If you have been following the crude humour that is Bihar politics — the flip flop of Nitish Kumar, who dumped one-time ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to instead walk hand in hand with his another-time nemesis, Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal — you will recognise that politics in this state, as in most places, is not rooted in ideology or stable vote banks, but opportunities and desperation. It's fickle, if not immoral; rootless, if not amoebic. It is so victory-seeking, forward-looking, it is almost unresponsive to the present. As political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes, "The one lesson from Bihar is that if you don't take contingency seriously, you are not taking politics seriously."
In that case, the protagonist of the webseries Maharani, loosely based on the political career of Lalu Prasad Yadav's wife Rabri Devi, is a woman who refuses to take politics seriously. In the first season, after an attack leaves her husband, chief minister Bhima Singh Bharti (Sohum Shah), incapacitated, Rani Bharti (Huma Qureshi), is suddenly sworn in as CM. With no grounding or training in politics, she pursues her instincts. She is so enmeshed in the present moment, in the current chaos, that every gesture or action she takes comes from a space of immediacy and not cautious foresight or contingency. At the end of the first season, she gets her husband jailed for his involvement in the fodder scam. Whether this is good politics or not is a separate question. It's a moral triumph. In Rani Bharti's words, it is not about satta (power), but siddhant (principles).
In the second season, an accusation looms over Rani Bharti while she navigates political challenges in this fictional Bihar. We are told at the outset, casually, that her husband has been killed and that she is a suspect, before dissolving into a flashback. This accusation is unexpected — even unbelievable — because Rani Bharti has throughout been sketched as vulnerable but morally forthright. To tamper with this, would be to destabilise the show's core for the sake of a twist.
The flashback then unrolls the obstacle course. Despite putting her husband in jail, she remains at the helm of a party that her husband cobbled together, and chasing votes amidst gnawing political nemeses that include her husband and Amit Sial's Navin Kumar, who, in his posh outfits and with his penchant for stoking communal fires, slithers between parties and ideologies.
Huma Qureshi's is a blazing, confident performance, with the kind of charisma that forgives linguistic inconsistencies and allows narrative leaps.
With thick kohl under her eyes, a blood-red bindi and a slathering of kumkum on the middle parting in her hair, Huma Qureshi inhabits Rani Bharti with a dynamism that cannot be learned. Watch her hands — the way it is limp and mobile when explaining, or taut on the hips when intimidating. This is a blazing, confident performance, with the kind of charisma that forgives linguistic inconsistencies and allows narrative leaps. For example, the show refuses to explain how she is able to mobilize ministers in her support as her husband begins a rival party. It refuses to explain how she is able to put up candidates despite her promise that no one with a criminal record will get a ticket, even though most people in her party have one. The glaring assumption here is that the charisma of Qureshi as Rani Bharti can paper over such qualms and loopholes — and the thing is, it just might be right.
Created by Subhash Kapoor; written by Kapoor, Nandan Singh, and Umashankar Singh; and directed by Ravindra Gautam, Maharani's second season flings events at the broad narrative arc of a babe in the political woods — the rape and murder of a model; the cleaving off of Jharkhand from Bihar; reservation and anti-reservation protest; and communal riots. These issues aren't resolved as much as introduced and then subsumed under the weight of the next, more pressing issue that comes up. Is this incomplete writing or a mirroring of the world which it uses liberally as source material?
Likely that it is the latter, that the makers intentionally refuse to be neat about the story they are telling. For it seems Maharani is attempting to radically reshape the grammar of a political drama, refusing easy arousals and shapely conclusions, allowing a moment to simmer, linger and stay longer than is necessary, despite not providing narrative relief. All of this is captured by cinematographer Anup Singh's clean, symmetric, and distant frames. Even when Bhima Singh Bharti slumps to the ground — by all means the most dramatic moment of the season — it prefers a stable top-shot of him collapsing.
Following in the footsteps of Nirmal Pathak Ki Ghar Wapsi, Rocket Boys, and Tabbar, SonyLIV's slate of stories is establishing a new kind of grammar for long form storytelling.
Take the protests against reservation, during which a man burns himself alive. Rani Bharti, who put forward the reservation bill that caused this fiery rumble, is deeply moved by this death — not because a man died, but because the son of a mother died. A mother of three herself, she recognises this specific pain and in the shadow of the night, she decides to go meet the mother incognito. The scene is brimming with tension — Will her identity be unmasked? Will the mother forgive the chief minister? — and the possibility of a dramatic confrontation.
Instead, the show opts for a slow boil. The auto-driver who takes Rani Bharti to the village, whispers to some men — they are tending to a fire — that the woman in the ghungat is the chief minister. They walk angrily towards her. There is no loud, threatening background music accompanying them. They ask her to unveil, but no one shrieks. She unveils. They exchange bitter words. She makes her case. The men grumble, threatening to pour petrol over her. The mother overhears the commotion and dampens the anger of both sides, but refuses to forgive Rani Bharti. The chief minister's entourage, who by now realise she has gone missing, arrive on the scene and safely ply her back to Patna. Nothing of dramatic fire is stoked despite this scene having all the promise of it. Nothing is resolved either. It never gives its protagonist the final feeling of victory, always undercutting any wit, any moment of passion, with a loss, a twist, a swerve to the next scene.
Following in the footsteps of Nirmal Pathak Ki Ghar Wapsi, Rocket Boys, and Tabbar, SonyLIV's slate of stories is establishing a new kind of grammar for long form storytelling. Instead of relying on easy narrative crests, it allows a story to move at a languid pace, unfazed by concerns of an audience's receding attention span and intent upon exploring the emotional texture of moments and scenes. For instance, the second season of Maharani opens with rain falling on leaves and one remembers this overcast day as much as the scene itself — Rani Bharti being summoned as a suspect of her husband's murder. It is, as they say, a mood.