‘Maharaj’ review: Watch it for its delicious, subversive politics and Junaid Khan’s old-world charm

In another time with a different temper and temperament, Maharaj, a film about a 19th century journalist-activist-reformer taking on a high priest of a Hindu temple for his blatant sexual abuse, would have simply been taken at face value. 

But in this day and age, director Siddharth P. Malhotra’s film, starring Junaid Khan, son of Aamir Khan, is a powerful and subversive political statement at many levels. 

Maharaj packs in many delicious jollies. 

Nine years after Aamir Khan was attacked, vilified and victimised for talking about growing intolerance in India, his son is beginning his film career with a film that says faith is a private matter, religion must be practiced in private, and not be brandished on roads.

The film also marks the arrival of a star kid who can act, and is course correction for Yash Raj Studios which, just two years ago toadied up to the politics of hate and made the unbearable ‘Samrat Prithviraj’. 

Bollywood is an excellent bellwether. The stories it tells, tell the story of India.

And if the country’s biggest production house has mined the past to tell us a story that’s full of subversive politics that challenges blind faith, that questions a leader who casts himself in the role and robes of God, that holds courts to a higher standard, samjho ki waqt badal raha hai (the times, they are a’changing).

READ MORE: ‘Pushtaini’ review: A small indie film that takes on the big, taboo topic of men’s sexual abuse

Maharaj, based on a book by Saurabh Shah, tells the real story of the 1862 Maharaj Libel Case about a young Gujarati Hindu, Karsandas Mulji (Junaid Khan), who lives in what was then Bombay, and is inspired by the Parsi reformer Dadabhai Naoroji.

In the first scene itself the film establishes its two main characters. While an untouchable with a water pitcher hanging around his head, sprays water as he walks and announces “Be careful, an achoot is walking”, Karsan takes some chutney from another untouchable.

Meanwhile, in a haveli, which is a temple of sorts of the Vaishnav community, Jadunathji (Jaideep Ahlawat), JJ for short, is getting ready for Holi celebration. With clever editing, we see Lord Krishna’s idol and JJ being decked simultaneously, with similar devotion and regalia.

He is almost like the god of the Vaishnav community, who sets the rules. As his devotees place their palms for him to walk on, he sets his eyes on their daughters and decides who will sleep with him, when.

Karsan, who rallies and writes against the inhumanity with which widows are treated, is engaged to Kishori (Shalini Pandey), but when she is picked by JJ for “Charan seva” — a practice where young brides must first submit themselves to JJ, and only after he has sex with the virgins, can they consummate their own marriages. 

This sets off Karsan to take on JJ and his brazen sexual abuse and rape under the guise of religion. He does so first with his journalism, and then in court, when JJ files a defamation case against him for an article he wrote in his newspaper, Satya Prakash.

Junaid Khan, in a dhoti-kurta-vasket, is a breath of fresh air. There’s the endearing awkwardness of a newcomer, but also an affecting sincerity. He carries an old-world charm as Karsandas Mulji, and beautifully embodies the two things that makeup Karsan’s character — a revolutionary’s value system and thirst for freedom.

Jaideep Ahlawat here plays JJ not as a priest, but as the doppelgänger of bhagwan Krishna. Taking a cue from Nitish Bharadwaj’s Krishna in B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharat series, he has a perpetual smile and walks as if he’s gliding on air. Giving us only brief glimpses of the evil that lurks under his beatific smile.

Both the girls paired with Junaid — Shalini Pandey, and Sharvari Wagh who plays Viraaj, a young girl who joins Karsan’s editorial office — are lovely and play their parts with some joy and masti.

In several places, Maharaj reminded me of Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog (1982), and the film’s dance and music had many strains and twirls, inspired by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

But Maharaj belongs to director Siddharth P Malhotra, an old Yashraj-Dharma hand. In 2018 he made Hichki, and before that the terrible We Are Family. 

Maharaj is his most powerful, accomplished film to date. It’s also a film that will be talked about for a long time.

What’s especially interesting about the film is the deft handling of its politics. The film’s script, by Vipul Mehta, casts Karsandas & Co are not as nastiks (atheists) fighting faith. Instead, they are cast as respectful, ardent believers, honourable men and women whose faith is pure and touching, while JJ’s bhakts are shown as servile men and women, sycophants who can’t see how he is abusing his authority.

Movie: Maharaj

Cast: Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey, Sharvari Wagh

Direction: Siddharth P Malhotra

Rating: ***1/2 out of 5

Streaming on Netflix