From Petta to Mahaan: The increasingly chaotic politics of Karthik Subbaraj

It’s beginning to look as if the director, known for his absurdist comedies, is getting swamped by his confused understanding of politics and the need to fit star actors into the industry mould.
Director Karthik Subbaraj
Director Karthik Subbaraj

It’s been four days since Karthik Subbaraj’s Mahaan, starring Vikram, was released directly on the Over-the-Top platform Amazon Prime Video. But no one seems closer to understanding either the film’s ideological messaging or its tumultuous plot. The hero, named Gandhi Mahaan, is forced from childhood to live by the values of a fanatically Gandhian family until at age 40, he explodes, drinks for just one evening, leading to his wife (played by Simran), son, father-in-law and brother-in-law having a baffling, extreme public meltdown. Then, Gandhi Mahaan, in Tamil-hero-style, slaps his wife, Naachi, in front of all his neighbours. Everybody leaves him, he turns to a life of liquor brewing, gambling and hobnobbing with corrupt politicians for decades until his reckoning comes through his vengeful son, who is a police officer, (another Tamil movie favourite: the trigger-happy policeman), played by Vikram’s real-life son Dhruv. 

By the end of watching Mahaan you’d be hard-pressed to describe what the film is really about. Is it a tale of betrayal and revenge? Is it a cautionary parable on ideological extremism? Or a story of sin and redemption? Is it just about bad parenting? Is it a commentary on liquor and politics in Tamil Nadu? If the last, it’s as if the dialogue “intha bothai oru arasiyal” (this alcohol is a type of politicking) has run off the Lokesh Kannagaraj directed Master set and spawned one of the many subplots of Mahaan, which is already buckling under the weight of all the different issues it wants to register opinions on. 

Karthik Subbaraj appears to have opinions about a variety of political causes. Most of these views are shallow at best, but he seems decidedly set on a trend of overloading his films with them. His previous film, Jagame Thandhiram had comments to make on everything from the struggle for Tamil Eelam and the migrant crisis in Europe to Brexit, white supremacy and war-torn Middle-Eastern countries. Gangster films are Subbaraj’s genre, we’ve known that since Jigarthanda. But the increasingly political turn of his films, even as they simultaneously rope in star actor after star actor (Rajini in Petta, Dhanush in Jagame Thandhiram and now Vikram in Mahaan), leave us trying to recall the Karthik Subbaraj of his early career and wondering what has happened to him?

It’s not as if the issue of Eelam hasn’t cropped up in Subbaraj’s films as early as Iraivi. It’s just that his need to make political statements have been rapidly progressing in tempo, while the plot, characters and the sentiments of people directly affected by those issues, such as the Sri Lankan Civil War, fall by the wayside. Jagame Thandhiram upset a lot of Eelam Tamils because Subbaraj’s gangster flick was seen to appropriate the armed struggle for a Tamil homeland. The main criticism that the director is an outsider to the trauma of surviving war and genocide doesn't seem to have gotten through to him. His segment Peace from Navarasa went right into the barracks of LTTE soldiers at the height of the Civil War. The segment ended up humanising the Sinhala forces. For Tamils who lost homes and loved ones, the film could hardly have come off as a gesture of solidarity.

Petta, again, left one wondering what exactly Subbaraj wanted to say. The villains were Hindutva extremists from north India but also the hero was back in Tamil Nadu at the behest of the Prime Minister? That dialogue never got fully explained either.

At this point, it’s hard to remember that this is the director who made Pizza, a film that felt like he’d taken the sequence of “pei-irruka-illaiya” in Chandramukhi and turned it into a pitch-perfect horror-comedy. Subbaraj is also the director who delivered Jigarthanda that turned the Madurai-rowdy trope of Tamil cinema into a dark, laugh riot with its volatilely unhinged Assault Sethu played by Bobby Simha. Those films showed a gift for throwing up the unexpected. To pull us along into a carnivalesque world that was as unpredictable as it was compelling.

In Mahaan, it seems as if the carnival got swapped out for a bumper car ride gone rogue. Far too many themes crash and bounce off each other chaotically, while we clutch uselessly at the steering wheel and hope someone cuts the power. Okay, it’s not a great analogy, but two hours and 40 minutes of a bone-jarring run-time later, what do you expect?

Look, it’s all very grand if you want to protest corruption in liquor licensing. It’ll be grander if you can make a coherent film about the problem. It’s verging on irredeemable though, if you’re wasting an actor of Muthukumar’s talent to play a directionless caricature villain instead. This would be the second time that Subbaraj does that to a good actor. One only needs to compare the screen presence of both Muthukumar and Kalaiyarasan in Jagame Thandhiram and  Sarpatta Parambarai, both of which were released months apart in the same year, to understand how exceptionally gifted actors become inconsequential when a director puts star appeal over everything else. 

This rings true for Bobby Simha as well. Despite Jigarthanda featuring a popular star like Siddharth, Simha ruled the screen. The actor fits smoothly into quirky, layered roles. As Assault Sethu and even Pagalavan in Soodhu Kavvum (produced by Karthik Subbaraj), he has played memorable characters with his seamless comic timing. Off late, in every Karthik Subbaraj film he’s seen in, it feels as if his talent, too, is being side-lined on behalf of the star actor. In Mahaan, it’s depressing to see him as another caricature, perhaps of his former roles, with absolutely no depth. 

In the amount of noise, moralising and mass moments Mahaan aims to give its big star actor, it barely registers that what Subbaraj wants to say is that ultimately one needs to have the choice to decide to abstain from or consume alcohol. Or at least have the choice to make mistakes. That seems to be one aspect of the film’s message, but as I said, it’s hard to tell. “Extremism of any kind is wrong, moderation is key,” says Vikram, after an elaborate plan to get his long-lost son arrested. A son who has grown up alongside not one, but two cults, to become a sharpshooting (read encounter-killing aficionado) police officer, whose mania for revenge and bloodlust is explained away as the result of his father’s one-day, mid-life crisis when he decided to drink for the first time in his life. As a villain origin story that’s incredibly unconvincing and the director could have taken his own advice about moderation.

Speaking of political messaging, when is Tamil cinema going to stop using casteist slurs to sound “funny and edgy”? The song ‘Evanda Ennaku Custody?’ in Mahaan functions as a sort of hero-intro song for Vikram. Thrown in among the onslaught of meaningless lyrics is the line, “Naandhaan periya Lambadi” (I am the greatest Lambadi). In the context of the song, it means he’s the “foremost wastrel, roaming where he pleases with zero regard for responsibilities”. No, a nomadic tribal community does not have to be a synonym for self-absorbed heroes. 

Also, no one knows why Gandhi was so central to this film. It offers neither intelligent critique nor serves as a wholehearted affirmation of anything that could be considered ‘Gandhian values’. As someone who sides with some of the criticism of his ideologies, not even I could comprehend what role repeatedly evoking Gandhi’s politics contributed to the film. It doesn’t even work as a parody examination of these supposed values. It’s unfortunate to see a director who does quite well in the field of absurdist comedy so utterly swamped by his own confused politics. And in trying to fit the industry’s mould of over-the-top star action movies, he’s lost track of the very elements that made his earliest films stand out.

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