Of all the sideways tributes to Mahatma Gandhi, this one has to be the most spirited.
In Tamil director Karthik Subbaraj’s Mahaan, a character named after the symbol of non-violence and teetotalism struggles to live up his ideals. Gandhi Mahaan (Vikram) doesn’t as much cross over as he paddles furiously to the other side, where lie the joys of criminal behaviour, immense wealth and endless rivulets of liquor.
Gandhi has had the misfortune of being born into a staunchly Gandhian family. His wife Nachi (Simran) is a devotee of self-abnegation too. So when Gandhi turns up one day after having broken the no-liquor rule, Nachi, their son Dadabai Naoroji (Dada for short) and the rest of the family walk out in disgust.
Gandhi has little time to mourn their departure. This commerce professor breaks bad in a big way. Teaming up with Sathyavan (Bobby Simha) and Satyhavan’s son Rocky (Sananth), Gandhi becomes the gangster version of Vijay Mallya.
The trio, with the help of politician Gnanam (Muthu Kumar), bilk the system and milk the ensuing profits. Payback comes in the form of Dada (Dhruv Vikram), an aggressive police officer who has sworn to raze Gandhi’s kingdom to the ground.
It’s a formulaic plot, told over a bottom-warming 142 minutes through a parade of flashbacks and raucous songs (by Santhosh Narayanan). Subbaraj brings to the movie his usual snarky humour, visual flair for staging scenes and immersion in the worlds of men. The one significant female character, Nachi, is barely visible and eminently forgettable.
Mahaan has been released with English subtitles on Amazon Prime Video. There’s more to the mission to cleanse Tamil Nadu of alcohol, the meandering movie will have us know. Rather than taking down Mahatma Gandhi a few pegs (he is an easy target anyway these days), Mahaan appears to be firing over the shoulder of the apostle of peace at the false gods who lurk in our midst.
Dada is a zealot who has been raised in a religious cult after being separated from his father. As much a moral policeman as an actual policeman, Dada represents everything that Gandhi – and the movie – abhors: an impossible standard of rectitude, a killjoy attitude towards pleasure, and disgust for people who live beyond the pale of society’s prescribed rules.
Gandhi draws an equivalence between his anarchic amorality and Dada’s trigger-happy righteousness by telling the young man, I may not be a good man, but you are no better than me.
Somewhere in this seemingly endless movie, might there be an allegory about the hypocritical times in which we are living? Perhaps it’s the alcohol talking.
At any rate, the gangsters are certainly having more fun in the movie than anybody else. Their camaraderie, loyalty and personal moral code bring to mind not one of the aphorisms attributed to Mahatma Gandhi but the line from Bob Dylan’s song Absolutely Sweet Marie: “But to live outside the law, you must be honest.”
Vikram delivers a Patiala peg of a performance, simmering with pathos and bathos as well as self-deprecation. Dhruv Vikram (the actor’s son in real life) is simply no match for the magnetic pater familias. Bobby Simha, the star of Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda (2014) is on fire too. The brotherhood between Gandhi and Sathayavan and Subbaraj’s subversive glee just about rescue Mahaan from unforgiveable bloat.
Corrections and clarifications: The review erroneously identified the film’s music composer as Anirudh Ravichander. It is actually Santhosh Narayanan.