Director Karthik Subbaraj is movie crazy. Like many Tamil filmmakers, he is drawn to intertextuality, but has a temperament that doesn’t allow it to get out of hand in the way it might in a Venkat Prabhu film. It shouldn’t be surprising then that he has cast actor Vikram and his son Dhruv as father and son going at each other in his new work titled Mahaan. It’s an enticing setup: a sparkling Vikram creates a suitable springboard for Dhruv, whose first two ill-fated films came from the cottage industry of Arjun Reddy remakes; performing bits from his father’s classic films, Dhruv reminds us, even if negatively, that talent isn’t inherited.

Vikram plays Gandhi, a middle-aged professor suffocated by his name and the high-minded ideals of his freedom-fighter father. Following the advice of a Randian mendicant (Ramachandran Durairaj), he decides to live out his desires in the company of bar owner Satya (Bobby Simha) and seedy politician Gnanam (Vettai Muthukumar). This betrayal of Gandhian values outrages his wife Nachi (Simran, in a poorly written role), who walks off from his life with their son Dada (Akshath Das). Nursing resentment at this alcohol-driven dissolution of his family, an older Dada (Dhruv) becomes a teetotalling cop to wipe out his wasteful father’s liquor empire.

Like a number of other screenwriters, Karthik Subbaraj is attracted to character pairs, symmetry, mirroring, reversals of roles. This was already obvious in Jigarthanda (2014), whose clever underlying concept had a filmmaker and a gangster trade places. Mahaan abounds with these structural games, which is indeed what sustain the film. The screenplay is divided into clear halves, with Dhruv Vikram making an appearance at the midpoint — a smart ploy that allows his father to shield him for over an hour and lends the film a new lease of energy.

The first half unfolds like a game of rummy; that is to say, through a series of coincidences and lucky accidents. Having cut loose from his regimented life, Gandhi meets business partners Satya and Gnanam (there is some play around their names which respectively mean “truth” and “knowledge”), who, it turns out, are childhood acquaintances. It is hard to buy that this 40-year-old repressed man can so easily ease into one vice after another, but like a round of cards, that is exactly the hand we are dealt. Vikram is fantastic as Gandhi, and despite such radical distortions his character is subjected to, he gives a sense of a coherent person buried beneath all the gaudy shirts and ridiculous coiffure.

As Gandhi keeps leveling up (down) like a debauched game character, Satya has a religious epiphany that makes him gradually distance himself from Gandhi’s dreams of an empire (ba-dum-tsh). This double transition is conveyed through a montage in which images of Satya becoming a born-again Christian are intercut with Gandhi multiplying his murders: a reversal of the Godfather principle. By the end of the film, the two swap places, with Satya reaping the bitter rewards of Gandhi’s bad company.

The second half, in contrast, is a game of chess, where Gandhi’s perfect hand comes undone by his son’s meticulous scheming. If Gandhi’s journey was that of the id unleashed, Dada’s is the return of the superego. A mirror image of his idealistic grandfather, Dada watches over his father even as a child, ferreting out his petty secrets and telling on him. Gandhi and Dada take turns playing father and son, looking out for each other despite their best judgment. They are both introduced (and later developed) through sequences of stylized violence, Dada’s legal killings somewhat amped up to make us wince. Confusing determination with rigidity, though, Dhruv is less than fantastic; it is hard to make out if he is taking a phone call or getting ready to do crunches.

More pairings and reversals: there are two heroes, two friends, two sons, two wives, two weddings, two separations, two telescoped flashbacks to childhood, two scenes of violence in picturesque landscapes. We are in tic territory when even secondary characters seem to have secondary romances going on. Gandhi loses a son figure in the second half, recalling the way he saved one in the first. With age, he grows his hair long as his wife shortens hers. Dada’s revenge on his father is elaborated like a bloody closure to the traumatic scene of his childhood.

These patterns are alluring, and they give solid form to the film’s argument that people who kill for ideology are as vicious, if not more, as people who kill for money, limited as the latter are by their appetite or conscience. But Karthik Subbaraj contrives his screenplay further for these elements to fall in place. A major set-piece in the second half, set in a police bunker designed like an avant-garde theatre set, finds Gandhi and Dada pointing a gun at each other, a cunning image that the whole sequence (and film) seems to be imagined around. But everything in the set-piece before and after this shot shares none of its zing: Dada is elaborately re-established as a sociopath while Gandhi swings from self-effacing helplessness to super-heroic surety and back.

Mahaan is powered by its transitional bits rather than its big scenes, which invariably fall flat. There are three sequences featuring Gandhi and Satya at various stages of their friendship and life. The second of these is poignant, although perhaps redundant, but the other two are quite trying, especially the final one that is set up to resolve another symmetric dilemma: Dada lives if Satya dies and vice versa. An inexplicable scene between Gandhi and his wife Nachi is shoehorned late into the film in order to satisfy the logic of what is to follow.

On the other hand, Mahaan’s tedious passages are also frequently intertwined with its finer qualities. Gandhi’s first fight scene — and I suspect this is where many viewers will take leave of the film — is set in a scenic location surrounded by mountains. As a heavy tries to kill his son with a hammer, Satya cries out in prayer at a crucifix in the distance. Gandhi stops the hammer just as it is about to go down. It’s a rank Tamil movie cliché, but the way it is shot, with Gandhi’s arm jutting out of the sky as if it were the hand of God, shifts the scene’s focus to Satya’s revelation. Unbelievable though the ensuing fight is, there is something in the combination of the locale, Gandhi’s flashy clothes and the pseudo-single shot filmmaking that holds it all together.

As a director, Karthik Subbaraj can often be weird; not weird enough to be creative like Shankar, just weird enough to stick out. He loves his intercutting: the early scene of escalating hysteria where Nachi walks off on Gandhi is finely separated across two groups of actors. The gratuitous quarter hour at the end is split between three spaces and two timelines — a demanding device for the viewer to process. Another effect of modern Tamil films trying to pack 200-minutes worth of narrative into 150: action and dialogue overlapping; we would see items being exchanged across shots while or before we hear about them, as when Gandhi wears his new glasses before we learn that they’re a birthday gift.

Karthik Subbaraj can ask us to make impossible leaps of faith in following Gandhi’s descent into the dumps, but he can also be overly logical in covering his trail, with countless inserts and exchanges whose sole purpose is to cement story gaps. There are fetish images here, like Gandhi with a Tommy gun, but also purely odd ones like Gandhi discarding a movie ticket in the shower drain or a politician literally jumping in joy after having his visitors thrown out. Now that Jai Bhim (2021) has shown us that décor details could be adjusted weeks after a film’s release, Karthik Subbaraj may even consider adding a few more Gandhi photos or crosses in the background.