Maharani review: Huma Qureshi shines in a sanitised portrayal of Rabri Devi to form an engaging political drama

Huma Qureshi show cleaves any sense of reality from Rabri Devi's life, in turn helping the show attain more rooted pacing unlike other political thrillers

Prathyush Parasuraman May 28, 2021 09:14:14 IST
Maharani review: Huma Qureshi shines in a sanitised portrayal of Rabri Devi to form an engaging political drama

Language: Hindi

To be a woman in politics, there’s a two-fold clutter to break — the reality of it and the narrative of it, both embedded in the sexist traditions of its time. One often has little to do with the other, because while the former tests endurance, the latter tests the capacity of storytelling — to live in the present while also imagining how the future sees you living through the present. Indira Gandhi and Jayalalithaa are often figures whose lives are told entirely with this grand narrative in mind, the reality of it somewhat lost in the shadows of their perceived greatness/villainy.

In Maharani, liberally and thus loosely based on Rabri Devi’s life there is a sense that the makers succumbed entirely to the narrative of her — a slapdash culmination of villains who swap sides like politicians swapping parties, a babe in the political woods, unaware that everything political is rotten, even her husband, the Chief Minister Bhima Singh Bharti (Sohum Shah). It is both questionable and ingenious, what creator Subhash Kapoor (Jolly LLB, Jolly LLB 2, Madam Chief Minister) has done with Rabri Devi’s story to create the moral certainty of do-gooder Rani Bharti (Huma Qureshi).

Questionable because it cleaves any sense of reality from her life — handpicking her best qualities — twisting the source material beyond recognition, yet referencing the events around it constantly (The 1995 Bihar flood, the Bara Massacre where the Maoists gunned down Bhumihars, and the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre where a Bhumihar militant group gunned down Scheduled Caste people).  "This helps give the show more rooted pacing, unlike the testy impatient rattling of political thrillers like Tandav or Dark 7 White. Ingenious because the source material is so obvious and well-known, it almost creates a what, if? quality to the entire narrative; a meta re-telling of history.

In 1997 owing to the Fodder Scam, Lalu Prasad Yadav, then Chief Minister of Bihar stepped down, and in his place appointed his wife Rabri Devi — who had no interest, experience, or will to enter politics. Yadav was convicted in this case. In Maharani they claw this story inside out. Rani Bharti is pushed into power reluctantly because her husband — who, like Lalu Prasad Yadav, mobilizes votes of the lower caste Hindus, and is seen as a progressive figure for the less endowed — is gunned down into bed rest. During her time as Chief Minister, she encourages, even emboldens an investigation into the Fodder Scam. The worst thing Rani Bharti’s husband is, is an entitled sexist. Towards the end the show tries to give him more darkness but washes it down with a Rashomon-like he-said-she-said narrative and counter-narrative.

Rani Bharti is played by Huma Qureshi with such earnest physical presence — something Qureshi just has, you cannot put her in a room and look anywhere else — her wide eyes giving into melodramatic tears, that even the slippages of the accent and the inconsistencies of the character don’t grate as much as they should.

Maharani review Huma Qureshi shines in a sanitised portrayal of Rabri Devi to form an engaging political drama

A still from Maharani. YouTube

There is a lovely scene — in theory, of course — where during her first meeting with the ministers she complains about the congratulatory bouquets being given to her by men, and about no women being there. It is spun in the media as Rani Bharti demanding less expenditure on government frivolities and more female participation in politics. But her issue is not expenditure, it is that men are giving her — a married woman — flowers. She is disturbed, but an episode later, while unveiling a statue she is given flowers and she accepts it without any doubt. Is this a character arc or a character inconsistency? The problem is that this question had to be asked in the first place because the arc itself — from stutter to speech — is so drastic, almost arbitrary that some of these small flourishes feel accidental. Even the arbitrary manner in which she, initially, chooses to cover half her face with the edge of a sari. Even the way she lets a man hold her by the arms to drag her across the veranda to her husband. Other flourishes, like how slowly, over the episodes, you see her ghunghat from covering her up entirely, to merely being perched on her well-tailored bun, are a nice touch. It goes well with Qureshi’s capacity to hold court, making her initial take-down of the cocky men in politics thoroughly compelling to watch. Even in her climactic speech, as the wit falters, her performance remains steady, her eyes staring into that one point, like staring at one object to keep your balance. Even when her husband was making the speech — far wittier, and more stinging — I could only look at her reaction to it.

