Director: Karan Sharma
Creator: Subhash Kapoor
Cast: Huma Qureshi, Sohum Shah, Vineet Kumar
Streaming on: SonyLIV
Maharani is a remarkably boring and verbose depiction of Indian politics. Given that it's 2021, it takes a special degree of sterile worldbuilding to fashion such a sanitized and self-serious story about a system that's inherently a horror parody unto itself. Designed as a whopping ten-episode series, the incessant plotting and scheming of Maharani turns monotonous very quickly, the consequence of which can best be described as artistic harakiri. Loosely inspired by the rise of ex-Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi, it starts off as an overwritten Prakash Jha universe, momentarily descends into an orgy of alpha-male Mirzapur deflectors, letting its middle episodes morph into a random Scam-1992-meets-Special-26 corruption-busting premise, before finally settling on a tone that's neither satirical, nor darkly funny or dramatically pensive. The final three episodes in fact just feature a bunch of power-drunk men chatting with another bunch of power-hungry men and planning to seize the top seat in long-drawn and intellectually unimaginative meetings.
Huma Qureshi – an intriguing but uneven actress – stars as Rani Bharti, a housewife who turns Bihar CM overnight after her husband, Bheema Bharti (Sohum Shah), is paralyzed in an assassination attempt. She is introduced as a woman who takes great pride in maintaining their rural home, forcing her high-profile husband to milk the cows during his rare domestic visits from Patna. Running parallel is the change in Bihar's caste narrative in the late 1990s – the series opens with a servant in a village citing the rise of lower-caste CM Bheema Bharti and speaking up against his upper-caste zamindar-era owners, before being gunned down for his 'outspoken' behaviour. Then there's Bheema's opposition leader Naveen Kumar (Amit Sial, standing in for Nitish Kumar), the villain of the series until the final few episodes spell out the fact that Bheema himself is a greedy oppressor weaponizing the rage of his oppressed roots. There are a bunch of other characters who speak a lot, intent on turning the narrative into the cinematic equivalent of a bureaucratic roadblock.
Qureshi is sincere, but the series treats her just as condescendingly as the male ministers of Bihar do. In her early portions as the 'surrogate' Chief Minister, she is reduced to a comedic device and glorified zoo animal, reminiscent of the way white movies exoticize brown characters visiting a foreign land. She speaks like an innocent little girl unversed in the ways of the land, gets physically lifted (!) out of her room by bodyguards when she refuses to attend an assembly session, and overplays the "angutha-chaap (illiterate)" card to remind us of her status as a lady simply running a big and messy house. A moment on her first day is straight out of the Anil Kapoor-starrer Nayak, where she ends up answering a phone call from her son in front of amused journalists. She then magically transforms into an assertive leader who wants to punish the demons within her own party because her understanding of right and wrong knows no political boundaries. The message of course is that a child can run Bihar better than its politicians ("How can we not have funds? Is a thief stealing from the henhouse?").
For no reason at all, she is further simplified by being flanked with a South Indian subordinate (Kani Kusruti reprising her Malayali caricature from OK Computer), who still sounds far more at ease than Sohum Shah and his Bollywoodised non-Lalu Prasad Yadav impression. Shah seems to be too busy aping Pratik Gandhi's Scam 1992 grin to notice that he sounds more like a wounded Delhi minister. Given that Bheema Bharti spends most of the show looking disappointed with his wife from the confines of his bed, maybe it's not entirely Shah's fault after all. Seasoned actors like Amit Sial and Inaamulhaq (as the Bengali-Muslim treasurer) fare better, but they get lost in a haze of backroom dealings and debauched loyalties.
Towards the end, Huma Qureshi completely disappears from the series for long stretches, almost as though the makers get sick of faking the figurative essence of their title
The irony of Madhya Pradesh and Kashmir standing in for Bihar is one of the show's (unintended) strengths. Towards the end, Huma Qureshi completely disappears from the series for long stretches, almost as though the makers get sick of faking the figurative essence of their title. Speaking of which, it feels like only yesterday creator Subhash Kapoor – who was not too long ago accused of sexual harassment – directed the identically-themed but equally superficial film Madam Chief Minister (2021), starring Qureshi's Gangs of Wasseypur comrade Richa Chadda. For the audience, it's two times too many. Even at its best, I can't find an appropriate phrase for Maharani because I was too busy being lulled into an afternoon nap. And dreaming of Borgen.