Maharathi (2008): An effective translation

Translating a stage play to film is a tricky endeavor, but one that surely provides endless exciting possibilities. Assuming exploiting these possibilities is not an absolute requirement of a successful translation, and assuming my middle school theater instructor was correct in calling the audience at a play the 'fourth wall', comic thriller Maharathi works. It's directed by Shivam Nair, and adapted from a 1987 Gujarati play by Paresh Rawal, carrying the same title meaning 'great warrior'. It does not have the most brilliant script, nor is it packed with as many thrills as one expects in a thriller. What it does have is very good dialogue that complements efforts to retain suspense, elevating an otherwise average film to a rather intriguing and mostly engaging experience that, despite its predictability, stands its ground rather well.

Subhash (Paresh Rawal), a smalltime robber, is employed by Jaisingh Adenwalla (Naseeruddin Shah), an alcoholic and former film producer. Adenwalla suffers through respiratory disease as he struggles in life alongside his young, beautiful, and greedy wife Mallika (Neha Dhupia), with whom he shares a love-hate relationship. Escaping her attempts to kill him for his life insurance funds (24 crore rupees, roughly five million U.S. dollars), he commits suicide in frustration, leaving behind a will which guides the film: to avail the life insurance benefit, Mallika must prove that her husband's death was the result of a murder by someone other than her and Subhash, and not the result of an accident or suicide. Will she succeed? What role will Subhash play? How would the reactions of Adenwalla's trusted lawyer (Boman Irani), a patient police commissioner Gokhale (Om Puri), and a confused housekeeper Swati (Tara Sharma) influence Mallika's quest? See Maharathi to discover. Its flaws are overshadowed by outstanding performances by some of the best in the business.

It's evident through the staging and cinematography alone that the film is an adaptation of a stage play. Shot in a small number of locations (the scene of the suicide is the obvious dominant set), it combines solid art direction with an effective background score (the only song is not part of the core narrative, and is not a fair indicator of, nor a complement to, a good product of film!). The screenplay, although slightly lagging in some portions (which, for a runtime of less than two hours, warrants concern), is complemented by injection of tasteful humor when one least expects it, often providing welcome comic relief. The dialogue delivery is clearly its biggest strength -- credit a near-perfect casting for it shining through. There isn't a moment one feels the actors are out of place.

Paresh Rawal, to whom the film clearly belongs, is as good as in any of his several fantastic performances. The ease with which he switches emotions, from troubled to calm, comedic, angry, and bewitching, all in one long take, is remarkable. The one-on-one exchanges between him and Naseeruddin Shah are a treat. There is a segment in which he discusses levels of risk and reward with Neha Dhupia, in which he is outstanding. The climax, in which the perception of an incoherent plot is dealt shame, is well executed and contains the thrills one expects from a thriller.

Naseeruddin Shah puts most filmic alcoholics to shame. A scene at the billiards hall and another in a room dedicated to his character's products of films are flawlessly executed. Tara Sharma is a pleasant surprise, but she's done similar roles before. Neha Dhupia is good, although possibly the one weak link in the acting department -- not something to hold against her, the others are just a lot better and a lot more experienced. One wishes Om Puri had a much bigger role, but the scope of his character does not afford him an opportunity to do much. Boman Irani is his usual dependable self.

Ultimately, it is the lack of thrills, perhaps a result of strong emphases on dialogue, that must be considered the film's biggest weakness. While that is a fair criticism, what must also be heeded alongside it is that Maharathi skips several conventional (and often thrill-inducing) conclusions to its many sub-plots. Instead, it relies on its audience to draw conclusions based on their knowledge of the genre. Indeed, almost implicitly, the possibilities are endless. This gets slightly tricky because drawing the wrong conclusion at the wrong juncture might lead one to believe the characters are dumb when they are not (except the lawyer, if I were him, I'm convinced I'd have a much stronger case). But it's certainly worth toying around with, because, as the characters suggest, low risk and high reward mark opportunities worth availing.

There's every opportunity to enjoy this film for those willing to play along (and occasionally suspend disbelief). When treated within its scope (e.g. time line) and appreciated within its limitations (e.g. a script for a stage play), it works as an effective translation to film. Three stars and then some for a film clearly defined by excellent performances, worth watching at least once. If there is a Paresh Rawal fan in you, consider this mandatory viewing!

Movie rating: 3.25/5 (Good!)

My classification: 15+ (for theme)

Official website (and picture source):
I do not believe it has released on DVD yet. I saw it at the theater in December, but you know what else released that month to keep me busy :)


Anonymous said...

I love Paresh Rawal - when he gets a decent role and this one sounds like it. In fact, for Nasseer+Om Puri+Paresh Rawal I'd watch anything (except for a story involving the aam aadmi! lol) and a murder mystery is just bonus! :-D The plot reminds me of Cyril Hare's Suicide Excepted - maybe Paresh Rawal got his story idea from there? That one though, was a very conventional British murder mystery in the best tradition of 1940s and may not really have any other plot similarities.

Thanks to your review, I can look forward to this! Now if only they'd hurry up and release the DVD...

theBollywoodFan said...

That's exactly the sentiment I went to see it with, and I wasn't disappointed. I think you'll enjoy it! I liked filling in the blanks, it's something any fan of murder mysteries can appreciate that.

