'Mai' Review: The labyrinthine story structure and superb performances make it binge-worthy

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan 

Netflix India’s latest offering ‘Mai’ is marked by constant and unexpected tonal changes. The six-episode series starts off as murder mystery cum police procedural meets investigative thriller but it also takes noirish turns before transforming into a family drama only to take noirish shades once again and so on. The series follows a grieving mother who discovers the criminals behind her daughter's tragic death and in her quest for justice transforms from meek to merciless. It stars Sakshi Tanwar in the titular role. The ensemble cast includes actors like Raima Sen, Vivek Mushran, Prashant Narayanan, Wamiqa Gabbi, Ankur Ratan, and Anant Vidhaat.

‘Mai’ is created and co-directed by Atul Mongia and is produced under the banner of Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films. They have also produced Amazon Prime series Pataal Lok, which created quite a buzz and was hailed by critics and the audience alike. The production house has also been associated with films like ‘NH10,’ ‘Bulbbul,’ ‘Phillauri,’ and ‘Pari’.

Mai’s rather labyrinthine story structure is replete with all kinds of subplots. And the screenplay employs a nonlinear storytelling approach that ties up various secondary subplots to the central narrative. Mostly there is a flashback at the beginning of each episode and sometimes it introduces a new character or subplot which at first doesn’t make much sense but gradually things begin to fall in place. The series also offers rich socio-political commentary that makes it relevant to the times we live in. And it does so subtly without being too preachy.

The manner in which the story of ‘Mai’ unfolds, there appears to be many similarities to ‘Pataal Lok.’ I intend to say this as a compliment. And I don’t just mean the noirish tone or the nonlinear structure. Even if we look at the central characters and the world they find themselves in. Both, Hathiram Chaudhary and Sheel at first don’t have a clue about what they are dealing with. IT is much later that they realize that they are being toyed with by those in positions of power. And gradually as the level of awareness about the world and the people that surround them grows they emerge as totally different individuals.

Atul Mongia deserves a lot of credit for setting just the right tone for the story of this kind. The unrelenting mood that slowly draws the viewer in seems to be flowing through each and every frame, especially during the parts of the series which are high on noir elements. Think of the lingering presence of signature noirish elements such as femme fatales, prying bystanders, cheating husbands, duplicitous cops, and morally ambiguous protagonists in Mai’s treacherous world.

‘Mai’ has some very solid acting performances around which everything else revolves. Sakshi Tanwar of course leads from the front in the role of Sheel. Her world comes crashing down when she witnesses the death of her daughter in a freak road accident. The once docile and ordinary woman is put under extraordinary circumstances in her quest for justice as she tries to expose the truth. Sheel is sucked into a rabbit hole of violence and power, as she finds herself entangled with white collar crime and politics that forever changes her and the world she inhabits. Prashant Narayanan, who is such a singularly gifted actor, has yet to get his due in the industry. But one can hope that his work in ‘Mai’ which certainly open up new opportunities for him. The rise of OTT has done that for so many Indian actors and Narayanan who is certainly a cut above the rest ought to encash upon the wonderful opportunity presented to him in ‘Mai’.

Also, it’s heartening to see Raima Sen essaying the part of the antagonistic Neelam who comes across as a cross between a femme fatale and a mobster’s moll. Her performance in ‘Mai’ might remind some of her brilliant turn in Navdeep Singh’s ‘Manorama Six Feet Under’. Raima, even after all these years, remains such an underutilized actor, but one hopes that it will all change now with the web bringing in a lot of positives changes for the actors and creators alike. Tanwar, Narayanan, and Sen are well backed by the supporting cast. Here, I would like to make a special mention of Anant Vidhaat, Wamiqa Gabbi, and Ankur Ratan who are absolutely wonderful in their respective roles.

A version of this review was first published at The Daily Guardian.

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