The Perils Of A Star-Centric Narrative, As Seen In Mahesh Babu-Starrer Maharshi

When one chooses the cinematic medium to tell a story or convey a message, the medium has to be respected, writes reader Ram Venkat Srikar.
The Perils Of A Star-Centric Narrative, As Seen In Mahesh Babu-Starrer Maharshi

What's more annoying than a bad film? A bad film masquerading as a great film. The worst case scenario is a bad, boring film pretending to be a socially and thematically important film. Mahesh Babu-starrer Maharshi by Vamshi Paidipally holds itself in very high regard, and that only pulls it back from even being an engaging watch, forget cinematic merit.

If intent is the sole criteria to judge a film, Maharshi is certainly far from futile. But, when one chooses the cinematic medium to tell a story or convey a message, the medium has to be respected. In the case of bad-filmmaking, the message takes over the craft. Neither of these are the issues with Maharshi, which uses both the medium and message to only honour its protagonist. The plight of farmers — which has become a hotcake for South Indian stars to enhance their stature post the humongous success of AR Murugadoss' Kaththi  — is reduced to another subject to bring the protagonist to the foreground. That's only one of the many issues with the film. 

Pitfalls of stardom

Mahesh Babu is a massive star and people go crazy to catch him on the big screen. Be it a slo-mo walk or a sprint, there's an aura he possesses that has cast a spell on millions; he's no less than a superhero for them. However, his stardom has confined him to a zone where he can no longer play the common man. 

The star's recent filmography, starting from 2015, proves it. He played a rich man in Srimanthudu and Brahmotsavam, an Intelligence Officer in Spyder, Chief Minister in Bharath Ane Nenu, and the CEO of an American company in Maharshi, the film being discussed. The last time he played a character that represented the common man was in Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (SVSC), one of the rare instances where he did let go of the star stature. 

Yes, all of these larger-than-life characters are accessible to a common man, but this very persona prevents Maharshi from being the film it sets out to be. A film should at least have a start point and end point, even if a layered character arc is too difficult to etch. All the more so, when the phrase 'Journey of Rishi' is not just used for marketing but even during the title sequence. The film gives cues — with on-screen text — that we are about to embark on a journey with the protagonist.

Imagine sitting in a car pretending to go on a drive without even powering the engine. After three hours, you get out and call it a drive, although you have been stationary the whole time — physically and emotionally. That's how watching Maharshi feels like. There is no character development, no change, and no depth, but the film keeps reminding us from time to time that the protagonist is going places. The lack of emotional punch is majorly attributed to the way the protagonist Rishi Kumar is written — as a perfect, successful and skilled person. Why is he written thus? Because, Mahesh Babu is a star.

Maharshi needed a simple protagonist, someone like the actor's own Chinnodu from SVSC or Sitaram from Nijam, where the character arc and drive are evident. Not that it's too subtle to notice in Maharshi; it is non-existent. It establishes him as an ambitious, intelligent, go-getter. But he is all of these from the word go and doesn't acquire them during the journey. For a film that banks on a character's journey, shouldn't we get to witness how he changes as a person?

When seen chronologically, Rishi develops a thirst for success and power during adolescence, seeing his father being ill-treated due to his incompetence. So far, so good. When we first see Rishi as an adult during his college days, he rides a Bajaj scooter — the symbol of the middle class in Telugu films — in style, with a massy background score. He is a normal middle-class abbayi, but is a mass hero who walks in slo-mo. Because? You know why. He exhibits the utmost rigour (read: overconfidence) in college as well. 

There is a scene that encapsulates my entire issue with the film. When Rishi is in the library, he is joined by his professor who asks him what he wants to achieve in life. Rishi casually says he wants to rule the world. To reconfirm and simplify his aim, he draws an analogy between emperors such as Alexander, who ruled the world in the past, and companies such as Google and Twitter, which rule at present. He stands up and delivers this monologue, while the mandatory electronic background score underscores Rishi's goals and impulse to achieve it. It is similar to any scene from a mass movie in which the hero vows to take revenge, but here, it's made to appear progressive. The man is already treated as an achiever, and this prevents us from sensing an accomplishment when he goes on to achieve greater glory in the future.

The film opens with the song Nuvve Samastham (You are everything), which precisely captures the film's treatment, and a line goes, 'Gelupuke sontham ayyavu' (Victory owns you). We are not even 10 minutes into the film, but are told he has achieved all the success in the world. The bar is set so high that everything else pales in comparison. His pursuit for self-satisfaction doesn't matter anymore.

