Queen review: Slow and brooding, Ramya Krishnan stars in a craftily made, J Jayalalithaa-inspired hagiography
If you can look past the biased hero-ing of a controversial figure, Queen is exceptional craft. Over eleven episodes, about 50 minutes each, Queen holds the attention of the viewer, in spite of its slow and lingering style.
Serial Chiller is Ranjani Krishnakumar’s monthly column about all things Tamil television. Read more from the series here.
Queen opens to a shot of Lillete Dubey, a talk show host, a Simi Garewal stand-in, introducing her next guest Shakti Seshadri as ‘fearless’, ‘intelligent’, ‘very beautiful’, ‘enigma’ and a ‘myth’. Her first question to her guest is: “Were you always this strong?” In response, Ramya Krishnan, who plays the guest, takes a long pause before answering coyly, “nobody is born tough”.
Within the first two minutes of the first episode, even before the opening credits roll, we know who is telling this story.
Claiming that “any resemblance to… J Jayalalithaa is a huge coincidence” — as Ramya Krishnan told Scroll — is an inside joke, and all of Tamil Nadu is in on it. Because, without recent political memory, Queen would make for an incomplete, often incomprehensible, show. There are so many characters that need no introduction, so many incidents that need no elaboration, only because the audience can fill in the gaps from memory. It is this collective memory that frees the makers from stuffing the series with backstories and facts — or even really worrying about them.
And Reshma Ghatala, the creator and writer of the series, knows this. She has ingeniously bookended her protagonist’s story — beginning as a 15-year-old forced into cinema and ending just before her truly contentious times as a politician and a chief minister. It allows the series to be sympathetic of Shakti, exploring her feelings and self-discovery, instead of on her actions and its impact.
The talk show fits excellently in this scheme. It plays the role of the series’ anchor, each question taking us back to Shakti’s past and bringing us right back for editorialising. But, cinematically, the talk show also serves a larger purpose: It exists to eliminate any expectation of neutrality. Queen is not meant to be realistic; it is, in fact, a highly sanitised, cleverly dramatised and supremely kind reminiscence of a dead leader.
If you can look past the biased hero-ing of a controversial figure, Queen is exceptional craft. Over eleven episodes, about 50 minutes each, Queen holds the attention of the viewer, in spite of its slow and lingering style. Even while its jumping between timelines — not just between the present-day talk show and the past, but between various points in the past itself — Queen gets its tempo perfect. The fact that it's anchored not around chronology, but around ideas, like regret, love, power, relationships, sisterhood etc, helps a great deal.
Refreshingly, and in this case aptly, the writing has the gaze of a woman. Queen is the story of a woman’s life held together by other women in her life — her mother, their neighbour Mala, her school principal Sister Flavia, friends Pinky and Alamelu, and later her assistant Suryakala. Her somewhat turbulent relationship with Janani, GMR’s wife, is also told through the prism of what’s common between them. These relationships are not taken lightly, each of them get their due, some more than others.
There is some exceptional staging through the show. My favourite is in the middle of the second episode, Shakti’s innocence breaks and she experiences the cruelty of the world for the first time. She goes to her best friend Pinky’s house for her engagement — we see men building temporary installations with thatch. Pinky’s mother tells Shakti that she’s now unwelcome, because of her new career as an actress. Shakti rushes to confront Pinky, who is standing in the balcony above her. Even as Shakti demands an answer, and Pinky stays unmoved, we see thatches closing in between them, shutting off Shakti completely from her best friend!
Much of the credit for the emotions that the series evokes should go to Darbuka Siva, the music director. Combined with Ramya Krishnan’s brooding narration, Siva gives the series an undertone of melancholy, that kindles sympathy for Shakti, making us want to root for her. Yet, Siva also spectacularly changes the mood of the show in episodes six and seven, the most Gautham Menon-esque of them all, where the charming man woos the woman with the flattering words and grand romantic actions.
This part of the series, though, got a little too Gautham Menon for me. For instance, there is a beautiful scene where Shakti turns her chair around so she can read without being distracted by her attraction for Chaitanya, the charming man wooing her. The scene itself is plenty cute, Anjana — who plays Shakti — cannily bringing the emotion to her eyes, the camera restlessly turning around her, perhaps just like her feelings, the music is just right. But they couldn’t resist the temptation of a voiceover — “Usually nothing could take me away from my book, but in this case, the words could have been in Mandarin for all I could care,” she begins!
And there are more Gautham Menon-isms. Throughout the series, everyone calls her Shakti, hardly ever anyone mispronouncing her name as Sakthi, like Tamil people might sometimes do. Some people even punctuate each sentence with the word Shakti, reminding me of ‘Daddy’ in Vaaranam Aayiram, or ‘Karthik’ in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya. There is also an obsession to spell out Shakti’s last name everywhere possible. Stuff that a Jayalalithaa biopic might have used lesser of.
One of the biggest wins for Queen — something of an Achilles heel, in general for Tamil web series — is the casting. Even though each character is played by multiple actors, because the series pans a course of three decades, the hand-off isn’t as incoherent as I’d have expected. Anikha, who plays adolescent Shakti, sets the stage brilliantly. Take this scene for example. Shakti goes to a friend’s house, whose father is a photographer. He seeks permission, takes two-three pictures of her, and goes away. When Shakti turns around for something else, she unexpectedly spots him taking more pictures of her. Between each click, she goes from surprise to curiosity to fear to disbelief, we almost feel her worry!
But she’s not the only one. In spite of a few dubbing grates, Sonia Agarwal fits pretty well as a hard-working, cranky mother. Karuppu Nambiar, who plays her driver, gives us the calm reassurance of a confidante. Vamsi Krishna makes us believe that he’s her knight in shining armour. Vivek Rajagopal fits squarely as the cunning malefactor Paradeepan, in fact, if Gautham Menon hadn’t acted in the series, he might just have dubbed for Pradeepan. Indrajith Sukumaran, as GMR, Shakti’s lover and mentor, keeps us on the fence, we can’t decide even at the end if he’s the hero or the villain.
With over ten hours of content, Queen is certainly not for binge-watching. In that, it’s slow and brooding, making you invest more of yourself in it. It invites you to sit down and feel for the Shakti. “Oh, poor girl,” the show wants us to think, and condemn the injustices of her past.
Perhaps as a result of this, Shakti, in Queen, appears somewhat like a lost puppy whose story ends just as her reckoning begins. I’d have liked to see the story continue. But I doubt that’s ever to come, even though there is a throwaway dialogue teasing a second season. Glowing approvals of Jayalalithaa’s time as chief minister might be much harder to pull off, however good the craft. Or is it?
Ranjani Krishnakumar is a writer, obsessor and a nascent Chennai-vasi. You can reach her at @_tharkuri
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