about women's agency? - Hindustan Times

Vijay Sethupathi, Anurag Kashyap’s Maharaja explores love through 3 fathers; but what about women's agency?

ByNeeshita Nyayapati
Jun 20, 2024 06:06 AM IST

Nithilan Saminathan’s Maharaja has a lot to offer. But the film is not without flaws when it comes to the bare bones of it all. Decoding the good, bad, ugly.

Maharaja is a film that will captivate you for its entirety of 2-hours-22-minutes. The slow unravelling of a man as he heart-wrenchingly tries to find his ‘stolen’ Lakshmi is truly absorbing. Nithilan Saminathan's screenplay in Maharaja is one of the best in recent times, yet there's a lingering feeling that the film's core story could’ve been handled with sensitivity. Decoding the good, bad and ugly of Maharaja. *Spoilers ahead* (Also Read: Maharaja movie review: Vijay Sethupathi is stellar in this thrilling tale of a desperate father)

Vijay Sethupathi in a still from Maharaja.
Vijay Sethupathi in a still from Maharaja.

A tale of three fathers

If one takes a closer look, Maharaja is driven by three fathers' decisions out of love for their children. Every incident that takes place in the film is driven by the moves these men make.

Maharaja (Vijay Sethupathi) is a barber leading an idyllic life till his child Jyothi’s (Sachana Namidass) life is threatened one day in a home invasion. The lengths he will go to for her, which seem hilarious at first, get shocking as the film progresses. Do you know the meme of how a father won’t verbally express his love but you’ll know, because he’ll show it through his actions? Think that, times hundred.

Anurag Kashyap plays Selvam in Maharaja.
Anurag Kashyap plays Selvam in Maharaja.

Selvam (Anurag Kashyap) seems to sleep like a baby despite poor decision making because his child Ammu will have the life she deserves. Selvam will not cross a line when it comes to certain things, but he will turn a blind eye as long as he gets what he wants for his daughter. Of course, this will soon come to bite him in the rear end.

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

The journey these three men go through, irrespective of where they fall on the moral compass, is what keeps you engaged.

The curious case of Lakshmi

Early on in the film, Maharaja goes to the police station to report that Lakshmi was stolen from his home. It’s soon revealed that Lakshmi is not a person nor a pet -- it’s a old, beaten-up dustbin. In a film as serious as Maharaja, Nithilan finds a way to bring in humour. It’s funny that a dustbin that saved a child from a freak accident would be treated with such reverance. 

But when Maharaja starts annoying the police with his persistence, you wonder if he's doing all that for a dustbin. Why would his home be ransacked for only a dustbin to be taken? And then of course, the laughter dies once you realise how Nallasivam (Singampuli) nauseatingly compares a replica of Lakshmi to a young girl’s smooth skin. There’s a parallel to be drawn for how men treat women.

The underwritten women of Maharaja

A lot of Maharaja hinges on women paying the price for the decisions men take. But the female characters in the film don’t really get their due, with most of them having no agency of their own. 

Kokila (Abhirami) and Ammu are whom Selvam’s life revolves around. 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 tale, only for her to literally be sidelined in scenes which have nothing to do with her.

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

While these underwritten characters might be forgivable (they’re not), what isn’t is the way Jyothi’s trauma is used as a plot device to justify’s Maharaja’s thirst for vengeance. The graphic scene is played for shock value more than anything. Objectively speaking, is it the mark of a good screenplay when the director can pull the rug from under you even as the film is nearing the end? Sure.

But once you’re done watching Maharaja, once Selvam gets what’s deserved, the nagging feeling stays that the end result could have also been achieved without putting Jyothi through hell, just to make a point. 

Did Maharaja need 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 pleads, threatens, refuses to move till a headmaster apologises to Jyothi after falsely accusing her is proof. He does something similar at the police station later. Does Maharaja the man, the father need to go that far? Probably not, but since when is parental love logical? You buy into the madness and love for his daughter.

However, Maharaja the film could’ve used a deft hand in the way it handles sexual assault. Yes, Jyothi gets a scene where she refuses to let what happened define her (another character doesn't get that too). But, did she even need to go through it in the first place for Maharaja to go on a bloodbath? Why do women (with no escapism even in fiction) need to pay the price in men’s wars?

As technically sound they are and as captivating their exploration of a man's psyche, filmmakers clearly have a long way to go to tackle gender issues with sensitivity.

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