Mai, on Netflix, Is An Imperfect But Potent Portrait of Revenge, Film Companion

Creator: Atul Mongia
Directors: Atul Mongia, Anshai Lal
Writers: Atul Mongia, Tamal Sen, Amita Vyas
Cast: Sakshi Tanwar, Wamiqa Gabbi, Raima Sen, Anant Vidhaat, Vivek Mushran, Prashant Narayanan, Vaibhav Raj Gupta, Seema Pahwa
Streaming on: Netflix

There are two kinds of female revenge stories. The first one is all style. It turns retribution into a feminist statement. The message is: If men can hunt and kill, so can women. Such stories are easy to watch, because they directly stoke the flames of gender bias. But they are also hollow wish-fulfillment vehicles: wronged protagonists seamlessly morph into slick avengers for the sake of social entertainment. The second one, like Ajji and now Mai, is rooted in the real world. An impractical theme is shaped by practical treatment. It reframes revenge as a reactive search for justice. There is no plan, no posturing, no answer, just plenty of questions. Ironically, it’s these stories – where revenge is humanized – that are the most difficult to watch. At times, they border on tedious. The plot can be multifaceted and messy, diluted by the vagaries of life. The personal gets sucked into the political; curiosity becomes the grammar of grief. The wheel takes precedence over the cog. And there is little to no narrative lucidity. 

As viewers, then, we are forced to confront the plausibility of concepts like closure and vigilantism. We are urged to derive meaning from the bureaucratic and long-form nature of rage. This six-episode series, for instance, is littered with shots of the protagonist reaching home in a rickshaw. She’s not living a double life so much as doubling the purpose of one life. There are no symbols like pink helmets or pink two-wheelers; her quest is entirely functional and seldom thrilling. The few times she tries to do something extraordinary – like scale a wall, smash a man’s head in, or poison someone – we notice the toll it takes. In the very first episode, when she escapes in an ambulance, her lack of conditioning is evident. The CCTV footage exposes her, and a phone call later she is already in front of her chasers, hoping to reason with them. More often than not, she makes mistakes; she is wrong about the conclusions she makes. We are repeatedly reminded – by an overcrowded premise – that the moment is bigger than her. That she is merely a passenger on a moving train. She exists at the fringes of a story that – like the environment it defines – is too busy to address a woman.   

This setting is crucial to the matter-of-fact tone of Mai. Sheel Chaudhary (Sakshi Tanwar) is a bereaved parent of course. But she is also a victim of systemic patriarchy in Uttar Pradesh, a State notorious for its disenfranchisement of women. She is surrounded by it. Sheel is a nurse at an old-age home, at the beck and call of powerful men who pawn off their fading parents to her. The caretaker of the home is a middle-aged woman (Seema Pahwa) who served a prison sentence for murdering her abusive husband. Sheel is also indebted to her doctor brother-in-law, the prosperous “bhaisaab” of a family in which Sheel and her husband Yash (Vivek Mushran) are secondary beings. This hierarchy is visual: Yash, an engineer by degree, runs a modest pharmacy opposite his brother’s plush clinic. At several points in her journey, Sheel is subjected to the filthiest of slurs by men who try to provoke and intimidate her.

But the reason Sheel – not her husband, not her brother-in-law – relentlessly pursues daughter Supriya’s “accidental” death is because the men of her family are casually complicit in – and therefore blind to – the culture of oppression. Her role as a sister, wife and daughter is at inherent odds with her identity as a woman and mother. This, for someone like her, is not feminism; it is a wound on the verge of getting infected. It somewhat mirrors the core of creator Atul Mongia’s short film, Awake, about a lady who keeps her vegetative husband “awake” not so much for love as the desire to reverse years of casual misogyny. 