Take The Pursuit of Happyness, for instance. It is a popular, mainstream biopic made for a wide audience, and is about the journey of a man. The difference, though, is that in the case of the Will Smith-starrer, the protagonist Chris Gardner goes through a painstakingly long stretch of hardships in his life. After months of suffering, when Chris finally succeeds, you feel his joy. We, mere witnesses of his struggle, feel rewarded when Chris reaps the fruits of success in a heartfelt climatic sequence. The joy and exhilaration emerge from his struggles, and the movie spends every minute of runtime building that up. 

Rishi's journey could have been equally intriguing had it focussed on the conflict. Devoid of that struggle, none of the success of Maharshi's protagonist feels deserved. Besides, the minuscule change in him — from money to self-satisfaction — is overpowered by the character's persistent and excessive self-indulgence.

In other words, we don't feel the punch when he achieves something. Take the example of Mahesh Babu's own Bharath Ane Nene, in which he plays Bharath, a Chief Minister, the most powerful man in the State. Having grown up in the UK, he is unfamiliar with his homeland and is an outlander, in a way. Throughout the first half, Bharath doesn't indulge in a physical confrontation, a rarity in the star's films. But when he finally hits a guy right before the interval, it lands supremely well, because the moment is held back for a very long time. The fight does feel out-of-character, but it also conveys that this person is gradually adapting to the roots of his homeland. We don't experience that kind of reward in Maharshi, and so don't feel Rishi's success — both substantial and spiritual — is earned.

Maharshi, regardless of how progressive it tries to sound and appear, is a quintessential mass movie. A character like Rishi, who is driven by professional aspiration, has to fight thugs in a scene. Seems like regular business for the star playing Rishi. The reason he has to fight is brand-new, though. Rishi's competitive class-mate Ajay falls into depression when the former beats him to become college topper, provoking his politician-father to bribe Rishi so his son can be the topper. When the righteous Rishi declines, a fight ensues. Imagine Chathur from 3 Idiots sending goons to beat-up Rancho. That's how awkward it is. For a film that believes it's progressive, the masala treatment brings it down, and how!

Rishi's self-centeredness is camouflaged as aspiration. When he parts ways with his best friend Ravi and girlfriend Pooja, we are made to feel that Rishi is a focussed person, who wants to stay clear of emotional diversions. In real life, he'd be called something else. Here, he's said to be an inspiration. 

Again, take the case of Whiplash, in which the protagonist unapologetically breaks up with his girlfriend, referring her as a distraction to his career. He is an asshole, and Whiplash doesn't shy away from calling him out for what he is. Making a mass protagonist not likeable is a risk that Telugu filmmakers don't take. Contrarily, Maruti's Mahanubhavudu has a tiny thread, in which the protagonist — who has OCD — refuses food when his mother wants to feed him with her hands. Towards the end, he acknowledges that he hurt her and assures her that he won't repeat it. It's tiny, but the arc finds a closure. 

Likewise, the film's most profound and emotional aspect, Rishi's relationship with his father — when seen through the right lens — paints Rishi as a very flawed person who never cared to understand his father. Something as emotionally wrenching as the realisation that he misunderstood his father, right after his death, should have been a punch in the gut. However, Maharshi's effort to play safe and likable dilutes the impact of what should have been the emotional peak of the film and Rishi's life.

Similarly, the protagonist's path towards redemption becomes yet another opportunity to further his heroism in the pretext of a social cause. When Rishi understands how unfair he has been towards Ravi, who is living in near-poverty, and returns to India, the incorrectness only amplifies. The fact that a powerful CEO from the US has to come and save the 'poor farmers' of India is a testament to the lack of hope and the need for a fantastical saviour. Years of Ravi's labour are rendered futile when a powerful man like Rishi shows up. A similar problem exists in AR Muragadoss' Vijay-starrer Sarkar, in which the protagonist is established as a person with unprecedented power. He is labelled a corporate monster, whose annual income is, wait for it, Rs 1,600 crore. That's the amount announced as a lockdown package amid the pandemic by the government of Karnataka, a State that's home to 67 million people. Why should the star tower above the common man? Is that the only definition of larger-than-life? Should the audience look up to the protagonist as a divine figure? 

Made at a time when the concerns and aspirations of Indian youth are predominantly materialistic, Maharshi asserts you to seek emotional satisfaction. But it forgets that the people it has been made for are simple humans with realistic problems and challenges, unlike Rishi, the most successful man in the film's universe. Or, the entire universe. 

Perhaps, one is overthinking it, and shouldn't expect a film to treat its protagonist as what he is — a flawed human being — when the title screams that he is a saint.

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