Maharani opens with an incident of caste-based violence. A man from a "lower caste" is shot dead by his master because he refuses to serve him. It's horrific, more so because of how casually it is carried out. This sequence sets the tone for the next ten episodes of the show. Maharani, created by Subhash Kapoor and directed by Karan Sharma, is loosely inspired by the life of Rabri Devi, Bihar's former chief minister. However, much like Subhash Kapoor's film Madam Chief Minister, despite glaring similarities, Maharani is a highly fictionalised tale of a woman's rise to power.
Rani Bharti (Huma Qureshi) is a homemaker who is suddenly plunged into the world of politics after her husband, Bheema Bharti (Sohum Shah), is bedridden after being shot. In an unforeseen turn of events, she is appointed Bihar's chief minister in spite of being illiterate and having no experience or interest in politics at all.
Despite being an overtly sanitised portrayal, Maharani is nevertheless interesting because it has so much to unpack. Below the sheen of a generic but mostly thrilling political drama, it has themes such as misogyny, what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated field and just how terrible the effects of the caste system are. Maharani isn't an eye-opener, not by a mile, mostly because we've seen this so many times before. However, the show's treatment of caste is never exploitative. Unlike many other recent web series, where showing the horrors of this system has been treated as if they are trying to tick a social-message checkbox, Maharani examines the problem with a little more depth. It examines what it means to be an outsider, whether it be because of your sex, caste or where you hail from.
The show has a lot going on at the same time – political opponents trying to topple each other, betrayal, money laundering and corruption. At times, it may seem rushed but despite roadblocks, director Karan Sharma's assured direction and some fine performances make Maharani mostly engrossing. The show's biggest triumph is its leading lady, Huma Qureshi. She internalises Rani and elevates a character that could've become gimmicky in the hands of a less competent actor. I'm not very well versed with the dialects of Bihar so my gaze maybe that of an outsider's, but I couldn't find a single false note in Qureshi's lived-in, well-realised performance.
Sohum Shah and Amit Sial put in their best efforts and I specially enjoyed Kani Kusruti (who was terrific in OK Computer) as Kaveri, Rani's right hand-woman. But there isn't enough nuance provided to these people, and they come off as one-dimensional. The only character other than Rani who's explored well is Parvez Alam, played endearingly by Inaamulhaq. He's also the show's only comic relief.
However, the show rankles whenever Rani isn't on screen. It loses its grip and you often feel that it's running out of steam. At 10 episodes, it's also overlong and has a few stretches of tedium. At some points, Kapoor's writing appears to be confused as to where it wants to go. The last episode, in particular, is disappointing because most of it is wasted in trying to set up suspense for a second season, often leaving behind crucial subplots that are only briefly explored. The depiction of Bihar is also inconsistent. There are some moments that provide us with a good sense of authenticity, but at other times characters are just reduced to suffixing –va after every word, giving the show an artificial flavour that could've been completely avoided.
However, for most of its part, Maharani stays true to what it promises. Despite the familiarity of its political landscape, it's largely enjoyable and well-paced. Also, its leading lady is in very fine form. I was entertained, and I think you will be too.