Maharaj: Flawed but an important story of a real-life social reformer

Junaid Khan deserves kudos for choosing an issue-based story for his debut feature. Although the story is set in pre- independence times the plot holds a huge relevance even today. Self-appointed godmen exploiting female devotees in the name of religion is a rampant thing even after so many centuries.

  • Starcast: Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey, Sharvari Wagh and others
  • Director: Siddarth P Malhotra
  • Writers: Sneha Desai, Vipul Mehta and Kausir Munir
  • Based on: The book Maharaj by Saurabh Shah
  • Cinematography: Rajeev Ravi
  • Music: Sohail Sen
  • Producer: Aditya Chopra
  • Production house: Yash Raj Banners
  • Streaming site: Netflix

Godmen have a magnetic power over their female devotees, in spite of the fact that several of them have been accused of sexual offences whether it is Gurmit Ram Rahim or Asaram Bapu. Maharaj directed by Siddarth P Malhotra of Hichki fame focuses on one such godman. Junaid Khan playing Karsandas Muji is a social worker and a journalist. From a young age itself he starts questioning certain social customs of those times.

Jaideep Ahlawat is Jadunath ji short form JJ. Jadunath is a high priest of a major sect of Vaishnavites called Pushtimarg. The words of JJ are considered divine. Many women are enchanted by him and want to become his special devotees through charan seva. Shalini Pandey who plays Karsandas Muji’s fiancée Kishori who is in huge awe of JJ. Kishori willingly falls into the trap of Jadunath leading to a huge argument and a breakup with Karsandas. Later she comes to know about the reality of the self-styled godman, but it is too late as the relationship is beyond repair. In simple terms the story of Maharaj focuses on how Karsan exposes JJ by writing about his sexual escapades and the subsequent court case that was fought in the supreme court of Bombay (1862).

The first half of Maharaj is definitely uneven. There are elaborately choreographed dance sequences, and the styling does come across as too modern. The music of Sohail Sen doesn’t help the matters either. But the movie finds its ground as soon it moves into the confrontational zone. There are some powerful dialogues that question the wrongful religious practices and the blind faith. This comes out strongly in a commanding monologue delivered by Junaid.

There is also an important voiceover by Sharad Kelkar on how we do not need a third person to have a connection with God. The underlying message of the voiceover is that a person doesn’t become God because of dharma, dharma is just a way to become a good human being.

Siddarth P Malhotra has also touched upon the freedom of press and how a young man refuses to bow down in spite of many hurdles. These scenes hold a mirror to today’s society as today’s journalists also face many restrictions.

Junaid Khan as Karsandas, just like the movie takes a while in finding ground but the actor becomes better as the movie progresses. He manages to hold his own opposite the supremely versatile Jaideep Ahlawat. Jaideep Ahlawat as JJ conveys a lot with just his expressions and overall body language. As expected, the actor delivers a brilliant performance.

Shalini Pandey and Sharvari Wagh have brief but important roles. Each get a solid emotional scene which they pull off well. Sharvari brings a certain vivaciousness to the proceedings. She particularly shines in the sequence where her character confesses about being forced to do charan seva at a young age.

Maharaj is a praiseworthy debut for Junaid Khan in spite of some sluggishness.

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