Maharaj Review: A Dull Debut for Junaid Khan

The film can be streamed on Netflix
Maharaj Review: A Dull Debut for Junaid Khan

Director: Siddharth Malhotra

Writer: Sneha Desai, Vipul Mehta, Bernard Williams

Cast: Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey

Available on: Netflix

Maharaj is based on the 1862 Maharaj Libel Case debated in the Supreme Court of Bombay. The 19th century was a fertile and fragile period, because suddenly as Indians we were asked to explain ourselves and our faith, to condense it and rationalize its practices — this was, afterall, the century where both the words “Hinduism” and “Hindutva” were coined. The reformers and religionists had different ideas, framing faith according to their respective interpretations and expectations, while the British mediated these tensions with laws that made religious practices like sati illegal, while promoting widow remarriage, and increasing the age of consent for women. Reform is tricky, because it often isn’t clear if it comes from a space of abolishing religion or altering it. There is always an anxiety that looms over change, and this period, with its legal tenets and social tumults was no less different. The 1862 Libel Case is one such moment where these anxieties came to boil.

Jadunath Maharaj had filed a defamation case against the journalist and social reformer Karsandas Mulji, who, in his newspaper Satyaprakash, had outlined Jadunath’s sexual liaisons with female devotees. He even wrote of men who showed their devotion by offering their wives as sexual objects to the “maharaj” — direct male descendents of Vallabha, the founder of the Vaishnavite Pushtimarg sect. Based on this court case, Saurabh Shah wrote a Gujarati novel, also named Maharaj, from which this two-hour film is milked. 

Debutante Junaid Khan — best known as actor Aamir Khan’s son — plays the atheist reformer Karsandas Mulji, while Jaideep Ahlawat plays the unruffled and rapacious maharaj. In a looming, lazy voiceover and shabby, quickly-disposed scenes, we are given a ringside biography of Karsandas, from birth to boyhood, and then more — he is eternally inquisitive, irreverent towards untouchability, and promoter of widow remarriage. He is a staunch atheist who gambols with reformers like Dadabhai Naoroji. But no one at home or in his larger community takes him seriously; his reform is considered a plaything. 

When he finds out his fiance, Kishori, played by Shalini Pandey, is one of the women who has slept with the maharaj, he is distraught. Not just by the act but by Kishori’s defense of it.

A still from Maharaj
A still from Maharaj

She was picked by the maharaj during Holi, when the maharaj smears pink gulaal on her chest, in front of everybody. The women rejoice at her being selected for this “charan sparsh”, a euphemism for the maharaj taking the women to bed, because they think he is a fragment of god himself, and so, the rationale goes, they are having divine sex, literally, if not figuratively.

Despite living in the community of Pushtimargis in Mumbai, Mulji has no idea of such a practice, but more importantly, his fiancée, despite knowing it, was stupid enough, excited enough to participate in it. She tells him, “Maharaj mangetar se oopar, aur dharm pyaar se (The maharaj is more important than the fiancé, and faith is more important than love).”

An uneasy fragility enters the film here. The scene where Kishori is seen having sex with the maharaj is troubling in its ambiguity. Her eyes flare as he unwraps her choli. Is this the anxiety of sex or rape that we see in her eyes? Is the reluctance with which she rides him — she rides him, tired as though doing him a favour — as he lays supine her discomfort with this act or her nervousness?

The film refuses to make its surface clear, and Pandey, in her mousy portrayal, pretends these distinctions do not exist. When Mulji asks her to explain this slippage, she says this has been a tradition. When he breaks off the engagement, she goes back to the maharaj. It is only when she finds out that he is also trying to sleep with her sister that she sees the light of day. Does she not know that Krishna is known for his raasleela? Is it jealousy that opens her eyes to his carnal fraud?

A still from Maharaj
A still from Maharaj

Maharaj plays out pretending these questions do not need answers. An intellectually disingenuous, narratively floppy film, it does not even know how to frame the idea of violence in order to argue its reform. When this case goes to the courts, these ambiguities are magnified. Maharaj’s followers, who are all in the know-how of this sexual malpractice, experience a collective epiphany of his villainy at the steps of the court. This a fitting symbolism of religion being tamed at the threshold of law. But why now? Is it the maharaj’s syphilis?   

Rarely has atheism looked this starched and stiff while faith looks on, wide-eyed and brainwashed. Junaid Khan’s eyes are mooney, his gaze always steady, his gait always awkward. His is a performance whose sincerity robs it of any possibility. It is too ramrod. He is given an arc that pushes him from atheism to righteous faith, but this shift is so sudden, lubricated by an “Achyutam Keshavam” montage, that it feels like the film was trying to forcefully protect itself from the Right-wing critics — reframing the atheist versus believer fight as one between a righteous believer and an opportunist one. At the end, after the dust settles, the one who wins the case is a man of faith, one who can quote the Bhagavad Gita.

Much like it is cavalier about Mulji’s relationship to faith, the film does not care for the maharaj’s relationship to the Pushtimarg. Is he merely a randy opportunist, or a narcissist so taken by his own myth he begins to believe it, like Bobby Deol’s character of the rapacious godman in Aashram

The writing is no longer about making sense of what they are arguing, but a table-tennis match between one finding witnesses and the other disposing them off. A strident moment in a fertile period of our history has been numbed by this wary representation. 

Maharaj ends with a note that is also a cautionary disclaimer. The kind of disclaimer that makes the intent of the film unambiguously clear, in case the film did not do its job. This disclaimer notes that one event, however bleak and violent, cannot tarnish an entire faith, and that it must be seen as an exception. An aberration cannot define an entire faith; that though blistered, the faith will live on. But what do we do when the exception becomes the norm? 

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