Mai requires you to watch carefully, control the eyebrow that’s threatening to raise itself periodically and suppress the “what the…” sentiment that dances on your lips ever so often.
The Netflix crime series is a boilerplate thriller ladled out on elegant dishes. The transformation of a demure pillar of the family into a sceptre of vengeance has crackling tension, excellent production values and some solid performances. Before the show goes for broke and then shatters under the weight of its exertions, it chugs along on the vapours of severe maternal grief.
Sheel (Sakshi Tanwar) is a volunteer nurse in an old age home in Lucknow, the wife of the put-upon Yash (Vivek Mushran), and the mother of Supriya (Wamiqa Gabbi). Supriya is brave and talented but also mute – just one of many characters with vulnerabilities waiting to be exploited by a bunch of heartless wretches.
Sheel’s investigation into Supriya’s mysterious death brings her in contact with the businessman Jawahar (Prashant Narayanan), Jawahar’s lover Neelam (Raima Sen) and Jawahar’s posse of enforcers. Two of the enforcers, Prashant (Anant Vidhaat) and Shankar (Vaibhav Raj Gupta), find out just what it means to encounter a wounded tigress trying to protect her cubs. Also wandering in the urban jungle is the police officer Farooque (Ankur Ratan), who has a special interest in Supriya’s case.
Sheel’s quest leads her to a scam involving mind-boggling amounts of money and a human courier network. Her bigger discoveries are closer home: she learns previously unknown facts about Supriya and begins to reassess her relationship with Yash’s domineering older brother (Ikhlaque Khan).
The most significant relationship is between Sheel and Prashant – both a scripting contrivance to yoke together disparate narrative strands as well as the best example of the show’s emphasis on the bottomless depths of maternal instinct.
Mai has been created by Atul Mongia and co-directed by him and Anshai Lal. Mongia has also written the first season, comprising six episodes, with Amita Vyas and Tamal Sen.
Sheel’s mission is initially as much within the realm of possibility as is possible in a crime drama of this type. The newly minted avenging angel soon begins to stretch the limits of credibility, inevitably popping up at just the right moment and wandering around in a strangely depopulated Lucknow at odd hours.
Sakshi Tanwar, cast against type, admirably interprets her character to the best of her abilities. Although Sheel’s seemingly catatonic response to Supriya’s demise makes her latter-day actions hard to digest, Tanwar brings softness and empathy to an increasingly violent and profanity-ridden saga of vigilante justice.
A host of actors parade their goods, some of them cleaving to stereotype – Raima Sen’s cigarette-sporting moll, Prashant Narayanan’s murderous villain, Akash Khurana’s shadowy politician. The standout characters are the ones who evolve along with Sheel. Anant Vidhaat is excellent as Prashant, who grows to respect Sheel’s bravado. Vaibhav Raj Gupta is impressive too as Prashant’s loyal buddy.
Sheel’s quest is righteous but also mostly lonely. She is occasionally aided by her co-worker at the old age home (Seema Pahwa), who, like others in the show, has a brittle past that lends itself to unlawful behaviour.
The sordid business is bathed in warm tones and inky shadows by cinematographer Ravi Kiran Ayyagari. Always good-looking, with deftly paced scenes and an effective use of creeping close-ups, Mai lurches from event to event in search of the emotional breakthrough needed to make the whole shebang work.
No matter how often you scrub the lamp, the genie never appears, Prashant complains. While Mai works hard to justify Sheel’s actions, the show is far too devoted to acts of prestidigitation. One of the numerous twists is so far-fetched that it has an effect opposite to what is intended.
The eyebrow shoots up right into the hairline. Unfortunately, it’s not the only such occasion.