The Film ‘Maharaj’ Echoes the Story of Its Historical Subject

Featured & Cover  The Film 'Maharaj' Echoes the Story of Its Historical Subject

In the 1860s, journalist and social reformer Karsandas Mulji faced legal challenges after exposing the sexual misconduct of a powerful religious leader. Over 150 years later, a film based on his life, **Maharaj**, starring Aamir Khan’s son Junaid, faced a similar fate. The film’s release was delayed by a petition from a religious sect, accompanied by boycott calls on social media. On June 21, just a week after its scheduled release on Netflix, the Gujarat High Court lifted the stay, ruling, “Having viewed the film, this court found nothing objectionable that would hurt the religious feelings of petitioners or a sect.”

**Maharaj** draws from Saurabh Shah’s 2013 Gujarati novel, narrating the 1862 Maharaj libel case, where British judges in colonial India arbitrated between religious conservatism and progressive reform. Karsandas, editor of the Gujarati weekly **Satyaprakash**, was sued for defamation by Jadunathji, a high priest of the influential Pushtimarga sect. The case, fought in the Supreme Court of Bombay, garnered significant public attention. Karsandas successfully defended himself but incurred expenses that outweighed his awarded compensation.

Director Karan P Malhotra shifts the courtroom events to the film’s climax, a choice that avoids the often exaggerated portrayals in Hindi period dramas. Instead, the film focuses on the conflict between Karsandas (Junaid Khan) and Jadunath (Jaideep Ahlawat), known as JJ to his followers. JJ, a charismatic figure, exploits the vulnerability of female devotees. Karsandas, a Vaishnavite himself, resists JJ’s influence, challenging superstitious practices while maintaining his faith.

In the film, Karsandas emerges as a beacon of virtue in a conservative society, advocating for widow remarriage and interacting with ‘untouchables.’ His crusade against JJ intensifies after his fiancée, Kishori (Shalini Pandey), a victim of JJ, commits suicide following Karsandas’s decision to break off their engagement. Realizing his error in focusing on her “honor” instead of supporting her emancipation, Karsandas becomes a 19th-century male savior. The film is predominantly about men debating women’s rights, with a late entry by Viraaj (Sharvari Wagh) providing some balance as she joins Karsandas in his mission.

Early in the film, a narrator describes Bombay as “more a concept than a city,” highlighting the era’s conflicting ideas. The film portrays the reformist zeal of figures like Karsandas and Dadabhai Naoroji against the backdrop of JJ’s influence and the common masses’ confusion. Despite set-like production designs, Rajeev Ravi’s cinematography adds a painterly charm to the film.

Maharaj clearly depicts JJ’s powerful hold over his community. He is described as having become “the face of the sect,” drawing wealthy patrons and consolidating power. The film criticizes blind faith and personality cults while unifying portrayals of religion. When JJ bans temple visits to force an apology from Karsandas, the young reformer leads an aarti under a peepal tree with a picture of Lord Krishna. The film later echoes the Janmashtami story with an imperiled couple being ferried to safety.

Junaid Khan delivers a sincere performance as Karsandas but falls short of becoming a captivating lead, especially in courtroom scenes. Jaideep Ahlawat’s portrayal of JJ is effortlessly villainous, contrasting sharply with Junaid’s earnestness. Their confrontation in the rain underscores the difference in their performances. Sharvari Wagh brings charm and spunk to her limited scenes, and Jay Upadhyay is notable as JJ’s scheming assistant.

The film’s release faced significant challenges, reflecting current sensitivities. Earlier this year, the Tamil film **Annapoorani** was pulled from Netflix following right-wing complaints of religious offense. **Maharaj**, though simple and sedate, might have gone unnoticed if not for these sensitivities. Its release without promotions or a trailer highlights the caution of streaming platforms today, underscoring the non-linear path of progress.

Maharaj (Hindi)

– Director:Karan P Malhotra

– Cast: Junaid Khan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shalini Pandey, Sharvari Wagh, Jay Upadhyay

– Runtime: 131 minutes

– Storyline:The real-life story of a journalist in 1860s Bombay and his crusade against a powerful, lecherous godman

Overall, Maharaj reflects the complex interplay between tradition and reform in colonial India, mirroring the historical events it depicts and the contemporary reactions it provoked.

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