Netflix Review: ‘Maharaj’ a contemporary take from 1842

Photos- Netflix.

MELBOURNE, 23 June, 2024: Yash Raj Films’s (YRF) ‘Maharaj’ which is Junaid Khan’s debut movie has started streaming on Netflix, after clearance from the Gujarat High Court holding it did not hurt the Vaishnav Pushtimarg sect. This movie should not be confused with the Director Nithilan Swaminathan’s recent Tamil movie ‘Maharaja’, a crime drama.

‘Maharaj’ takes us 182 years back, to a real life 1842 Libel (a written defamation) case filed by a Vaishnav sect guru (Jaideep Ahlawet) ‘SriJi’ (JJ), argued at the Bombay Supreme Court, against a reform-minded bold journalist Karsan Das (Junaid Khan) for writing an article in ‘Satya Prakash’ in Gujarati which exposed how his involvement in the traditional ‘Charan Seva’, was sexual exploitation of female devotees.

The movie is a dramatised replica of the 1842 case, with large colourful sets, songs and often tense confrontation between ‘tradition’ (parampara) and urge to reform a popular superstitious and exploitative tradition. The issue has many a current examples with some sect heads in jail. The sexual exploitation of faith disciples being the issue. The fact this movie takes up this issue from 1842, reflects the roots of similar sounding contemporary episodes. For this, YRF, needs to be commended. And, no doubt, the issue resonates among the faithful in recent times.

Karsan Das’s moral and reformist crusade against Sriji is triggered by a personal tragedy, and the use of media (newspaper) and the hurdles faced, are no different for what journalists face today for raising people’s issues or scrutinising those in power across the world. The lurking danger of Libel in 1842 or 2024 for a media-person remains a potent threat, in the pursuit for ‘truth’.

Copies of ‘Satya Prakash’ are destroyed, and the press publishing it is burnt down. The battle between the forces of exploitation in the name of faith and truth for reform leads to an ugly confrontation. The Libel case, in fact, is the last resort against a resurgent media-person.

Getting evidence in a court is not easy and witnesses keep breaking and emerging. Finally, judge Sir Mathew Richard Sas rules in favour of Karsan Das. Since then, the movie informs us, the tradition of ‘Charan Seva’ got stopped.

The 2 hours & 11 minutes period movie, though high in content, is like a hurriedly made ready to serve dish. The child Karsan already is a questioning kid, as he grows falls in love, gets dejected after a vital incident, his journalistic pursuit, confrontation with Sriji, and so on. The dance songs look out of place. There is attempt to give the movie a Bollywood touch making it mechanical. The court scenes look routine. Screenplay could have been better.

Some dialogues stand out. For example, ‘Jahan satta hoti hi, wahan shoshan’ (where there is power, there is exploitation), ‘Dharma accha insaan banane ka madhayam hi’ (religion is a medium to make a good human being), ‘Akbhar jala sakte hain, sacchai ko nahi’ (a newspaper can be burnt but not truth) and Mahamari ka dar ho to chuae Ko marna punya ka kam ho jata hi.

Jaideep Ahlawet as the sect head gives a composed performance. Junaid Khan’s acting is average, and his designer dresses too glossy. The big sets do not fit in the movie’s serious subject. Director P. Siddharth Malhotra could have concentrated less on window dressing the movie. 

It is understandable why this movie is premiered through OTT. I would say, the movie is saved by its content. Netflix’s global reach could be an advantage.

The contradiction between the forces misusing  faith and the forces of rationality continues in the 21st century. One has to glance at the daily headlines to read the polarisation in society. Maharaj is a step in the right direction.

Maharaj is now streaming on Netflix.

Two and half stars out of five.




By Neeraj Nanda

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