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Maharani review: Huma Qureshi excels in this captivating, ambitious political drama

Release Date: 28 May 2021

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Suyog Zore

The web-series traces the journey of a housewife who becomes chief minister overnight and navigates through various issues threatening her government's stability.

After Madam Chief Minister (2021), a film about a Dalit woman's arduous journey to become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, Subhash Kapoor has come up with another story involving a backward-class woman who is made chief minister overnight without her consent in SonyLIV's political drama web-series Maharani.

Rani Bharti (Huma Qureshi) is the wife of Bihar's first backward-class chief minister Bheema Bharti (Sohum Shah). A devoted mother and wife, Rani is ignorant of her husband's politics. She lives in her ancestral village with their three children, far away from the state capital Patna.

Being the first chief minister from the backward classes, Bheema Bharti is not quite popular among his political peers. Not only the opposition but also members of his own party are eyeing his seat, especially the ambitious Navin Kumar (Amit Sial), an old collegemate and now staunch rival of Bheema.

When an assassination attempt lands Bheema in the ICU, he nominates his illiterate wife Rani for the chief minister's post over some experienced and deserving candidates, a move that not only shakes the politics of the country, but also angers some of his own party members.

Sohum Shah as Bheema Bharti in Maharani

The rest of the episodes of the web-series track Rani's journey from a novice and illiterate woman to a formidable politician who not only foils multiple attempts by the opposition to topple her but also unearths a huge fraud within the government.

When Rani takes the oath of office as chief minister, the state of Bihar is plagued with several problems and its law-and-order situation is precarious. At one end of the spectrum are the upper-caste ideologue Rameshwar Mukhiya (Alok Chatterjee) and his hitman Kunwar Singh (Sushil Pandey); at the other is the Naxalite leader Shankar Mahto (Harish Khanna), equally ruthless in his ways. The state's treasury has been emptied out by corrupt politicians. And the people behind the attempt on Bheema's life are still eluding the police.

Faced with a multitude of problems, Rani tries to run her government with the help of officer on special duty Kaveri Sreedharan (Kani Kusruti), who stands by her boss through thick and thin and guides her in her uncertain political journey. They are the only two women of prominence in an otherwise male-dominated show.

A large part of the show is about the Rs1,000 crore seeds scam where the state animal husbandry department makes purchases from non-existent suppliers on the basis of fake orders and bills. With the best of intentions and unaware of the political repercussions of her actions, Rani orders a probe into the scandal. The findings of the probe expose ministers within her own government.

As this is a political show, there is obviously some political one-upmanship between Rani and her husband's chief rival Navin Kumar. Co-written by Kapoor and Nandan Singh, the web-series is set in five months between October 1998 and March 1999 with occasional flashback sequences.

The writers have intelligently used some real-life events and woven a fictional tale around them, giving a fairly authentic picture of Bihar's politics in the 1990s. Some cinematic liberties have obviously been taken by writers Kapoor and Nandan Singh and director Karan Sharma. Some of these liberties don't trouble the viewer much, like Rani's journey from naive housewife to confident politician. It takes just one incident for her to make this shift. But this sudden shift in her character does not feel forced because the writers have already established her as a confident woman in the first episode.

When CM Bheema Bharti meets his wife after several months in the first episode, the angry Rani makes him milk their cows and sell the produce to all the neighbours. This scene alone establishes that while Rani may be naive and illiterate, she is tough and not one to back down from taking a stand.

Of course, there are flaws in the web-series, some negligible, some not. It seems the show was never quite sure whether to make Rani's character an over-the-top female lead or a grounded person and it wavers between the two extremes. On one occasion, Rani comes across as a simple, generous woman; on some other occasions, she feels like a female version of Anil Kapoor's Nayak (2001).

The writers have also inexplicably dropped the mother-children angle from the show after the first couple of episodes. This angle could have been used to give more emotional heft to Rani's character.

Beyond their political personas, the show does not try to explore other facets of any of the main characters. We don't how Bheema is as a husband, as a father, or a human being. The same goes for other characters.

Another factor that might bother some people is the absence of Bihar's aam janata in the show. The show never cares to tell us what the ordinary people of Bihar thought of this entire fiasco. But I see it as a deliberate and symbolic move by the series creators to show how insignificant the common people and their opinions are in the circus called Indian politics.

The web-series sees some noteworthy performances, especially from the show's leads Huma Qureshi and Sohum Shah. Qureshi makes the best of this opportunity and delivers an impressive performance as a woman who reluctantly has to fight for her survival in an overwhelmingly male world.

Shah gives a restrained performance. For most of the show, he is bedridden or seated in a wheelchair. Kani Kusruti as Rani's personal secretary, Amit Sial as opposition leader Navin and Kannan Arunachalam as the state’s director-general of police, all stand out in the secondary cast.

Maharani is also a sensibly directed show. Despite multiple confrontational scenes, director Karan Sharma never lets them degenerate into over-the-top filmi dlalogue-baazi and keeps things restrained. The show is also quite clear about its political standing and is unafraid to call out the oldest evil in Indian society — caste discrimination.

The show ends on a cliffhanger. The seeds for the second season have been sown.

Maharani is now available on SonyLIV.

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