Director: Karthik Subbaraj
Cast: Vikram, Dhruv Vikram, Simran
Karthik Subbaraj’s Mahaan is about ironies. It’s about the irony that a man from a Gandhian family becomes a liquor baron. It’s about the irony that another man from the same family becomes a psychopathic cop, hell-bent on revenge. And we are left wondering who is worse: the obvious liquor-making “sinner”, or the latter, who keeps hitting you over the head with his philosophies. At the end, we get a line about extremists, and you do wonder about people who “live and let live” and those who want to box you into their “well-meaning” philosophies.
The first half lies in that not great but not bad zone. It shows Vikram becoming that liquor baron. At first he is a Gandhian—his name is actually Gandhi—and every other line mentions the Mahatma. It gets tiresome. But his life is tiresome, too. He can’t even see a Western movie because his wife (played by Simran) considers them full of vices. When she goes on a trip on his 40th birthday, this Ambi unleashes his inner Remo. Imagine 40 years of repression bursting out like lava: that is what happens.
He meets his old friend, a bar owner played by Bobby Simha, whose son is Sananth. (These meetings play out a tad too coincidentally.) He drinks his weight in liquor. When Simran finds out, she leaves him, taking their son with her–and Bobby and Sananth become his surrogate family. They also become something like the Corleone family in The Godfather. They become the booze kings.
But the first half suffers from one major problem. You have to introduce Dhruv Vikram in the interval block (he needs that grand entry), and so how do you fill up the time until then? Karthik Subbaraj gives us a series of similar situations: there is an enemy; he is easily disposed of. Then there is another enemy; he, too, is easily disposed of. The staging and the superb editing makes these sequences beautiful to behold (the film flows like silk), but there is very little emotional depth. (One really impressive aspect about the first half—despite its sameness—is that Vikram is not shown weeping for his lost family. He simply puts his mind into business and moves on.) Things happen so easily and smoothly for Vikram and gang that it’s hard to invest in the story. There are no stakes until the Dhruv character appears at the interval point.
But his introduction is a terrific scene, which involves a dance during a festival. And Karthik, who usually likes to keep us guessing, instantly tells us who this character is and what he is up to.
And the second half really worked for me. The Dhruv character is wonderfully psychotic (even if there are times his inexperience shows), and there is a fantastic scene where someone we have come to care about dies. It shows a father reeling in shock between his two fallen sons. The fact that we did not see Dhruv growing up adds to the suddenness of his entry. He is like a bat out of hell.
And the emotional angles that were absent in the first half finally emerge. For instance, Vikram has a secret that he struggles to tell his closest friends. These scenes are enormously poignant, because Vikram does not overplay his dilemma. The best thing Karthik has done in Mahaan is write a great part for an actor who doesn’t often get great parts. Vikram does the big hero scenes beautifully, but look at the pause he gives before replying to Bobby Simha during a private conversation, when the rest of the gang is celebrating. Here he is Remo. Now look at him being Ambi in a brilliant scene with a beggar. The way he sits, the way he uses his arms, as if to attract as little attention as possible—if nothing else, Mahaan will be remembered as Vikram’s comeback. He is truly spectacular, especially in the second half where he plays an older, greyer man.
As always in a Karthik movie, there are these strange touches, like a character getting a divorce—it is a plot point that doesn’t make much sense. But as always, Karthik compensates with several interesting things—and not just the way he uses the camera. He uses playing cards like chapter titles and he gives us a dog named Joker. An early plot point when Vikram and gang were children has a line about betrayal from a close person. A similar situation plays out between the same characters late in the film. The Bobby Simha character rediscovers Christ and calls Vikram Devadoothan. At one point, three tube lights light up behind Vikram and he does look like Christ on a cross.
I think all this is great fodder for decoding. But it is also useful to understand how this director’s career is evolving. In his last film, Jagame Thanthiram, Karthik dived into the Eelam issue and made a film about a broader global refugee crisis. In Mahaan—which is thankfully a much more coherent film than Jagame Thanthiram— he dives into Gandhi-ism, and especially Gandhi’s quote about how freedom won’t work unless it includes the freedom to make mistakes.
With these two films, Karthik Subbaraj seems to have started a new chapter in his career. Pizza and Jigarthanda were pure genre films in a way, and the reason I like them so much is that they fit perfectly into Karthik’s way of storytelling, which includes a lot of narrative tricks. You could include Petta in this list. That revelation about Vijay Sethupathi is one of my favourite Karthik “tricks”.
Iraivi and Mercury were more messagey, and also more complicated films. On the surface, Iraivi was a drama and Mercury was a thriller—but there was a lot going on beneath the surface. But still, they were “contained” films. They had a very clear shape, very clear conflicts.
And now, he is in this Jagame Thanthiram, Mahaan mode. His ambitions have become bigger. His messages have become more obvious. And the form—especially the screenplay—has become more sprawling. In other words, these are not “contained” films. They spill over with too much intent, too much content.
Karthik Subbaraj remains an interesting filmmaker, but about this new phase, I am going to end with a few lines from my Jagame Thanthiram review, which apply to Mahaan, too. One: Things get better in the last third of the film because it’s more emotional and we’re invested in the proceedings. Overall, you get the feeling of watching a not-bad generic drama. And two: You’re torn between the fact that someone did a film about an important issue and that the film is not as perfect as it could be.