Review: Sakshi Tanwar Is The Heart Of The High-Intensity Mai
Cast: Sakshi Tanwar, Raima Sen, Sarika Singh, Jay Shanker Pandey, Ravish Srivastava
Director: Anshai Lal, Atul Mongia
Stars: Three and a half stars (out of 5)
A mother’s revenge is served cold and without any showing garnishing in Netflix’s Mai, directed by the debuting Atul Mongia and the one-film-old Anshai Lal (Phillauri). The six-part series starring Sakshi Tanwar as the 40-something titular character belongs to a generic tradition that is usually male-dominated and age-conscious. Mai is neither. It is, therefore, markedly different from run-of-the-mill vengeance sagas.
The Clean Slate Filmz production, written by Mongia, Amita Vyas and Tamal Sen, is a high-intensity, consistently intriguing and low-heat thriller centred on a middle-aged woman who is sucked into the Lucknow underworld following the death of her mute daughter (Wamiqa Gabbi) in an accident. The mother, the prime witness, sniffs foul play and resolves to get to the bottom of the truth.
The protagonist, Sheel Chaudhary (Tanwar), is a nurse in an old age home. As she seeks the reason behind the tragedy, she commits an unintentional act that culminates in another death. As the engaging story unfolds, Sheel has to make sense of the first death and conceal the circumstances of the second.
One crisis is triggered by Sheel’s determination to figure out why her daughter had to die, another is caused by the fact that she is up against a gang of medical scamsters who will stop at nothing to weed out all impediments in their path. A self-willed woman, Neelam (Raima Sen), who, too, has come up the hard way and will not to let anything scuttle her aspirations, controls the gang.
With the heroine and the antagonist played by actresses who have been cast against type, Mai has a rhythm all its own. Neither of the two performers possess the sort of superficial qualities that one would associate with a vengeance-seeker who steps out of her comfort zone or a cog in the wheel of a criminal enterprise. The mismatch adds a layer to the face-off.
Sheel and Neelam do not constantly bay for blood nor do they whip out weapons and fire and stab at the slightest provocation. That lends freshness to the series. Mai makes slow and steady progress as the two women, not the kind of cocky adversaries we usually encounter in crime thrillers, struggle to figure out exactly where they stand in their own worlds and in relation to each other. The process of unpacking the unknown is never an easy one.
Mai is essentially a character study that presents an account of the gradual and inevitable transformation of an ordinary woman in the face of a tragedy. She turns into an individual discovering herself and drawing from the deepest reserves of her strength. Faced with malfeasance, murder and the dangerous world of angadias (human couriers), she learns to slip out of her skin and assume another avatar.
One thing leads to another and she is compelled to make choices that run counter to her predisposition, part of which are imposed upon her by the orthodox milieu that has conditioned her thinking. In a supporting role, Seema Pahwa, playing a former convict who drives the old age home’s ambulance, etches out another face of womanhood.
There are many men in the world that Sheel Chaudhary inhabits, starting with her mild-mannered husband Yash (Vivek Mushran). He runs a medicine store, is forever in the shadow of an elder brother and sister-in-law, but has a deep bond with his nephew, Archit (Mikhail Gandhi). The relationship between Sheel and Yash occupies a key place in the plot as do their ties with the schoolboy.
And then there are the men of the dark world that Sheel is unwittingly drawn into: criminal mastermind Jawahar (Prashant Narayanan), his foot soldiers Prashant (Anant Vidhaat), Shankar (Vaibhav Raj Gupta) and Keshav (Omkar Jaiprakash), and a police officer, Farooque Siddiqui (Ankur Ratan), who leads the Special Police Force set up to tackle white-collar crime in the city.
These men are as much at sea as Sheel is as life happens and takes them in directions that have no way of being fully on top of. The best thing in Mai is that does not mimic the masculine tropes of conventional crime dramas. Notwithstanding a few bursts of violence, the series opts for a slow-burn approach to the portrayal of Sheel’s unsteady impulses and fast unravelling moral coils.
Sheel is a wife, a mother and a woman in a man’s world. Each of these facets of her character gets its due in the plot. Sheel’s daughter Supriya is an independent mute girl whose fate and factors behind her death are integral to the troubles that Sheel has to deal with.
The young lady does stand-up comedy using sign language – as unusual a calling as any that any Hindi movie or web series has ever portrayed – besides being a doctor in a pathology lab that is part of the business group that runs the old age home. Sheel’s relationship with her is not one of doting mother and hapless daughter but that between two women who crave for understanding.
The mother speaks audible words, the daughter’s mode of communication is sign language. The distance between the two women is one of the key reasons behind the unfortunate turn of events that changes Sheel’s life forever. Nothing in Mai is put forth in a cut-and-dried manner to serve the need for easy comprehension. What is unsaid is often as significant as what isn’t, and words and gestures have equal weight as the clash between emotional compulsions and moral necessities plays out.
Mai is a thriller about a scam, loads of hidden cash, mysterious gangsters but it is also a story of greed, fear, thwarted dreams, unfulfilled desires and self-preservation involving individuals from the wrong side of the tracks as well as from within the universe of middle-class mores.
One of the men that Sheel is up against is a scarred youngster desperate to leave his troubled past behind but unable to find the light he needs in order to make a clean break. Two other men, yoked to each other by unbreakable companionship, talk about the beatings they have endured as they have struggled to survive on the mean streets.
Mai has strong atmospherics thanks to the lensing and lighting for director of photography Ravi Kiran Ayyagari. The nooks and crannies, and the lanes and tenements of a city come alive in this drama that plays out in spaces where darkness and hope jostle. Sagar Desai’s impressively unobtrusive background score is perfectly embedded into the heart and spirit of the tale.
Sakshi Tanwar is the heart of Mai, a web show that grows on you. Raima Sen, Wamiqa Gabbi and Seema Pahwa as divergent women who refuse to accept the lines that men have drawn for them also contribute to giving the series its soul and substance.