Vijay Sethupathi in a scene from Maharaja
Vijay Sethupathi in a scene from MaharajaYouTube

Maharaja review: Vijay Sethupathi’s 50th is an intriguing thriller though flawed

Directed by Nithilan Swaminathan, ‘Maharaja’ is a dark thriller with unexpected twists that sometimes demand a leap of faith. But the fast-paced screenplay and performances of the cast mean that you’re riveted to what’s unfolding on screen.
Maharaja (Tamil)(3.5 / 5)

You know why Vijay Sethupathi is such a special actor when you watch his 50th film. His choice of script isn’t a flamboyant star vehicle but one that is dependent on his comic timing and vulnerability for it to work. Directed by Nithilan Swaminathan, Maharaja is a dark thriller with unexpected twists that sometimes demand a leap of faith. But the fast-paced screenplay and performances of the cast mean that you’re riveted to what’s unfolding on screen. 

Contrary to his name, Maharaja (Vijay Sethupathi) is a dour-faced barber with a wife and daughter. An accident turns his life upside down, and he becomes all the more grim in his demeanour. His world revolves around his daughter Jyothi (Sachana Namidass), a spirited teenager who is training to be an athlete. The two of them worship Lakshmi – not the goddess but an iron dustbin that is said to have saved Jyothi’s life. 

When Maharaja goes to the police station to report Lakshmi missing, the absurdity is not lost on anyone. But Vijay Sethupathi plays Maharaja in all seriousness. He repeats his story to all the cops, not minding the abuse and slaps they throw at him for asking them to find a dustbin. Is he crazy or is there more to the story? Nithilan Swaminathan (also the writer of the film) mines these scenes for comic gold, putting Vijay Sethupathi’s talent for repetitive dialogues to great use (remember Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom?).

Vijay Sethupathi is that rare actor who pulls the viewer to his side no matter what he’s playing. He could be an introverted photographer, a big-bellied gangster with multiple wives, a despicable rowdy who exploits children… whatever it is, there is a shade of likeability he brings to the character that is hard to resist. So, though Maharaja’s complaint is ridiculous, his desperation feels perfectly authentic. This creates an undercurrent of unease even as we laugh at what’s happening.

The non-linear screenplay is clever, and thank god there’s no spoon-feeding. The director trusts the audience to work with him and construct the plot as they go along. The editing is largely efficient and a lot of details packed into the writing fall in place when you take a moment to piece the jigsaw together. Still, I wish some of the plot threads had been fleshed out better. The about-turn by Inspector Varadhan (Natty) and his colleagues, for instance. It’s too rushed and a tad unbelievable. Maharaja’s motive in reporting the dustbin as missing is also unclear – what made him assume that the police would take such a case seriously and investigate it in all sincerity? There are a few other loopholes, too, that aren’t adequately explained.

More disturbing is the film’s treatment of sexual violence. As with most Indian films, violence against a female character is used to fuel male outrage and guilt. The survivor, in this case, is presented with a kind of convenient agency that seems unrealistic to demand from someone who has just been through an extremely traumatic incident (the first thing she says at the hospital is that she wants to meet and speak to her rapists – really?). Jeethu Joseph’s Malayalam thriller Neru (2023) also had a brave survivor confronting her rapist and seeking justice, but the film didn’t shy away from placing her at the centre of the incident and depicting her trauma. Maharaja has a survivor who is courageous and yet, if the shame isn’t hers, why isn’t the legal route sought? 

Male directors and writers who hang their plots on sexual violence must make a sincere effort to understand why and how it happens – it’s my hope that someday they will realise that the solution can’t be more male violence. Also, do we really need these lengthy scenes that depict how a sexual assault was committed? Maharaja doesn’t have graphic scenes of sexual violence, but the lecherous dialogues and lascivious expressions make the viewer watch the assault from the rapist’s point of view. The primary emotions in the scene are lust and power when it should be empathy for the survivor. This isn’t possible to achieve when we are turned into voyeurs.

Mamta Mohandas plays a Muslim PE teacher. It’s a small role but a nice change from the stereotypical depictions of Muslim women we’ve seen in Tamil cinema. I wish she had more to do in the film though. Anurag Kashyap makes for an effective villain even if the dubbing is off in a few places. He fills the screen with his presence and is chilling when he needs to be. The rest of the supporting cast is competent, and their performances keep the film unpredictable. Even if you can guess where the climax is going, it’s still satisfying.

Maharaja isn’t without its flaws. If the writing had been tighter and some of the scenes had been written with greater sensitivity, it would have been a superior thriller. Nevertheless, a good addition to Vijay Sethupathi’s filmography. Congratulations on your 50th, VJS!

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.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

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