Mahaan: Karthik Subbaraj and Vikram have a fitting comeback

Updated: Mar 16

Mahaan, to me, was a surprise. I wasn't aware of Karthik Subbaraj doing a film with Vikram until I saw the release announcement on social media. What intrigued me further was the on-screen pairing of the real-life father-son duo of Vikram and Dhruv Vikram. Like Jagame Thandhiram, I think this film needs to be on the big screen. However, the OTT experience doesn't disappoint other than the mass moments where you feel the theatrical atmosphere would be more electric.

Mahaan is a film about a man's choice. What would you do when you are born into a household that holds certain values (Gandhian values in this case) so dear to life but you don't entirely conform to those ideologies? What would you do if you are given an opportunity to live the life you want, unmonitored? Mahaan brings forth the consequences of living such a life for just one day.

It is difficult to write a review so soon without many spoilers. Mahaan follows the life and choices of Gandhi Mahaan (played by a fantastic Vikram). Though the film feels like it is a big middle finger to lofty ideals, I think that this film is more about the choices that each one of us makes and the consequences of those choices. At every major point in the film, there is a choice that Gandhi Mahaan makes that paves the way how the rest of his life would be.

Karthik Subbaraj has always been a prolific writer. You can't find many loopholes in the logic (dramatic and logistical) of his films. More often than not, they are subtle. For example, in that spectacular one-shot fight sequence, we get to know why only Gandhi Mahaan is sober despite drinking up to the nose. Another example of his thoughtful writing is the way friends from childhood, who drift apart as they grow up, come together. It makes one wonder if this was Karthik's way of foreshadowing how Gandhi Mahaan's past life would come back to bite him.

The first half of the film is just the rise of Gandhi Mahaan to the biggest liquor don in the state. In most cases, this alone would form the whole film where the narrative focuses on the birth, childhood, etc. of the don... something like Mani Ratnam's Nayakan. However, the problem with such narratives is that the human element of these dons are not much explored. Karthik Subbaraj decides to explore this by holding off the appearance of Gandhi Mahaan's son (the past) until the interval block. All along, the story just focusses on how much Gandhi Mahaan wanted to live a life of absolute freedom.

In this portion, it's Bobby Simha who steals the show with his acting. Despite being a regular in Karthik Subbaraj's films, he hadn't really gotten enough matter to prove his acting chops - with Jigarthanda being the sole exception. Right from the time he is introduced to his transformation to live a life of prayer and repentance he shows a phenomenal arc of growth as Sathyavan. Sananth as Rocky is another phenomenal performance. His growth from a happy-go-lucky young man to a loyal and responsible aide to Sathyan is fantastic. However, Simran's Naachi comes off just like a last-minute addition to the screenplay as she hasn't got much to do other than the melodramatic exit from Gandhi Mahaan's life. Talking about melodrama, even the flashback is a tad too melodramatic and didn't really work that well for me. Especially the rousing high of Aadukalam Naren's character making young Gandhi Mahaan promise to live up to the family name was too jarring.

After the wonderful interval block, the film quickly turns into a personal, inner struggle for Gandhi Mahaan. Vikram nails every scene in the second half where he shows all those little nuances of the character with the finesse that only he possesses. It was absolutely amazing to see him perform so effortlessly. The screenplay throughout takes the stance of a third person. Even though we see the personal struggle of a father and a loyal friend in Gandhi Mahaan the struggle still feels afar. The fantastic premise reminded me of Sankar's Indian. Only that Mahaan is an inversion of the Sankar magnum-opus. Here, it's the son who punishes the father. Dhruv Vikram as Dadabhai Naoroji is fantastic in his scenes. There is one fantastic scene where Gandhi Mahaan has to choose between the son who adopted him as his father and his biological son. The scene ends on a surreal high where he stands between his two "fallen" sons, struggling to grasp reality.

Dhruv Vikram is fantastic as an unhinged Dada hell-bent on ending the atrocities of Sathyan and the gang. Thankfully the screenplay doesn't spend too much time showing how Dada harbours hatred against his father and his friends. This decision makes the screenplay taut and the evil in Dada come out more prominently. The great revelation that you see in the car towards the end is a masterpiece and a signature of Karthik Subbaraj universe, unexpected and spine-chilling.

Even when Naachi makes a comeback in the second half, there is not much scope for Simran, the performer as she is no more than an emotional prop to prod the plot forward. So do the characters of Sathyan's wife and Rocky's wife. In fact, it feels like Rocky's wife existed just to show how hardened Gandhi Mahaan has become after his wife walked out on him.

Similarly, it felt like Dada's motive was explained off way too quickly. Even if it was a twist, the revelation didn't register as that much of a high as the director probably intended it to be. I felt even Sathyan's transformation too sudden. Though the irony was fantastic to see Gandhi not willing to let go of the intoxicating power while Sathyan who started the empire deciding to give it all away and up for good. Do hardened men like Sathyan just like that give up after one defeat? Or is is it that Karthik showing, "When death stares at your face, it doesn't really matter how strong or how great you are. You would shit your pants."?

Then there is Gandhi's longing for his son Dada. There was very little allusion to this side of Gandhi and when he sees his son in the interval block, the big emotion doesn't register as well. However, Vikram more than compensates for this inadequacy in his portions with Dhruv Vikram on screen. Everytime they meet on the screen, Vikram proves how good an actor he is in showing the dichotomous emotions that eat Gandhi from the inside.

But to be fair, these were the only flaws that I found in the film. The cinematography by Shreyaas Krishna and editing by Vivek Harshan takes the film up a notch. While the lighting enhances the mood of the scenes, the edit pattern so cleverly tightens up the screen time. One of my favourite scenes is the part where a dejected Gandhi hangs up the phone after trying in vain to reason with Gnanam. Immediately after he hangs up there is a dolly zoom into Vikram's face. But not before establishing the flickering lights right behind him which at a point look like the cross of Christianity. The flickering lights and the vulnerability on Gandhi's face make for a perfect, poetic portrait of a wounded God (as touted by Sathyan in the first half) in a perilous dilemma.

Music by Santosh Narayanan on the other hand feels like the director and the music director are made for each other. Whether it is the theme music for Gandhi or the blood curdling roar of a song in Naan Naan, SaNa is at his absolute best. He gives a fantastic background score too in the film which fits the overall mood of the film like a glove.

Like any other Karthik Subbaraj film, this too has a lot of easter eggs where he pays a tribute to his role models. For instance there is the tribute to Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars in the beginning, the irony in the fight scene between Gandhi and Dada and my favourite is the reference to Joker. During the song Naan Thaan Dada dances down a series of steps almost in the same way as Joaquin Phoenix does in Joker.

As comparisons are inevitable, let me share my opinion too. I liked Mahaan better than Jagame Thandhiram because here, despite the sprawling story, the screenplay remains focused on the father-son dynamic which is the core to the story (have I said that this is a brilliant inversion of Indian?) whereas in the earlier outing, it felt like there were way too many things that the director wanted to convey as messages. It feels like Karthik Subbaraj is back with his dark and twisted universe and I couldn't be happier!

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