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): MaharathiTheFilm.com
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 :)