For many, Gandhi was a man of peace who preached honesty and an ethical way of life till he breathed his last. For others, Gandhi was a tyrant who imposed his stringent notions about morality on those who came under his influence. Seventy four years since his death, he continues to be discussed, dissected and used to defend or critique a political point of view. Mahaan, directed by Karthik Subbaraj, is not about Gandhi but a reluctant Gandhian. Named after the leader, Gandhi Mahaan (Vikram) is forced by his father, an ardent Gandhian, to follow the way of life prescribed by the Mahatma. But isn’t that a form of violence, too? This is the central question of the film.
Starting from 1968, the film tells the story of Gandhi Mahaan and his friends, Sathyavan (Bobby Simha) and Gnanam (Vettai Muthukumar). The naming is, of course, ironic. Gandhi was known for truth and wisdom (Sathyam and Gnanam) and so, even when they are separated in their childhood, the trio comes together as adults. The first 30 minutes of the film, even if bordering on caricature, is entertaining. Vikram appears as a swashbuckling hero, a character you’d expect to see in a classic Western, only to realise that he was dreaming and he’s still stuck in his rigid life as a Gandhian in a Gandhian family.
Simran plays Nachi, his wife, who is affronted by the idea of her husband going for a film or even wearing a colourful shirt. Her father is equally obsessed with Gandhism and so is her brother who’s in the military. The man named after Gandhi longs for a breather from this family, and when the chance arrives, he grabs it with both hands.
Vikram does the Ambi-Remo-Anniyan transformation easily. He goes from the goody-goody family man to the stylish thug and the dispenser of justice, without batting an eyelid. It's good to see the actor in top form, and Karthik creates a retro effect in the flashback, with the colouring, styling and the background score (Santosh Narayanan), setting up expectations for the face-off that you know is coming. The plot, though, meanders and falters, squandering away the opportunity to pull off something experimental and innovative.
Gandhi becomes a liquor baron, with his childhood buddies as his associates. But the film reduces Gandhism to just his views on alcohol, harping on it endlessly and then turning that into the lone point of conflict. Dhruv Vikram plays Dada (full name: Dadabhai Naoroji), Gandhi’s estranged son who is also raised a Gandhian and is now a cop. However, Dada seems to have entirely skipped the chapters on ahimsa, shooting people dead in police encounters as he pleases. In fact, the only thing he seems to know about the Gandhian way of life is not drinking alcohol. It’s as if he has fashioned his entire life based on a Wikipedia entry about Gandhism and even then skipped most paragraphs.
Watch: Trailer of Mahaan
Nachi, too, receives shoddy treatment. She’s at first a nag and then a cult member with psychopathic tendencies. In one scene, she slaps Satyavan for getting her husband drunk, and Satyavan’s son, Rocky (a reliably good Sanath) threatens to slap her back. Gandhi righteously stops him and then slaps Nachi instead because you see, he holds the rights as a husband. It’s confounding that even the younger generation of filmmakers in Tamil cinema have the same attitudes towards domestic violence as their predecessors. The film blames her for walking out on the marriage, painting a sympathetic picture of Gandhi instead.
At several points, I wondered if the film would have worked better as a comic book. It feels like several visuals stacked and juxtaposed next to each other, with a slim storyline connecting them. Was this deliberate? If it was, it works in parts and comes off looking overstretched otherwise. The important players in the game are introduced with a card (Gandhi, to add to his resume, is also an expert gambler), hinting at the role that they will play. Dhruv’s Dada is the Joker of the pack, the surprise element who can turn a game. The young actor valiantly tries to prove his mettle, trying hard to hold his own against his seasoned real life father. But I couldn’t help but think that he was playing a younger version of Vikram from his earlier films, imitating the manic tendencies that the latter has brought to his characters, from the dance to the dialogue delivery and fights. The viewer already knows he is Vikram’s real son, must he also play the role like Vikram would? Karthik appears to have thought so.
Bobby Simha is alright in the younger version of his character, but the older role has him growling like a wannabe Jagapathi Babu. Simran doesn’t have much to do, but pulls off Nachi despite getting the short end of the stick.
The film benefits from the superior cinematography that elevates the ordinary writing, but though it looks like a slick package, it ends up testing your patience because the cat-and-mouse game you’re watching is hardly intriguing. What should have been a clash of ideologies becomes a mere battle of egos, and the characters make inconsistent and unconvincing choices without any progression in their respective arcs. The Rustom and Sohrab premise, of a father and son engaged in a battle to the death, would have acquired some poignance if the script had received more attention and the ideas had been explored beyond surface level. At an overly long 2 hours and 42 minutes, it wastes a lot of time in creating moods without adding anything substantial to the storyline, and this isn’t a new problem in Karthik’s films.
Instead of the gangster saga that it is, I wish it had been a satirical comedy on Gandhism, and a man caught in the middle of an uptight family, and his adventures without their knowledge. If only Karthik would break his rigid rule about dragging gangsters into every idea he has!
The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.