The barely literate wife of a chief minister is named as his replacement when he becomes indisposed. Of course, this actually happened in Bihar in 1997, when Lalu Prasad Yadav picked his spouse Rabri Devi to replace him after he was named as an accused in a multi-crore fodder scam. Had Yadav not made his audacious move, we might not have had the SonyLIV web series Maharani.
Bheema Bharti (Sohum Shah) is Bihar’s popular lower-caste chief minister (his specific caste isn’t mentioned). His wife Rani (Huma Qureshi) lives in her ancestral village with their three children, far away from the state capital Patna and completely ignorant of what Bheema does for a living.
After he barely survives an assassination attempt, Bheema places Rani on the throne, partly to checkmate his rivals, who include the Brahmin leader Navin (Amit Sial). Initially the initial object of ridicule for her glaring lack of knowledge and rustic manner, Rani emerges as a formidable challenger to her husband’s opponents and eventually, Bheema.
The transformation of Rani to Maharani is traced over 10 episodes, with the hint of a second season. Rani’s political illiteracy isn’t merely a character trait, but a scripting excuse for her later actions. Had Maharani delivered on its promise of providing a psychological profile of its heroine, we might have an entirely different kind of show.
Maharani has been created by Subhash Kapoor (Jolly LLB, Madam Chief Minister), co-written by Kapoor and Nandan Singh, and directed by Karan Sharma. The show is set between 1995 and 1999. The prologue casts Bheema’s rise as a triumph of the lower castes against deeply entrenched Brahmin elites.
Caste, a harsh reality of Indian life and politics, is paradoxically everywhere in Maharani as well as on the margins. Since the series views caste through the prism of a game of power-grab, a deeply iniquitous system assumes the form of yet another card in a deck, to be hidden or thrown when required.
It’s caste that drives a wedge between Bheema and Navin. The state’s Brahmin governor Ghanshyam (Atul Tiwari) goes far beyond his constitutional responsibilities to play kingmaker. A Ranvir Sena-like vigilante group of upper-caste men massacres its way through the countryside. A Maoist outfit headed by Shankar (Harish Khanna) seeks to restore the balance with the help of friends in unlikely places.
Episode after episode is devoted to the cynical and self-serving politicking by a recuperating Bheema, Navin and his cohort, the governor and a shady godman. The powerplay assumes greater urgency when Rani bumbles her way into a foodgrain scam. She assigns a principled bureaucrat to the investigation, only to realise some harsh truths about the man she reverentially calls “Saaheb”.
In its attempt to highlight its heroine’s progress, Maharani opts for the same kind of wide-eyed cluelessness that mark Rani’s early encounters with statecraft. Several characters and plot turns resemble real people and actual incidents in Bihar in the 1990s and 2000s. The rest of the show is pure fantasy.
In its urgency to transform Rani into an idealistic politician, the series misses out on the opportunity to provide a plausible and analytical account of Bihar’s condition. Bihar isn’t a state, it’s a state of mind, Govardhan declares – one of countless aphorisms in a political potboiler that’s too busy ladling out intrigue to do the hard work of providing a fresh understanding of caste-driven electoral politics.
Similarly, it would have been more challenging to bestow Rani with a fair understanding of Bheema’s career path. By singling out Rani as the only pure element in a corrosive realm, the show takes the easy way out.
If Rani’s changing equation with Bheema is scarcely believable, her relationship with her aide Kaveri (Kani Kusruti) is better handled. Initially dismayed by Rani’s ineptitude, Kaveri learns to respect her boss and becomes her ally in an overwhelmingly male world.
Kaveri’s counterpart is Mishra (Pramod Pathak), Bheema’s factotum and bagman. Mahatma Gandhi had three monkeys, but I am Bheema’s only monkey, declares this loyalist who is committed to restoring his master’s glory at any cost.
Apart from the debt to the Yadavs of Bihar, Maharani pays tribute to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, a fine and layered biopic of a naive princess’s journey towards becoming the Queen of England. There are shades too of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Satta, about another reluctant rubber-stamp who becomes too powerful for the linking of her handlers.
The sprawling cast has some noteworthy performances. Huma Qureshi exerts herself more than she has in recent performances. Rani’s overnight transformation beggars belief, but Qureshi gives her all to possibly the most important role of her career.
Sohum Shah, Amit Sial, Atul Tiwari, Kani Kusruti, Pramod Pathak and Mohammed Ashfaque Hussain are among the actors who plunge deep into the material. Kannan Arunachalam, as the state’s director general of police, and Ranjana Sinha, as a fearless police officer, stand out in the secondary cast. Inaamluhaq, as the last honest bureaucrat in Bihar, puts on a thick Bengali accent, providing much-needed humour to a series that takes itself seriously at all times.