To say going in for Mahaan with little to no expectations was an understatement. Karthik Subbaraj's previous work Jagame Thandiram was a colossal disappointment, and Vikram was going through a rough patch for quite some time.
Also, the real father-son duo of Vikram-Dhruv Vikram as a major selling point didn't do much for me as it could lead to lots of winking. Boy, all of these concerns proved me wrong.
Not only Mahaan is Karthik Subbaraj's return to form (in a minor way though) but it brought Vikram the actor in the forefront, not the star that he is.
The plot revolves around Gandhi Mahaan (played by Vikram), who has a staunch Gandhian upbringing from his childhood to midlife until one day, he faces an epiphany: what if he does away with his principles for one day?
His Gandhian principles weren't exactly inherited but rather it is forced onto him and his marriage with Nachi (played by Simran Bagga), isn't exactly a happy one as she herself is a staunch believer of Gandhi, in fact, she's almost like a religious zealot.
But now, with his principles broken as he has consumed alcohol (something which is a big plot point for this movie), the movie initially finds itself in Breaking Bad territory.
While it's not as great as the show; Karthik Subbaraj uses it as a major influence as to how he makes an unassuming meek man have his moral compass shifted to become a liquor baron.
But as the story progresses, with the arrival of Dada (played by Dhruv Vikram), things take a turn for Gandhi Mahaan and his empire...
Mahaan uses ideologies as a catalyst to kickstart Gandhi Mahaan's transformation, which eventually becomes a curse and a blessing for this movie.
For the flaws, here the ideas are aplenty but they're not fully realized and fleshed out to fill the 162-minute runtime. The first half especially feels dragged after Mahaan breaks his vow, and there's a lull in between that and the scenes leading up to the interval.
Also, this gives way for inadvertent obviousness looming throughout the film; be it a character's faith restored where few scenes prior the person didn't want anything to do with religion, some Christ figures alluding to forgiveness, and some callbacks mentioned scenes earlier.
Also, some of the schticks Karthik Subbaraj has used in his previous films are there, be it Ilayaraja's songs, or the colorful stylized montages, the now-famous Karthik Subbaraj Twist, and pitch-black humor, he also seems to overwrite his story with a lot of ideas which at times could be a detriment; Jagame Thandiram is a casualty of this.
But here, the ideas in themselves define the story pretty well. Here, a person who's free to do immoral stuff like consuming alcohol could be considered freedom of choice while the ideology of someone's point of view is fed forcefully rather than what he/she thinks of can be viewed as restrictive. This is what Gandhi Mahaan says to Nachi, who herself has been a blind follower while he could be considered as an "agnostic".
Sure, Gandhi Mahaan isn't a moral character but he acknowledges the extremes he's taken to change his life and realizes sometimes mistakes make us human. The other extreme is where Dada lies, and while his character has a psychotic glee in his actions, Dhruv Vikram kinda goes overboard to a point he gets over the top.
But his father, Vikram on the other hand, is in fine form here. This might be one of his best transformations and he didn't even need makeup to do it. The transformation here is internal, and when Dada arrives, he almost reverts back to the old Gandhi with his fear slowly seeping into his otherwise macho persona when he became a gangster.
Equally brilliant is Bobby Simha, a regular collaborator for Karthik Subbaraj; his character Sathyavan is comparably likable and tragic despite his gruff look, the scene where he and Gandhi are on a bridge is heartbreaking, you understand both of their pain and dilemma but you know they both made up their minds about what comes next.
On the technical side, Shreyaas Krishna's cinematography is grittier and less showy unlike his previous work with Karthik Subbaraj, save for a one-take action sequence, and Santhosh Narayanan's score while pretty good doesn't stand out like his previous work. Vivek Harshan's editing gives a tight flow although he could've trimmed a few more scenes, especially in the first half.
Subbaraj has a lot to tell these days, and while Jagame Thandiram overdoes whatever he wants to say, Mahaan at the very least respects it by letting the characters view what ideology can do to a person. In a way, he finds humor in those moments of irony where a supposed Gandhian is a trigger-happy policeman while at the opposite end of the spectrum, the person effectively ends the liquor business by means of bureaucracy.