By the end of two hours and 42 minutes of Mahaan on Amazon Prime Video, I was torn between two feelings — whether to critique it as a competent massy entertainer or pen down the fundamentally unhinged ideology of the film. That does not happen often and nudged me to laud the film, at least to begin with, for being a well-crafted and directed piece of cinema.
For the most part, director Karthik Subbaraj’s Mahaan, shot in Tamil, is peppered with terrific performances by the lead actors and the supporting cast, coupled with intricate production, design, smart camera work, direction, and multi-lingual music. But then again, this comes as no surprise, considering that Subbaraj is the captain of this ship.
If only this was enough.
The eponymous hero — Gandhi Mahaan (played by ‘Chiyaan’ Vikram) — is a man living in the closet with an insatiable desire to drink and gamble. Right from his childhood to marriage, he struggles to keep up with the expectations of his family. This is set by his namesake who happens to be the leading figure in India’s freedom struggle (no big deal!).
From his family’s point of view, Mahaan has been blessed with raw ingredients to become ‘mahaan’ (great) — his ancestors participated in the freedom struggle and were staunch anti-liquor activists, his wife is an ardent follower of the Gandhian ideology. But at no point during the entire runtime does anyone ask him if he wants to lead that life. His father fabricates Mahaan’s birth certificate by a day, only to coincide the date of his birth with Independence Day. Cut to 28 years later, as Mahaan turns 40, he is still being hauled up (by his wife this time) for not living up to his name.
One fine day When Mahaan’s wife and child travel out of town for a day, he comes ‘alive’ — much like kids when parents leave them ‘home alone’. He ditches the plain white shirts and switches to colours, hops into a bar, tries liquor, dances, and gambles his inhibitions and rule-bound life away. But hell breaks loose when he returns home the following day (in his gaudy, multi-coloured attire and reeking of alcohol) to find his wife and relatives aghast to see him in this avatar. They are taken aback to know that he consumed alcohol — a ‘slip’ in his 40 years of life. Eventually, his wife leaves him, taking away the child with her too. Life changes hereon.
Debate over the ‘right way’
At one point, you hear a dialogue: “Ideology defines you. Be it political, religious, or social. You follow an ideology, you live for it and you die for it.” From the film’s perspective, it means that there is no room for discussion and your only choice is to deal with extremists.
Years later, when Mahaan is a liquor baron reaping the fruits of his monopoly in the business, his son, Dadabhai Naoroji, returns as a police officer with the agenda of (drumroll, please) ruining his father’s life. We are told that, unlike his father’s ‘problematic’ ways, Dada has chosen the ‘right way’ to seek revenge.
But he is no Singham, nor is he Chulbul Pandey or Simmba. Dada is, in equal measures, a headless chicken and a raging bull. His plan of action is fuelled by rage with nothing concrete in it. He is either brooding, laughing at odd moments (meant to be maniacal), or shooting people to punish his father. In simpler terms, the character is unhinged, much like the screenplay. However, Dhruv Vikram (real-life son of Tamil superstar Vikram) plays his part to the T, a big leap from his forgettable debut in Adithya Varma (2019), a remake of the 2017 Telugu blockbuster Arjun Reddy.
Mahaan is a film driven by flawed ideologies with alcoholism being the central conflict. But at no point does one get to see the ills of alcoholism. It rather comes across as one bunch disliking the audacity of the other enjoying a drink.
Towards the end of the film, Mahaan tells his son, “Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make the mistakes”. Very true. But in the guise of freedom, Mahaan makes one too many of those. Justifying violence and murder, reducing Gandhian ideology to just alcohol prohibition are a few. In this nearly three-hour-long debate over the ‘right way’ to do things, nobody wins.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)