LOL at the 'aam aadmi' comment! It's true. I do think about the significance of any filmmaker feeling the need to explicitly state that to the audience, as opposed to letting the audience discover it on their own!

And thank you for introducing me to Cyril Hare. I'll try to check out one of his books some day (have you read any?). It'd be difficult to judge the relationship between Suicide Excepted and Maharathi based on those notes alone, seems the latter is different enough.


Bhargav Saikia said...

I haven't seen this movie..I guess some pre-conceived notions about it are always preventing me from watching it. ;) I'll go for it after reading your positive review.

Anonymous said...

I've read all his books that are available in print - 6-7 of them - and loved them all. But then I love Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al... - in fact any murder mystery from before 1950s that involves pre-war Britain, slow moving plots and total absence of gruesome serial killers! From your synopsis it appears that, Suicide Excepted has a very different plot. But the central theme is that of a family trying to prove their relative's suicide as murder in order to collect on insurance.

As to aam aadmi, after A Wednesday, I approach Nasseer's movies with more caution than before. So your review is greatly appreciated.

dunkdaft said...

do you remember what I told in your 'December releases' post? I told I am surely gonna watch this in theatre. And you told you are waiting for DVD.

See what happened? I STILL haven't watched it, and you watched it in theater !! :-D

I am desparate to watch this. Its under my list of not to miss in 2008. Sigh... I like suspense thriller, and this is another one made based on Gujarati play. How about next review on movie based on Aandhlo Paato??

ajnabi said...

This is why I love Bollywood blogs in general and yours in particular--I'd never know this was based on a play otherwise! It looks really good, but then anything with Boman and Naseeruddin in the same film is practically required to be. ;-)

theBollywoodFan said...

Bhargav: I had some of those as well. I really think the actors made this tick (and a joy to watch), otherwise it was all right. I hope you enjoy it!

Bollyviewer: All right, so it sounds like a go. I immensely enjoyed Sherlock back in high school when I used to read them. Haven't touched one since, but maybe now's the time to get back to those mysteries, beginning with Hare!

Ditto to the A Wednesday comment! Naseer's also got Firaaq coming up toward the end of this month, in a film directed by Nandita Das. I'd added more to the February releases post.

Darshit: Yes, you're right about that discussion! See, once I discovered this wasn't a typical murder mystery, I was fair game. Besides, after seeing Ghajini a couple times, I was ready for a Paresh-Naseeruddin film :) Finally got around to discussing it, thank goodness for notepads!

I haven't heard of Aandhlo Paato, but will try doing some research on it, thanks for the lead!

Ajnabi: Thank you :) I'm surprised at the few details available on Maharathi the play -- for a play with 700+ sessions, one would think there would be more out on the WWW. Oh, the cast was great. Boman and Naseeruddin are brilliant, and so is Paresh Rawal!

NidaMarie said...

Hmm...I would have never thought to watch this I may just give it a try, thanks to your review!

Anything with Naseeruddin Shah is usually worth my time, I've found so far...

theBollywoodFan said...

Hey Nida! Should you choose to see it, I'd recommend watching it for the actors and then working to the plot. It's certainly not the ideal approach, and not the mark of a top quality film, but it's easy to see how the other way around with Maharathi might not work. So, as Bollyviewer says (in her first comment above), treat the mystery as a bonus, and I think you'll enjoy the experience!

Naseeruddin Shah is superb, a true professional. Have you seen one of his recent works -- Iqbal (2005) -- yet?

ajnabi said...

BTW, do you know what happened to Aamir's blog? Did it change URLs or did he delete it?

theBollywoodFan said...

He changed the URL (whew). For a second, you had me scared, LOL. I've updated the link to his blog in the sidebar. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Ajnabi, I hadn't realized the older URL was not working!

dunkdaft said...

Hah..that was tricky for you. Aandhlo Paato is Aankhen starring Akki, Arjun and Paresh Rawal !!

Juhi looks lovely in title bar.....

Jinju S. said...

Hi...i stumbled onto ur blog while googling for translations of hindi songs.(m pasting my comment here coz dis is ur most recent post)
Ur blog is amazing!u have done a great job. Keep it up!As a South Indian who knows very little hindi but likes a lot of hindi songs, i found ur blog extremely helpful...thank you.

theBollywoodFan said...

Darshit: Aah, see, I didn't realize Aankhen was based on a play. It was fun. I liked the story, although (and this is from what little I remember of it from 2002) it got a bit too goofy for my liking toward the end. Maybe because it was based around toying with financial services people, LOL? And ditto to Juhi!!!

Hi Jinju! Welcome, and thank you very much for your kind comments. Glad you found the translations useful, I'll hope to add more moving forward. Also hope you find the other content interesting :)


Pitu said...

Off topic, on the banner-

Hayla! Ui maa! Juhi Chawla! :-D

theBollywoodFan said...

Of course! It's difficult to keep the two in the banner away, really.

Anonymous said...

I much enjoyed this movie... even if it seems fairly obvious as to what is coming.

I enjoyed Aankhen too, though the ending was a bit weird. There is still time for them to make a sequel though... I'd watch that for sure!

As for A Wednesday... what were the thoughts on that? I'm considering watching it, but haven't heard much about it (in terms of reviews).

theBollywoodFan said...

Thanks for your visit and comment. Glad you enjoyed Maharathi! Here are my thoughts on A Wednesday. Cheers.