But there is a significant staging and a stretching problem in Maharani, both rooted in the desire to produce aesthetic, well-staged frames. Take the scene where Maharani is told she is being crowned CM — crowned not elected. She comes with chai for the ministers, being the dutiful housewife, but suddenly there is an outpouring of marigold garlands on her as people circle around her, and she starts crying. If paused and framed, it certainly is precise, even beautiful. But what gets lost is the absurdity of the moment — the confusion and emotional tumult. Similarly, the scene where we first see Maharani and her husband banter has the camera flowing smoothly as she goes about her chores, but it is so drawn out, the scene stops being about them as a couple, but about what she is doing.

This desire to stretch a moment even after it has snapped keeps rearing its head — when Maharani makes mistakes while taking her vow, again and again and again, or when Kaveri (Kani Kusruti), an IAS officer who becomes part of her one-woman entourage, keeps saying English words only to hold herself back and translate. Do it once, do it twice. Even thrice. But when the gimmick can be predicted, narrative rottenness festers, eating into even the nicer moments. Some of these theatrical stagings are almost comical — like when you have national leaders and important doctors waiting behind curtains, only to summon their faces, timed neatly with the conversation going on.

Maharani review Huma Qureshi shines in a sanitised portrayal of Rabri Devi to form an engaging political drama

Then, there is also the case of the voice-over. Maharani’s great achievement in the first episode was to establish all the main actors — the politicians, the Maoists, the Upper Caste militiamen — without a voiceover. It is first heard only in the third episode, coming to make grander proclamations, and tying neat timelines. It could have been done away with entirely, especially because what it was trying to do could have been achieved via dialogues easily. Especially since so much of the dialogues lean towards exposition, to explain scams and past relationships and the dirty meanderings of political give-and-take that Rani Bharti is so deeply unaware of.

Maharani also does something that was attempted in Scam 1992, the big SonyLIV show last year — bunging in representation from the East and the South. While there it seemed like forced additions — the contrived references to Agantuk in a conversation, and the South Indian officer constantly asking for filter coffee — here there is a less strained, yet equally obvious presence, like the Bengali using fish metaphors by the dozen — There Is Something Phishy With This Phellow. Hell, there’s even an influential conman-godman in both these shows.

The show, however, doesn’t dwell into the dichotomy between a working woman and a housewife. It refuses to give Rani Bharti the guilt usually given to the women who go out to work.

In Borgen, this guilt metastasizes till the marriage itself shatters. In Bombay Begums it required men to be meek or cuckolded. Here, her three children have walk-in roles without questioning or even making her question why she should spend so much time away from them. There are nice, sweet sketches where they dance together, or the younger son draws in her office. But otherwise, this story isn’t personal as much as political. The personal drama too is political — how after throwing her into the roaring politician seas, when her husband gets well, he demands his power back, or how Rani Bharti is constantly made to feel second fiddle, a temporary glue holding the two reins of her husband together. The drama, otherwise, is entirely about the caste-riven landscape, where even junior police officers refuse to respect their seniors if they are from a lower caste, “Sarkar aapka hai, par system hamara hai.” But soon this angle gets twisted beyond recollection — the names just flowing over you as a viewer, not sure exactly who they are talking about.

The show also has difficulty staging the gunfights. Luckily, it owns this limitation and over its episodes doesn’t have long drawn sequences of bloody bullet barter. In one case, there is just a single top shot with a background score of gunshots to represent the bloodbath that had happened. It instead focuses, almost as a visual compensation, on the aftermath with close-up shots of festering gun wounds in the foreheads of dead bodies. There is a kind of timidity in these choices that seem at odds with the roaring story it wants to tell, and as a result the various pieces of this puzzle — some ravishing, some slothy, some fun — come together with a jagged, almost incomplete energy. You sense there is more to the story, which you want to see unfold. But you don’t sense more to the people in the story.

Maharani is streaming on SonyLiv

Rating : * * *

Watch the trailer here

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