Maharani review: Huma Qureshi tries her best, but SonyLIV's hollow show is over-plotted yet underwritten
Maharani review: Huma Qureshi tries her best to instil some life into Subhash Kapoor's unfocused dramatisation of Bihar politics. But it falls apart rather quickly.
Back in the 90s, filmmaker Joe Dante was hired to write and direct a movie adaptation of The Phantom comics. He turned in his script, but mere weeks before production was supposed to begin, the project was scrapped for budgetary reasons. Dante dropped out, and some time later, the studio decided to proceed without him. When he finally watched the finished film, Dante was shocked to discover that not only had they retained his script, but that everyone involved had apparently missed the fact that it was written as a spoof.
This anecdote highlights a couple of very interesting things about filmmaking; firstly, how two directors can take the exact same screenplay, and based on their sensibilities produce entirely different movies. And second, that often times, the impulse of the unimaginative is to play it straight.
Watch the Maharani trailer here
And that is the fatal flaw with Maharani, the new political drama starring Huma Qureshi, released on Sony LIV, just a week after we all saw the actor, wasted in a thankless role, in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. With no tweaks whatsoever, the same script could’ve been made into a stinging satire of Indian politics, but as it stands, the show is a mess of ideas that frustratingly never coalesce.
The 10-part series, of which seven episodes were provided for preview, derails so spectacularly around the halfway mark that were creator Subhash Kapoor the railway minister, he’d have been fired from the cabinet on moral grounds alone.
I’ll get to Kapoor in a moment, but now seems like the perfect time to mention that the show is, at least partially (but absolutely not), inspired by the life of a man who once upon a time was, in fact, the Union Minister for Railways. Like Bheema Bharti, the fictional chief minister in the show, Lalu Prasad Yadav also appointed his wife, Rabri Devi, as his successor when he sensed the walls closing in on him.
A similar situation unfolds in Maharani when Bheema (Sohum Shah) is rendered invalid after an assassination attempt, creating a power vacuum at the centre of Bihar politics. In a move that leaves his rivals stunned, he names his wife, Rani, the new chief minister.
She is presented as this dewdrop of purity in a ditch of corruption — an uneducated ‘angoothachhap’ woman who has been deliberately kept out of the public eye by her husband, perhaps out of a sense of protectiveness, but most likely because he feels ashamed of her.
Her transformation from a village bumpkin into a force to be reckoned with is so rapid that it almost feels like it happens between episodes. What took Claire Underwood six seasons in House of Cards takes Rani perhaps six minutes. So we’re treated to tone-deaf fish-out-of-water sequences in which Rani, clueless and completely inexperienced, attends her first cabinet meeting begrudgingly, because she’d much rather tend to her cows back home. But a mere two episodes later, she’s issuing orders like the three-term CM her character is seemingly, but absolutely not, based on.
And that’s just one of the many ways in which Maharani feels massively underwritten. It’s too preoccupied with inserting random obstacles in Rani’s life to actually develop her as a person. Kapoor rampages through the story with the focus of one of her bulls, let loose inside a stable.
A subplot involving a ‘ghotala’ is introduced, out of the blue, in episode four. A random ‘baba’ drops by in episode five. And suddenly, you get the sense that even the show has gotten bored of its own heroine.
And that’s not Qureshi’s fault at all. The actor tries her best to elevate the uneven material, but the show’s tone is as unreliable as a party-hopping ‘neta’ — it can transition from broad comedy to shocking violence in a matter of minutes. Her accent, at least to my untrained ears, sounds serviceable enough, although in one scene she says ‘school’ and ‘iskool’ both. But that, among several other problems with the show, is the director’s fault; another take was perhaps in order.
Among a cast full of veteran character actors, however, it’s the always reliable Amit Sial who appears to be most at ease. He plays Bheema’s political rival, who is definitely not modelled on Nitish Kumar. And if there’s a reason why casting director Mukesh Chhabra thought someone who sounds like they’re from Tamil Nadu should play the Bihar top cop, I didn’t get it. For some time, I thought that it was a posting situation, but no, DGP Siddhant Gautam is supposed to be a three-decade veteran in the Bihar police.
Speaking of Chhabra, it’s now time to discuss the Subhash Kapoor-shaped elephant in the room. Props to him for tackling such a volatile subject at a time when even the slightest whiff of controversy is enough to send fringe outfits into a full-blown feeding frenzy. But it’s interesting to note that his response to allegations of sexual misconduct was to produce two back-to-back projects with ‘powerful’ women at their centre. Hmm. That’s the political drama I’m more interested in.
Creator - Subhash Kapoor
Cast - Huma Qureshi, Sohum Shah, Amit Sial, Pramod Pathak, Kani Kusruti
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar