At this point, there are a few things we expect in a karthik subbaraj movie – sorry, ‘a karthik subbaraj padam’. a fairly popular old song that fits the narrative of the film; a handful of references to Rajinikanth movies; a character named michael; a cameo from subbaraj’s father, gajaraj… what else? oh yes of course: the famous karthik subbaraj twist™. these tropes and motifs can be seen as signatures of an author or as repetitions that get a bit tedious.
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en mahaan, you have mixed feelings about it. in fact, you also have mixed feelings about the whole movie.
It is by no means an ordinary film, because Subbaraj has attempted an epic. we have a sprawling drama, spanning decades. we note the lives of three key characters that intersect; their destinies, inevitably intertwined. We are witnesses that history repeats itself. If all this isn’t evidence of an epic, then there’s Santhosh Narayanan’s trumpet-filled background score that accentuates the drama.
The film opens with this quote from Mohandas Gandhi: “Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.” what follows is the story of someone named gandhi mahaan (vikram), who ends up making mistakes with a capital m.
gandhi’s grandfather and father are followers of, well, gandhi. His father is so devoted to his ideology that he changes his son’s birthday from August 16 to August 15 on his birth certificate. Later, Gandhi marries Naachi (Simran), who is also a staunch Gandhi. she teaches her young son to close his eyes if he sees a hollywood movie poster because she believes that these movies contain violence and sex. Gandhi is not simply surrounded by Gandhians, he is suffocated by them. the expectation of him emulating a man who is revered as a burden to a mahatma. Because Gandhi’s inclination is to walk the path of pleasures, even if they are considered sinful.
for his father and his wife, gandhi, until the age of 40, he lives – rather, he forces himself to live – according to the Gandhian ways. But her life takes a dramatic turn at age 40 when she meets Ella’s childhood friend Sathyavan (Simha), who has taken over her father’s liquor business. committing one sin after another, gandhi becomes anti-gandhi, and soon, he has to make a big decision in his life.
vikram is fantastic as gandhi mahaan. he transitions effortlessly from a shy schoolteacher to a gun-wielding alcohol tycoon. His eyes convey delicious menace as he discovers for the first time that he is capable of violence. they are equally effective in showing the helplessness of him as a man who has to make a difficult decision.
The rest of the main cast does a good job as well (dhruv’s performance is, however, a bit over the top). simha, especially, is impressive as a sathyavan. Subbaraj is in no hurry as she develops these characters. And that’s okay because you don’t expect a gangster drama to travel at a breakneck pace.
One of the problems with mahaan is that it doesn’t hit you like it should. for example, there is a point where gandhi says to sathyavan, “oru vaazhkai, varalara vazhanum” [roughly translates as ‘we have a life, we make history’]. is an epic and creepy line on paper. but your hair does not stand on end when it is pronounced on the screen.
another problem is the inconsistency in gandhi’s emotional graph. there is a point where he is crestfallen, overwhelmed by his own works. It seems that he has lost the will to live. but there is an abrupt release after which he returns to his bold self.
In its last hour or so, you find that the movie tries to do too much. we follow a father-son rivalry, the story of a man who pays for his sins, a battle of two ideologies… and of course, in the middle of all this, we also have a twist (because this is a karthik subbaraj padam). it’s admirable that mahaan tries to juggle all of this. but after a point, it becomes a bit excessive. and you wonder if the film should have heard a line from its leading man. “everything in moderation. that’s the right way to be.”
mahaan is currently streaming on amazon prime