Mahaan

Director: Karthik Subbaraj

Cast: Vikram, Dhruv Vikram, Simran

Like nearly every Tamil film that takes itself seriously today, Mahaan opens with a lazy prologue — the shot of Gandhi Mahaan (Vikram) pouring fuel on his car and dramatically setting it on fire. He then sits there lamenting his actions, while the film cuts back to his past. In the flashback, Gandhi Mahaan is forty, a school teacher, loser and a closeted film-goer. We are supposed to wonder how such a straight-arrow of a man came to burn his car in the middle of nowhere (the answer was already in the trailer, by the way). On his birthday, he has a midlife crisis after a stoned nobody tells him he can’t possibly live the way he wants. So, when the next day his wife leaves for a vacation, Gandhi Mahaan decides to go nuts. And nuts he goes.

Karthik Subbaraj’s Mahaan is the story of how the eponymous hero goes from a disciplined and hen-pecked teacher to a liquor baron and gangster, who is brought down by his own deeds. But dear reader, be warned that this is merely speculation, because Mahaan is so incoherent and tiresome that I can only take a wild guess what it is about.

It’s biggest problem: Too many ideas. There are these ‘freedom-fighting’ and ‘prohibitionist’ ideas — the characters are called Gandhi Mahaan, Dadabhai Naoroji (Dhruv Vikram), Sathyavan (Simha), Nachi (Simran) and so on. The film harps on this incessantly, without exploring it in any detail. The source of central conflict — alcoholism — is treated with such superficiality that the froth on your beer goes deeper.

Then, there is the gambling metaphor; Karthik Subbaraj intercuts timelines with the face of playing cards, which promptly disappear somewhere along the way. There is something about making mistakes, living a true life, loyalty, fatherhood, revenge, bravery, belief, god, ethics of crime, extremism, playing with people’s feelings — the ideas keep on coming, none amounting to anything substantial. None really underpinning or supporting the film.

There is also the costume design. We are shown that the forty-year-old Mahaan only owns white shirts. On the day he goes nuts, he chooses a gaudy multi-coloured shirt. On the day he meets his son, he is wearing black, while the latter is wearing white. In the climax, this is interchanged. There is definitely some semantics there, we just never get the chance to feel what it’s supposed to mean.

With so much thrown at us, Mahaan feels like a drunken conversation with a friend’s friend — you don’t really care for them, but you listen anyway because you’re doing someone a favour (in this case, my career as a film critic).

More importantly, Karthik Subbaraj can’t decide if he respects the audience or not. At one point, it looks like the cops are staging an accident to hush up an encounter. They leave behind alcohol bottles and ram a bike into a rock. However, a few seconds later, one of them shoots the suspect point-blank. Why bother with the staging if you’re going to leave a bullet in the man’s chest!

On the other hand, he cannot resist explaining what he perhaps believes are high-concept ideas. In a scene, Gandhi Mahaan saves Sathyavan and his son Rocky from an attack. He is standing on top of a car, behind which we see the Holy Cross. Karthik Subbaraj can not resist explaining what this means to us. He puts words in the mouth of Sathyavan, calling his friend a guardian angel, a Jesus reincarnate if you will. In the climax, Gandhi Mahaan literally reads out the quote that was flashed at the beginning of the film. This incessant spoon-feeding is not only tiresome but also detrimental to Mahaan — if Karthik Subbaraj had left anything to the audience’s imagination, they would have most certainly imagined a better film.

The writing is consistently hazy. There is absolutely no emotional investment in any of the characters (if you’re a forty-year-old going through a mid-life crisis, please ping me, if you relate to the film!). Everyone is unhinged, including Nachi, who is losing it in her own way. Dada, played by Dhruv who is evidently trying too hard, is a maniac, but the reasons for his psychopathy are flimsy. Sathyavan, an important character in the narrative, is barely established. He’s there a lot, we just don’t know him. His son, Rocky, goes through marriage, romance and divorce, all on the phone — why even?

The supposedly big scenes are underwhelming. Take the scene when Dada finally meets his father in a religious festival or the one just before climax when Sathyavan confronts Gandhi Mahaan about his son’s murder. The performances are over-the-top, the conversations lame, the effect lukewarm. There are convenient parallels with a single incident from their childhood — it is milked too much for anyone’s creative comfort. The twists are ridiculous and visible from a mile away. When they’re not, they barely make a dent.

The staging is equally lazy. In an important scene of loss and betrayal, there is a train passing by interjecting conversation. It is supposed to add the tension of silence to the proceedings. But it kept reminding me of Kushi, where the conversation between the protagonists is interrupted by a passing plane. Kushi’s director SJ Suryah had staged it simpler, more organically, to greater impact. In Mahaan, that treatment feels gimmicky.

Despite stunt choreographer Dileep Subbarayan’s and composer Santhosh Narayanan’s best efforts, the action sequences are a bore. The dialogues are amateurish and predictable. The lesser said about the performances the better.

At two hours and forty-two minutes, Mahaan is a self-indulgent and vacuous film. At its best, it’s tiresome. At its worst, it’s an abomination.

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