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Maharaja Review: Chilling

June 15, 2024 12:07 IST
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Maharaja is an audacious attempt that breaks down the tropes of a crime film with a brilliant Vijay Sethupathi in the lead, notes Arjun Menon.

Nithilan Swaminathan's sophomore directorial outing Maharaja hinges on an emotionally charged, disturbing subject matter that could have gone awry in the hands of a lesser film-maker.

It starts with a blank screen, over which we hear someone singing an obscure Tamil film song. We then see that this was from a recess session involving a game of Antakshari, played inside a saloon between the owner and his disinterested employees. We get introduced to our hero, a quiet, head-firmly-to-the-ground kind of awkward guy, a barber by profession, asking his boss for a day off.

This detail, like pretty much everything else in Nithilan Swaminathan's film, is derived from the text of the film and you see every accumulated information gets some sense of a payoff in the following bizarre chain of events.

We get an early glimpse into his quiet ways and the absent personality in this brief yet effective exchange. Like his debut film, Kurangu Bommai (2017), this film also brims with a sense of detached coldness that is funneled through a more mainstream approach in the writing.


Maharaja is a crime procedural in a lot of ways as it follows Maharaja (Vijay Sethupathi), a battered down, older man now, who approaches the local police with a missing case.

The missing entity referred to as 'Lakshmi' is a source of comic relief and we wonder at the zany context of its relevance in Maharaja's and his daughter’s life.

Nithilan uses the story of how the item went missing for great comedic effect even though Maharaja seems to take it seriously.

Maharaja'S peculiar narration of the events of the night and the thing that went missing becomes eerily funny through repetitions and the straight-faced rendering by the hero, who seems to be on the verge of an emotional breakdown over the missing item.

Vijay Sethupathi is the perfect casting choice to play the low-key, guarded figure, whose passive energy is matched by the actor's innate gentleness.

There is a blank quality to the way Vijay renders the lines and his held-back body language makes it even more difficult to read the intentions and motivations driving Maharaja's actions.

The performance adds layers of despair and lived-in emotional stakes to the screenplay that is content not diving any deeper into his psyche as a human being.

The actor underplays the uneasy squirminess of Maharaja's personality.

Anurag Kashyap gets to revel as well, in a broader, villain archetype, that is upended by horrible revelations. The performance contrasts nicely with the subtle obscurity of Sethupathi's passiveness.

Abhirami gets sidelined in a role that is best warranted to support the main engine of the film's tragic echoes and the rest of the supporting cast, including Mamtha Mohandas, gets very little to do to drive the central events forward.

Nataraj Subramaniam is highly effective as the sleazy, bribe-loving cop and his enjoyable rapport with the supporting cast of police officers provide some comic relief.

Ajneesh Loknath overuses the thumping, operatic score and sometimes nudges the emotional beats of the film a bit too far.

The camera work by Dinesh Purushottaman uses blacks to great impact drawing out the murky, dark undercurrents of the story.

At its heart, the film is a story of two fathers caught on the wrong sides of moral and emotional catastrophes in their personal lives.

Maharaja can be relentless in its portrayal of gratuitous violence and gore, which is a requisite in this exhilarating story that demands the physical catharsis and release of its characters from the grueling nature of their marginalised existence.

A barber, devoted to his work and his daughter, is dragged into a past misunderstanding that propels the narrative forward and we feel like playing a game of catch-up built around a crime and its effects.

Time and narrative ellipses are a key part of the film, and we are forced to fill in the structural design of Nithilan's smartly fractured screenplay that never bothers to explain the jumbled timelines.

Maharaja works more like a film of great narrative ideas that echo the sorry fate of two men, whose faith is sealed after a chance encounter.

Nithilan spends too much time in the darker details of some of the crime episodes and that adds a flavour to the film, but the running time suffers in the process.

Nithilan packs the former half with scenes involving Maharaja's stilted interactions with the cops and it almost looks like a workplace comedy, mounted on an emotionally stunted protagonist, whose straight-face sincerity and innocence becomes a butt of many jokes.

You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and slowly get to see the film play its hand ever so slowly.

But some of the ideas feel far more effective as story beats that work as a brooding, disturbing idea that is stretched a little too thin in some places due to convenient writing. For instance, the final moments with the police characters and some revelations feel rushed and convenient.

At the end of the day, Maharaja feels like a whole picture derived from the many accumulated images, details and reckonings that are tied together by an unexpected final revelation.

The brutality of the images and character motivations is balanced by the distancing tone that does not indulges in excessive drama, except for some parts.

Maharaja is a surprisingly novel outing, rejuvenating the tired tropes of revenge films with a morally challenging revelation in the final hour, that compensates for the little contrivances in the writing.

Nithilan Swaminathan comes up with an impressionistic image in the final shot of the film, where footsteps and drops of blood are used to draw out the fatal tragedy that has befallen one of the characters.

That image soars above anything seen in Tamil cinema in recent times.

Maharaja Review Rediff Rating:

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