Opinion: Vijay Sethupathi film Maharaja is an example of how not to depict violence on screen

The scenes depicting sexual violence are especially sensationalised, with disturbing visuals and a piercing background score.
First look poster of Vijay Sethupathi's Maharaja
First look poster of Vijay Sethupathi's MaharajaX/VijaySethupathi
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Full disclosure: I had access to the unsubtle elements of Nithilan Swaminathan’s Maharaja before I watched the movie. And, despite knowing every ‘twist’ and ‘shock value incident’ beforehand, I was left shocked.

I believe men and women see films differently. Most male viewers, albeit feminist at heart, may be unable to access the emotional turmoil of watching a rape scene involving a woman the way a female viewer might. This is because different individuals embody gender very differently in their lived experiences. This disparity is not restricted to Maharaja. I have earlier written about how women perceive Selvaraghavan’s films —  the ones sensitive male reviewers have not found problematic — as being rife with red flags.

When I put my thoughts out on social media platform X, the responses confirmed that the majority of the women got what I was trying to say, and some men did too. The rest chose to insist that I was an attention seeker ranting about a brilliant film that was doing very well, just to rain on its parade.

So, this is my attempt to explain what I felt was wrong with Maharaja, a film with a neat script, great performances and staging. 

I respect filmmakers and actors who can sell us repetition well, helping peel each layer like an onion. And, in his landmark 50th film, Vijay Sethupathi aces that, like we have seen before in Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom. He plays a subtle, caring yet silent person, a zone he is a natural in. His is the performance that expresses grief in a half tear that rolls down from one eye. 

Nithilan writes well too, but seems overly fond of shock value, and it almost looks like he does not trust his writing to do its work. So he ends up reinforcing it with disturbing visuals or dialogues. To be fair, he creates three female characters with agency — Selvam’s wife Kokila, played by the lovely Abhirami, PT teacher Aasifa played by Mamta Mohandas, and Jyothi played by Sachana Namidass. But one among the many instances where Nithilan stumbles, is in the belief that humour can be elicited from everyday violence and custodial beating. This, in a state that has seen very many cases of custodial violence and where the deaths of P Jeyaraj and J Bennix are still raw. 

Read: In wake of Ambasamudram case, tracing Tamil cinema’s portrayals of police brutality

A thief who steals only TVS 50s might bring on the laughs, but not the fact that he’s getting repeatedly assaulted on his posterior, with a police officer saying the line: “You won’t be able to go to the toilet.” Because of how it is placed, the audience laughs. 

In another scene, where Inspector Varadarajan, played by Natarajan Subramaniam, makes a thief reenact how he stole valuables, he makes light of the fact that the cupboard keys were kept in one place. How does Nithilan write that scene? The man of the house slaps his wife. The audience laughs. Slow claps.

In the police station, Vijay Sethupathi’s Maharaja purportedly waits to get back his iron dustbin Lakshmi, which is said to have saved his daughter’s life. In that long wait, he’s slapped countless times by various cops. If the intention was to show how much Maharaja was willing to go through to get back his Lakshmi, it did not land that way. It turned into a ‘slap on demand’ kind of terrible humour fest. 

Now comes the worst part, the sexual violence. This is never an easy sequence to write, shoot, enact, or watch in any context, but the terror should not be exacerbated with screams, grunts, a satiated look on the face of the perpetrator, and definitely not a ‘one for the road’ third attempt at the crime. You don’t need a background score to din the violence. We are surrounded by innumerable cases of sexual violence where the gory details are out, and we get the point, thank you. 

This visual language of depicting sexual violence is not restricted to Jyothi’s character in the film. In the other plot point too, when two middle-class men steal while getting away, one permits the other to rape, as just a casual thing they do. The utter callousness of all this is shameful, and the attempts to showcase one of the men as a loving husband and father are even worse. 

Also, when Jyothi opens her eyes, the first thing she says is that she wants to meet the people who did this to her, and the writer makes her take that long walk to an under-construction site as an emotional ploy… bad writing and staging choice. One of them casually says his wife is not in town. The same character at one stage compares a smooth surface to a young girl’s skin. Nauseating, even if the makers can say they did it to drop a hint about the character. Do better. 

Read: How Malayalam films ‘Kappela’, ‘Ishq’ and ‘Chola’ approach sexual violence

In recent times, two films that dealt with sexual violence were Gargi and Chiththa, both miles ahead when it comes to the sensitivity index. Gargi director Gautham Ramachandran consulted with actor and co-producer Aishwarya Lekshmi for the writing, because he had shared the script with her many times for feedback. Also, the women on his creative team as well as friends had all been consulted to check if they felt anything was amiss with the treatment.

In the case of Chiththa, directed by Arun Kumar and produced by its lead actor Siddharth, the film was shown to top psychiatrists and child psychologists as well as survivors, to ensure there was no misstep. Nothing in those films was for shock value. They were survivor-sensitive but Chiththa was also criticised for aspects like saviour complex, and the treatment of the ‘not all men narrative’.

These films documented violence, bringing out the terror and sadness of the experience without heightened sensationalism for claps. They also triggered empathy and encouraged conversation about sex offences. 

Finally, what about a rape haunts you? The fact that it is a dehumanising, violent crime, or that it happened to someone close to you? The fact that the film made it about the latter is the biggest slip of all. 

What makes us human is empathy, the ability to feel for others. What also makes us responsible citizens is allowing the law to take its course. Films reaffirming vigilante justice set a very poor example. And, they prevent any conversation, just giving people a convenient, pop-corn flavoured conclusion for the sake of it.

Read: How recent Tamil cinema has tackled gender, caste and communalism on screen

Subha J Rao is an entertainment journalist covering Tamil and Kannada cinema and is based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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