The text of Mai is not always compelling, but some of its subtext is. Subtle undercurrents of dissent – and its consequences – seep through the premise. In modern-day Lucknow, Supriya is mute but not deaf. In other words, she listens but has no voice. One of the flashbacks depicts her as not just a young doctor but a passionate standup comic who makes jokes about corruption and surgical strikes in front of shifty politicians. That she is the one killed – for reasons not totally unrelated to her dissent – ties into the larger atmosphere of intolerance against free speech and political humour. That her mother is the one who translates Supriya’s sign language from backstage also speaks to the show’s design. By seeking the truth in the murky alleys of medical scams and money laundering networks, Sheel spends her days interpreting and becoming her daughter’s voice, and her silences, from behind the scenes. 

In addition, almost every supporting character in the series has a history of stigmatisation. Most of the henchmen were picked up from the gutters of rejection, two of them are secretly queer, a mistress was rescued from a life of prostitution, and so on. Then there’s the presence of an SPF cop, Farooque Siddiqui (a stoic Ankur Ratan), who is not only the officer in charge of investigating the black-money nexus but is also Supriya’s secret ex-boyfriend. (When Sheel finds out, one of her descriptive traits to her husband is the word “Muslim”.). Siddiqui is also not exactly a knight in shining armour; he comes with his own demons, which goes a long way in challenging the binary approach towards minorities – religious or otherwise – in Hindi cinema. Supriya, too, is not all pristine just because she’s dead, which brings to mind the subversive moral core of Halahal, another parent-seeking-answers story, as well as Aarya, another wife-breaking-bad series.

That’s not to say Mai is bulletproof. Despite its design, Mai tends to falter in its form. All Sheel wants to know is who killed her daughter, but at least two characters conveniently die on the brink of divulging the truth. Introducing a twin brother – a loose cannon – midway through any elaborate plot is lazy writing. As is a shootout towards the end. These are masala movie tropes, enjoyable in the correct context, but they don’t fit into the sweaty universe that Mai occupies. At different points, Sheel’s single-minded focus is hijacked by a script with too many moving parts – the search for a crypto key, the battle to take control of a business, a police force on an urgent mission, a husband drifting away. 

The staging of sequences, too, lacks imagination. Characters often show up in spaces, which makes emotionally disparate moments look cobbled together. For instance, we see Sheel go from trying to poison someone at a funeral to having an argument with her husband to being advised by the Seema Pahwa character, all in the same scene. If the intent is to show that even revenge is not bereft of a woman’s multitasking duties, it’s not a sharp viewing experience. The element of chance further compresses Lucknow into a small town, where everything is too accessible and connected. Is there no better way for Sheel to uncover the truth than ‘overhearing’ a secret meeting? 

But the thread holding Mai together is its diverse cast, featuring actors who commit to the show’s pockets of chaos. Peripheral stars like Anant Vidhaat and Gullak’s Vaibhav Raj Gupta make the most of well-rounded arcs; they seem to be leading their own Bonnie-and-Clyde heist without going all Mirzapur on us. Raima Sen turns smoking into an allegory of power and, despite being an antagonist of sorts, makes us empathize with her for being a woman trying to rule a man’s world. I particularly liked Vivek Mushran, who plays Sheel’s husband with a mix of tenderness and resignation. Most of all Sakshi Tanwar, as Mai herself, resists the girlboss template to craft a woman who is constantly striving to overcome her own humanity. The result is a comfortably numb performance, where Sheel looks both capable and incapable of throwing a spanner in the works of a lawless land. 

Tanwar has emerged as one of the most technically adept actresses in modern Hindi film. And all her strengths – her reading of domestic disparity, her skill to occupy the screen without dominating it – are on full display in Mai. When Sheel slaps her teen nephew, Tanwar’s gait makes sure we know that Sheel is at once stopping a boy from becoming the men she fears and venting on the youngest of a family that’s failed her. This ability to express the dichotomy of grief is what informs – and streamlines – the choppiness of Mai. Sheel is, after all, torn between resenting the past and revising the future. Her conflict reveals revenge as a gallant emotion and motherhood as the redemption of rage. In modern-day India, who’s to tell one from the other?

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