"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," goes the old adage. Over a career spanning 25 films, Mahesh Babu has adhered to this principle more often than not. His career began with him being a fresh-faced flowerchild that was the apple of every red-blooded woman's eye. That phase commenced with Raja Kumarudu and met its demise with Bobby
. The formula had run its course.
Then began the action hero phase that was meant to invigorate the testosterone-fuelled men in the audience. This image originated with Okkadu
, peaked with Pokiri
, and slipped into oblivion post Businessman
. With every villain known to Tollywood beaten to pulp, the freshly minted Super Star needed a new template.
Even though the actor sampled well-worn avenues such as family films, comedies and thrillers, the biggest of hits came with Srimanthudu
and Bharat Ane Nenu
. A new money-making recipe had been generated - rich Mahesh Babu renounces his riches to empower the impoverished.
But the problem with a recipe is that once it is set, it can be replicated hundreds of times with ease, and familiarity breeds contempt. One way of avoiding the dreaded familiarity is by introducing fresh elements to an accustomed storyline. A simple example of this can be found in every one of our houses. The vegetables we add to our sambar change from one day to the next while the salt and sambar powder remain the same.
The salt and sambar powder for Maharshi come in the form of Mahesh Babu's uber-wealthy Rishi. A man who has scaled the heights of the business world and owes his success to nothing but his mettle - or so he thinks. A few revelations later, he returns to India to thank a friend. He quickly comes to the realization that his verbal appreciations might not be what his friend requires at the present moment as the latter is set on saving his village from being mowed down by a corporate entity. And Rishi sets his sights on rescuing the village from its predicament by means of the vast number of resources he has at his disposal.
Now, for those vegetables. On one corner of the chopping board we have the namesake love interest Pooja, played by Pooja Hegde (no brain cells wasted there), who is in it for the songs. On the other corner we have suit-clad Vivek Mittal (Jagapathi Babu), who is in it for the money. And right in between them are the hordes of farmers led by the resolute Ravi (Allari Naresh). As you can glean, we weren't fans of everything on our plate. But unlike in the days from our childhood where we could willfully ignore those vegetables we didn't like, Maharshi guilts us into consuming every single item on the plate.
It does this by extensively reminding us of the pains one had to go through to obtain these ingredients. Scenes upon scenes and monologues upon monologues of characters telling us the differences between success and "real" success and winning and "real" winning make sure that the audience as well as Rishi learn their lessons and never forget them. But little do the makers know that preachiness and repetition grounds one into accepting a message only for a moment. That moment, though, wanes as soon as it waxes. At its worst, Maharshi behaves like a stereotypical parent who tells but never shows.
In an ironic twist of fate, the only aspect of its storytelling where the opposite is true comes when illustrating Rishi's motivation which is a by-product of his relationship with his father Satyanarayana (Prakash Raj). The tension between the two characters is palpable, and the clever usage of a simple newspaper as the visual link between Rishi's father and Ravi is an admittedly inspired choice.
Co-writer/director Vamsi Paidipally's movie comes into its own when the man behind the camera allows his actors to interact with each other instead of forcing them to interact with his inanimate device. Mahesh Babu is at his best when playing off highly talented actors such as Allari Naresh, Sai Kumar, Prakash Raj and Jayasudha. The warmth the latter duo bring to the screen and the unkempt emotion Naresh manages to wring out of every single one of his supporting performances elevate the film from being forgettable trite.
The shot structure of these deeply personal sequences deserves a special mention as well. The cleverly masked statue of Gandhiji adjacent to Naresh, gentle cuts to empty objects which eloquently emphasise loss, and wide shots that indicate growth and change without insisting upon themselves all showcase the flair hidden within a film that cripples itself with mass-y sequences that insult your intelligence and time-consuming songs that are so clichéd that every Telugu newborn knows about them and is fed up with them already.
Therein lies Maharshi's fatal flaw. The movie fails to realise that noble messages will only be accepted when presented in novel ways. Images of our heroes being appreciated by white guys and gals, scenes of them travelling in motorcades and helicopters, and slow-mo glory shots of them walking around the US in suits don't qualify as cool anymore. What is cool is watching our heroes exercising their brains. What is relatable is watching them have genuine human interactions with other characters. And a good cinematic experience comes together when an audience feels like every frame presented to them was vital to the enjoyment of the film.
Like a mediocre wedding feast, Maharshi serves up two dozen items on an innocuous plantain leaf and hopes its hungry audience is wowed by the variety. Sadly, the end result of all this pomp and show doesn't veer very far from the usual muffled complaining almost every wedding guest indulges in. The makers planned a banquet to satisfy every demographic, but in an attempt to play it safe, made their meal indistinguishable from the hundreds of others an average person eats in their lifetime.