The new Netflix series Mai stars Sakshi Tanwar in possibly her most challenging role: as a soft-spoken and mild-mannered woman who is transformed after her mute daughter’s wrongful death. As Tanwar’s Sheel Chaudhary begins to investigate her daughter’s murder, she uncovers corruption in high and low places as well as learns a few secrets about her family.

Mai also stars Vivek Mushran, Wamiqa Gabbi, Anant Vidhaat, Ankur Ratan, Raima Sen, Prashant Narayanan and Seema Pahwa. The six-episode first season will be premiered on April 15. Produced by Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, Mai marks Atul Mongia’s directorial debut.

Mongia is also Mai’s creator and co-writer. The 43-year-old filmmaker trained under acting coach Barry John and has spent close to two decades casting and conducting acting workshops for films. Mongia spoke to about how his mother inspired Tanwar’s character and what Mai says about parenting and motherhood.

Sakshi Tanwar’s character in Mai shares her name, Sheel Chaudhary, with your mother.
The story is not inspired by my mother but the character’s genesis is. I wanted to remember that this woman is like my mother, or a universal mother. To kind of never forget that, and for me to remind myself of what it would have been like if my mother were in a situation like this, I gave the character my mother’s maiden name.

What are the similarities and differences?
The similarities are the name, a few traits before the character starts her journey and the space – my mom is from a small town in Uttar Pradesh. Mai is set in Lucknow. But the story is pretty much fictional.

I took one attribute. My mother has this attitude that everything is good in life. She won’t look at the dark side. Sheel is like that too.

But children are often the opposite of their parents. Sheel’s daughter [played by Wamiqa Gabbi] can’t look away from the dark side of life. She dives deep into that world. That was exciting for us when making the series – to take a character who doesn’t want to believe that bad exists and who eventually has to engage with it.

The concept was written in 2015. I was writing a film and needed a break from that. I wrote the summary in 10 days. But in 2015, nobody was making shows at the time.

When OTT [over-the-top, or streaming] spaces started looking for content, Karnesh met me and said, I am in talks with Netflix, do you have any ideas? I said, there is something in my laptop, let me look for it. We pitched the show in 2018 and it was greenlit within a month for writing.

Wamiqa Gabbi in Mai (2022). Courtesy Clean Slate Filmz/Netflix.

What made you cast Sakshi Tanwar in the lead role? The show uses a lot of intense close-ups for her character.
A lot of it had to do with Sakshi’s personality, the work she has done. Sakshi has usually been the good bahu and the good wife. She is a sensitive person, nice and polite. That lends itself very well to the character. You want to take someone who is very sweet and polite and nice and put them in a situation and see what happens.

We had a mock shoot that sealed it. We took two of the toughest scenes, including the one you see in the trailer of her hitting somebody with a stick. She was unbelievable. After that, there wasn’t any looking back.

I remember meeting her for the first time after she had read the script. She said, I’m very afraid to do this, but I want to do this.

The dramatic close-ups are because we wanted to get into Sheel’s headspace. It especially happens when there are key decisions or new thoughts going through her head. That’s when we have gone really close to her.

Sheel discovers a few family secrets as she hunts for her daughter’s killers. Her relationship with her husband, played by Vivek Mushran, changes too. What does Mai say about parenting and motherhood?
Parenting is a one-way street. Parents go to great lengths for their children, but we take our parents for granted. The show pushes the envelope of how much a parent can do for a child.

To have a daughter who is mute, whose life has been difficult and yet she has made something of her life, has fought society, fought her disability and then to take that life away from her – this mother can’t digest this. Of course, we are taking a violent route. I’m not saying violence is the right choice, but it is a choice for the show’s purpose.

Atul Mongia.

You have been a casting director. You have also conducted acting workshops on behalf of directors. Did this experience help with your first directorial venture?
Yes, it definitely helped. When you are doing an acting workshop, you are pretty much directing actors. You learn how to communicate and articulate. Every actor is different, and has to be spoken to differently.

My first proper break came with Love Sex Aur Dhokha [directed by Dibakar Banerjee in 2008]. Dibakar had decided that he was only going to use newcomers. He needed somebody to train them. Kanu Behl, who was his first assistant director and co-writer said, meet this guy Atul.

Dibakar said, train the actors but find them too. That’s how my journey as a casting and acting director started.

Mai (2022).