Maharaj: Will boycotting Netflix erase history's trail?

Hindu activists are demanding a boycott of upcoming film 'Maharaj' based on the 1862 Maharaj libel case trial

The poster featuring Jaideep Ahlawat (left) and Junaid Khan (source: @netflix_in/Instagram)
The poster featuring Jaideep Ahlawat (left) and Junaid Khan (source: @netflix_in/Instagram)

Akanksha Biradar

Actor-producer Aamir Khan's son Junaid Khan is set to debut as an actor with the Netflix film Maharaj, releasing on 14 June.

So far, the filmmakers have shared the first look of Junaid and co-star Jaideep Ahlawat via a poster. While no proper trailer has been released, the film is already making headlines. For the wrong reasons.

Many social media users are demanding a ban on Maharaj, claiming it shows Hindu religious leaders and sadhus in a negative light. The hashtag #BoycottNetflix began trending on X on 13 June, and several right-wing Hindu activists have expressed the view that the film attaches negative connotations to religious figures. The question is, do they know that the film is almost entirely based on a true, well-documented story?

Enter Karsandas Mulji, a journalist and social reformer who made significant contributions to society in mid-19th century Bombay and Gujarat. Mulji also successfully defended himself in the Maharaj libel case of 1862 against Jadunath Maharaj in the Supreme Court of Bombay, wherein lies the core of the film.

An article in The Print details how Mulji launched the magazine Satyaprakash, which boldly confronted outdated traditions and societal problems. A Vaishnav himself, Mulji began exposing the misdeeds of Vaishnav priests, including their exploitation of women devotees. 

In an article dated 21 September 1861 in Satyaprakash titled 'Hinduono asal dharma ane haalna pakhandi mato' (the true religion of Hindus and present hypocritical opinions) Gujarati reformist, poet and Mulji's friend Narmad accused several priests of engaging in sexual relations with female devotees, among other charges. Jadunath Maharaj was accused of endorsing immorality.

Jadunath filed suit, and the case, which initially went to court on 25 January 1862, saw 31 witnesses for the plaintiff and 33 for the defendants examined; Jadunath was among those brought to court, which ultimately dismissed his defamation suit.

India has a history of godmen sexually, emotionally and physically exploiting devotees. The most notorious recent example is Asaram Bapu, who in January 2023 was sentenced to life imprisonment in a rape case filed by a former woman disciple in 2013.

Paramahamsa Nithyananda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, Ichchadhari Sant Swami Bhimanand and Swami Premanada are other self-declared godmen convicted of either rape, aiding prostitution, or sexual assault.

In that context, the outrage against Maharaj should be met with the question: what is the validity of such godmen and their teachings? Those opposed to the film have gone as far as to claim that Aamir Khan, a Muslim, has a history of tarnishing Hinduism, and has now passed the baton to his son.

Many are demanding the Central government take legal action against the film. Incidentally, Khan's 2022 film Laal Singh Chaddha was met with boycott calls based on his remarks that his family was worried by religious intolerance in India.

A social media page going by the name Akhand Bharat Sankalp posted, "Anti-Hindu web-series and movies have been shown on Netflix in the past as well," claiming "abusing Hindu devi and devata is a means of making money. Anti-Hindu films were laid low for a while due to our protest".

Not only does this line of protest conveniently ignore the fact that the film is based on a real-life court case, but also glosses over the rise in anti-Muslim propaganda during the recent Lok Sabha election campaign.

An opinion piece in New Indian Express points to how Anil Sharma’s Gadar 2 rides entirely on the animus against Pakistan, and how Sudipto Sen’s The Kerala Story, heavily promoted by the BJP and RSS, was used in the Karnataka Assembly election campaign by none other than PM Narendra Modi himself. Themed on Islamophobic stereotypes and staples such as conversion, 'love jihad', radicalisation and extremism, it was one of the biggest box-office earners of the year.

In the biopic PM Narendra Modi, Vivek Oberoi, playing Modi on screen, mouths lines about not apologising for the Godhra riots in Gujarat: “Maafi gunehgaar maangte hain aur kanoon saboot (a wrongdoer seeks forgiveness, the law seeks evidence).” 

So why the fuss about defending godmen whom the law has found guilty?

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