Films based on celebrated plays, from B R Chopra's Ittefaq to Vipul Shah's Aankhen have an oppressively stagey air to them that's hard to get rid of. Maharathi manages to liberate itself from the climate of the cloistered.
It is about a rich old cantankerous tycoon (Naseeruddin Shah), his gold-digging wife (Neha Dhupia) and their suspicious charlatan of a chauffeur (Paresh Rawal). It manages to rise above the stagey syndrome, thanks mainly to a stream of self-assured actors who inhabit the deeply-lit ebony-oriented chambers where the drama of marital betrayal, infidelity, suicide and avarice unfolds with reasonable fluency.
What ails Maharathi is its lack of mobility in narration. You really can't take a play too far away from the sets. The drama is not about locations but impulses. Those, the characters bring out with a feisty relish, making the diabolic plot both a sign of our greedy times and a culture-unspecific mirror of individual bitterness and guilt.
Of the cast Naseeruddin Shah is understandably the best. As the retired film producer with a penchant for picking the wrong proteges now married to a woman who wants him dead. Naseer is unsurpassably funny and tragic, imbuing the character with both self-deprecating humour and a malicious self-regard.
Naseer's character's suicide mid-way signals the film's downslide. The plot is now left to Paresh and Dhupia, both proficient in understanding their roles. Neha Dhupia has now made a career of playing sultry vixenish sirens in alternate cinema. She excels in the part with her eyes closed.
Paresh's attempts to sound urban and 'cool' are a little strained. He's slightly too old to play the cocky driver who first teams up with the old man and then his sultry wife, and represents the kind of urban youth who would go anywhere that money takes him.
Om Puri comes in late. That's something the audience can't afford to do. Maharathi isn't as gripping as you would like a film of this genre to be. But the director knows how to create conflict and friction among the characters without losing the underbelly of humour that divides the 'mean' from the boys.