Countless films have ridden to conveniently neat endings by using the deus ex machina plot device. Mauli, Riteish Deshmukh’s latest Marathi movie, unfolds entirely from the back seat of the machine of the gods. The 136-minute movie fuses together the action and mythological genres and combines slow-motion brawls with acts of divine munificence. Vithoba, the black-faced deity who stands on a brick with his hands on his hips, is invoked through his idols, Ajay-Atul’s songs, and background chanting. The only miracle missing from Aditya Sarpotdar’s film is that Vithoba is not credited in the cast.
Mauli stars Riteish Deshmukh as a Vithoba devotee who is a distant cousin of the character of the same name from the 2014 Marathi crowdpuller Lai Bhaari. That film too was produced by Deshmukh, and featured the actor in a double role.
In the new movie, police inspector Mauli Deshmukh arrives in a town that is small enough to be ruled by one villain but also large enough to encourage high-stakes corruption. Nana (Jitendra Joshi) is the despot of Kaapur and the head of a criminal enterprise that includes illegal distilleries and a monopoly on the supply of water tankers. Nana’s grey contact lenses and thuggish ways initially force Mauli Deshmukh to assume a supplicating position, but in a twist that alert viewers will see some miles away, the worm begins turning, one slow-motion punch at a time.
The story, by Milap Zaveri, and the screenplay, by Kshitij Patwardhan, lay all the cards on the table before the opening credits have rolled. Mauli sends a few crooks flying through the air, mouths the punch dialogue that is a staple of such films, and stakes his claim as the Marathi version of the rowdy police inspector so beloved to Bollywood and southern cinema. Deshmukh, an affable presence whatever the role, is a stretch in the action sequences, and he gratefully takes all the help he can get from Vithoba. The high-decibel background score, by Ajay-Atul, reaches the eardrum-shattering intensity of Amar Mohile’s work in Ram Gopal Varma’s films, but the composers prove their skill at churning out religious pop songs in the lovely Majhi Pandharichi Maay.
Saiyami Kher, who made her debut in the Hindi-language Mirzya (2016), plays the local beauty who appears to run a spices store but whose main occupation is to alternately gaze upon Mauli in wonderment and egg him on when his spirits droop. Jitendra Joshi doesn’t disturb the rule book in his portrayal of the venal usurper of property, while Shrikant Yadav does his bit as Nana’s henchman. The shadow of Lai Bhaari looms large over Mauli’s plot, and when in doubt or peril, Deshmukh even assumes the pose of Vithoba, hoping to borrow some of the deity’s lustre. Predictable to a fault, with patches of humour and standard-issue action scenes, the movie coasts along on Vithoba’s blessings.