Cast: Mahesh Babu, Pooja Hegde
Director: Vamshi Paidipalli
Ramavaram, the village that lends the film its charitable stage for half its runtime, has an old man in it. He doesn't care that a MNC's CEO turned his village into his office. It doesn't mean much to him that a man sits alone in a tent waiting for someone to hear his plea. He nonchalantly moves away from the procession with a nagali (plough) by his shoulder and a box of food in the other hand. It's only later that we find out what he has been doing, day in and day out, which adds great amount of heft to the film's theme and is an effecting cinematic moment. But this powerful emotion—a farmer's relationship with his land, in the hands of a man who's never seen a crumpled shirt in his life, feels unearned and reeks of saviour complex.
Why is its idea of conflict resolution a billionaire donating 90% of his assets
Maharshi—the protagonist's name is Rishi, but the film insists that he is a saint even before it begins—is about a man running after something that isn't worth achieving. He is tired of watching his father be shamed for not being financially successful and he wants to be anyone but him—if only the film went a bit further with this conflict instead of turning Prakash Raj into a wallflower. Soon, with the help of his friend Ravi (Naresh), he realises that there is more to life than Bentleys, Time Magazine covers, choppers, and 70th floor offices in unnamed Manhattan skyscrapers—three of the biggest producers in the industry are backing this film, of course there are more choppers than there are plot points. A familiar story, Srimanthudu comes to mind, told in a way that tries not to be predictable.
Vamshi Paidipally, the film's director and one of the writers, made the adorable Oopiri and the disastrous Yevadu. So, placing him as a good/bad filmmaker isn't simple. With Maharshi—a film that flirts with the idea of shifting the focus from its lead, only to bring it back to him with greater vigour—he proves himself to be someone who can be a successful commercial director. What do you do when the circumstance doesn't warrant a fight but it is time for an action sequence? You create an M.Tech student with an MP father who is willing to pay or hurt a student that came first instead of his son. What do you do when a secondary character, played by the ever reliable Naresh, is taking away the attention from the main man? You create a situation where he is immobilised—if he can't move, he can't move you either. The way Vamsi bends the screenplay and script to make way for his hero and his moments without losing the flow, mostly, isn't an easy task by no measure. Which begs the question: where did this creativity go while writing the female character?
Mahesh Babu's Rishi is an enigma and not in a good way. I don't know if it's the writer's intention or the actor's limitation, but there is something about the character that feels loose-ended. He is written as this flawed man with tunnel vision—points where they are deserved—who insults the dean of his college on the first day. He gets better when he surrounded by the right people, but is he a good man on his own? Who is he without his maxims? I'm done with the film and I am still not sure. This kind of ambiguity sits well in a different genre of cinema, not a commercial one. Pooja Hedge's Pooja is pointless. I get that female leads in a potboiler are only leads in the way they lead us toward a song, but still. I mean she gets all her information about her man via TV news. You are not a well-written character if you make your romantic decisions watching TV9. Every other character in the film is a cliche as well—the poor boy Ravi, the silent/honourable father, the panche-doning CM, the crooked politician, uber-stylish baddie, and so on. If some of them don't feel like the cardboard cutouts that they are, it's only because of the actors and the history they bring with them as someone who played these same characters before.
The film misses many an opportunity to go beyond the bare minimum that the template demands. There isn't much entertainment to distract us from the lull caused by its familiar story either. Ravi keeps a man's picture as inspiration to visit the US, that guy reappears in the village, and the film doesn't make a gaffe out of it. Why not? It has a negative character who is a North Indian, Vivek Mittal is the name, and chooses this moment to have a South Indian play him. He speaks in achha Telugu and apparently, we relinquished our right to question when we bought the ticket.
Srinivas, a farmer's son with an agriculture degree, leaves the village in search for a job. Meanwhile, his mother waits for him at the bus stop everyday. When she is finally ill enough to die, his son comes back and gives the blaming villagers a piece of his mind. He questions the reliability of a movement as sudden as this and how lasting it can be in a country as corrupt as ours. More importantly, he looks the "saint" in the eye and says to him that farmers and their plight has become a mere lecture point for everyone, something to talk about to gain clout. Now why would a film that acts this self-aware end up making the same mistake? Why is its idea of conflict resolution a billionaire donating 90% of his assets—a commercial film trying to be practical is cute to watch—instead of something that's more insightful and, for the lack of a better word, original? Also, how come Rishi, who lived most of his life in India, only learns about farmer suicides after a son of one such farmer brings it up? We may never know.
After watching this film, I've noticed two things. That the unsung actors in any film are the stuntmen who come at the hero knowing very well that they have to fall/fly back in a second. That commercial cinema doesn't really trust its audience to understand anything without the filmmaker spoon-feeding—we get that Rishi is someone who gifts Ravi the attention he garners, didn't need a throwback to something that happened only a half-hour ago.
I cannot call a film that tries to talk about success as an achievable goal, while also having a protagonist who is exemplary in each and every way imaginable perfect. Rishi is a genius, a great fighter, a CEO with more power than the company's board, and a man who looks like an English dora, film's words, not mine. At some point, it loses the plot as most commercial movies do when they forget that the film/story is more important than the guy whose face is selling the tickets. That said, Maharshi might just be a delightful movie for a Mahesh Babu fan—after all, it's mostly him achieving this and that, and running to save people left and right—but for a fan of the movies, it offers nothing.