The shocking moments in “Mai” are the sudden bursts of violence and blood, perhaps because they are usually so low-key throughout. It isn’t viewed as much as it is implied, cut away from the camera. The restraint shown in “Mai” is admirable, even though the premise of the revenge saga practically begs for the violence to be splattered on the screen.
The first moment of shock occurs when Supriya, the young speech-impaired daughter of Sheel (Sakshi Tanwar), comes in, harried, to her cousin’s birthday. Distracted by events that occurred to her the prior evening, she feels depressed and reactive to every little trigger in the house. She gets worried when Sheel follows her outside and asks her what is going on. She begins to describe via sign language when a truck just hits and collides with her in the middle of the road, to the shock of Sheel and the audience.
What follows from there is the slow deterioration of the relationship between Sheel and her husband Yash, as they both choose to mourn the grief of their daughter’s loss in their respective ways, except with each other. While Yash chooses to ignore his sorrows by helping at the neighbor’s house with their electricity issues and growing close with the owner, a single woman who shares his love for the german language, Sheel becomes more and more convinced that the accident involving her daughter was premeditated, and soon she begins to understand that her employers, with their hands in many pies related to medical fields, might be indirectly involved.
Sheel works as a daytime nurse for Mrs. Kusum Vyas, the elderly mother of Mr. Jawahar Vyas, at Geeta Bhavan, an old age home. When she learns that the son of the truck driver was admitted to an expensive boarding school in the middle of the school term and that Jawahar Vyas might be responsible, she becomes even more convinced that her daughter’s collision with the truck was peculiar and not what it seems. However, to question Vyas, she unwittingly kills him by injecting him with a sedative and unknowingly inducing a heart attack. Unwittingly, she is pulled into the workings of the underworld by the Vyas family and their dealings with a medical scam turning over millions, which her daughter might have gotten involved with because she earned the knowledge of its existence unwittingly.
At six episodes, “Mai” doesn’t dawdle much as a show. It starts in media res, with the inciting incident already at the forefront within the first twenty minutes, and then it moves, uncovering a plot labyrinthine in appearance, but ultimately built on shaky foundations and the unknown player, that being Sheel, managing to topple it all down.
Tanwar’s performance as Sheel Choudhury is positively mesmerizing. She has to essay the role of the world-weary, harried mother, subservient to her brother-in-law’s family, who is of far better financial standing than her and her husband from a societal standpoint. But as the conspiracy and the revelation of the scam’s existence unfurl, her essaying of a mother determined to bring justice for her daughter, knowing full well that the law would be unable to help her completely, is compelling to watch. “Mai” cleverly manages to show Sheel’s vulnerability and non-expertise as a woman completely at sea in navigating this treacherous subculture of the underworld. However, her resourcefulness, combined with her single-minded resolve, enabled her to identify who was responsible for her daughter’s death and whether her daughter’s death was truly an act of premeditation. The writers’ choice to focus almost solipsistically on her motivations gives the story a stronger focus, but at the expense of not building up the underworld sufficiently as a credible threat.
The tone of the show is largely congruent with the visuals, a bleak and oppressive viewpoint cast in yellow hues, positioning “Mai” firmly in the empty streets and alleyways of midnight Lucknow. Events that would be seen as gratuitous and pulpy in other Indian web thrillers like “Mirzapur” or even “Paatal Lok” are far more reserved here. Atul Mongia tries to bring a serious and reserved focus to the overall story, the tragedy of Sheel hanging over both the viewers and Sheel’s head. The mistakes she makes while trying to trap Neelam, Jawahar’s mistress and current head of the organization, would be farcical in prior stories. Here, the mistakes induce dread, or frustration, because you realize that Sheel is in over her head. But the writers’ incremental character development to make her resourceful and determined and far more reserved, at the expense of ignoring her familial duties or her attention towards her husband, comes to the forefront. Like the title suggests, “Mai” (translate: Mother) works perfectly when it focuses completely on Sheel and her family and how her single-minded approach is slowly and steadily chipping away at her humanity. It falls apart when it meanders and tries to explore the different players involved in the underworld without giving enough time to each of the elements to build them up. The show almost veered into the farcical it tried so hard to avoid by introducing Jawahar’s twin psychopathic brother as a plot point, which is when the violence increases to a gory degree. However, Mongia knows when to pull back, and Tanwar as a performer is magnetic, and the flaws appear incidental to the story of her character.
“Mai,” with all of its warts, rests on its performers. While Tanwar anchors the show as the powerful lead, Prashant Narayanan as Jawahar and later Mohandas, is effortless at shifting between reserved and unhinged, such that you get the feeling that these are entirely two different people. Anant Vidhaat, as Prashant, is almost the second lead of the show, and he is fantastic at playing a character who can shift between sympathetic and completely villainous at the drop of a hat, his innocent looks working as a sufficient counter to balance the hard heart within. That is why when the final revelation occurs; you aren’t recoiling in shock; you are ready to brace yourself. Because as much as Raima Sen’s Neelam or Ankur Ratan’s Farooque represent compelling additions to the murky world of “Mai,” we are more than ready to follow Sheel down into the depths of hell, fuelled by a mother’s rage, as the subtitle states so bluntly. But revenge ensures the digging of two graves, and the story’s exploration of Sheel’s fall as she bludgeons, slashes, and poisons her opponents assures that the graves will be filled in the second season. This is one of those rare shows where I am not displeased with the tease of a follow-up.
“Mai” is a 2022 Indian Drama Thriller Series created by Atul Mongia.