A Negative Image of Motherhood
Apart from the blood and gore, what was this avenging drama all about?
When one talks of mothers on celluloid, one generally visualizes the image of a sacrificing mother, such as Nirupa Roy in Deewar. She is either bent over a sewing machine stitching clothes, or, working at a construction site bent under the weight of bricks on her head. We also witnessed the pain and anguish of the mother portrayed by Rakhi in Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti where she is helplessly sandwiched between her loyalty towards her husband and her love for her son. She does not allow her conscience to take sides, except to remain a dutiful wife. Mom starring Sridevi avenges her step-daughter’s gang-rape by killing the rapists, and is never caught. She wanted to prove to the daughter that she is as caring as her biological mother would have been.
Mai is perhaps Sakshi Talwar’s first OTT release in which the narrative keeps her in the center of the story. The cinematographic space allows her to explore her potential as an actress par excellence. She plays Sheel, a housewife who also works as a medical professional, in an old-age home. She has a content life with her daughter Gudia (Wamiqa Gabbi), a medical student who lost her ability to speak when young, and husband (Vivek Mushran) who runs a medical store and repairs electrical appliances in people’s homes.
Though Gudia cannot speak, she can hear and sometimes performs stand-up comedies in sign language. The husband’s elder brother, a noted doctor, lives next door with his wife and son, they are affluent compared to Sheel’s family and control them a lot.
All hell breaks loose however, when Gudia is suddenly run over by a passing truck and is killed instantly. Sheel does not shed a single tear and the shock is so great that no one can gauge her emotions. There is a court case and the truck driver is jailed. But when Sheel meets him, he seeks forgiveness from her. This makes Sheel question whether her daughter’s death was an accident or murder. If it was murder, then who killed her and why? She throws all caution to the winds to find out.
Sheel turns into a ruthless killer, brutal torturer who mercilessly pours boiling hot water on a young man she suspects of being in league with whoever killed Gudia. She is hardly, if ever, caught in the act! What will you call her? An avenging mother? A killer without a conscience? A person who keeps torturing, and not only internalises it but also projects it towards her good-natured husband, her domineering brother-in-law and his wife?
Sakshi Tanwar proved how underutilized her talent was in soapy syrupy, never-ending television shows. She gives the best performance of her career here. S,ubdued in her revenge, understated in her cool, calculated acts of torture and abuse. Her performance shows to what extremes a wronged woman can go and, the script and the treatment, almost asserting that her actions idolize the pedestal motherhood is placed on.
Her husband (wonderful performance by Vivek Mushran) is nearly killed when the criminals come chasing her at his medicine shop. By then, however, she seems to have lost her moral values. She hardly visits her critically hurt husband in the hospital, and forgets to reach him even when he is discharged. Is this what a mother’s grief is all about? Why does she turn away from the fact that her husband has also lost his daughter?
Is this how she wants to prove to herself that she is an ideal mother? Her husband is aware of his dead daughter’s affair with a married man, but Sheel does not have a clue. A shell-shocked Sheel declares that what Gudia did not tell her, does not interest her! Why?
Sheel walks out and returns home at any hour of the day, and refuses to explain to others where she had been and why. That is a fine way of asserting herself. But literally going on a killing spree brings her at par with the psychologically unhinged character played by Prashant Narayanan and the very badly characterized and acted ‘villain’ by Raima Sen. She is sometimes assisted by the helper (Seema Pahwa) in the old people’s home, an ex-convict who slaughtered her battering husband. But this woman, too, gets scared of Sheel.
The art direction is very good and low-key, focussed on the mellow mediocrity of the urban middle class. The cinematography focuses on the light and dark moods of the film. These change with the settings and locations. The narrative moves from Sheel’s home, to the old people’s home where she works, to the decoratively lit interiors of her brother-in-law’s upper-class home, to the dungeon-of-a-factory Sheel retires to from time to time. The music is low-key too. Directors Anshai Lal and Atul Mongia have perhaps tried to bring relief from the brutality, graphic violence and blood and gore the series spills over with. Often, without reason.
Where and when did Sheel train herself to torture her victims? When did she learn the skills of jumping over high walls and keep at her action-filled track even with a badly hurt ankle? Poor Prashant Narayanan as the bad twin who comes back from China, pours himself into the cliched role of a psychopath as he has done in umpteen films before.
The actors have done well, but Mai fails to impress, in spite of the best of technical expertise. The art direction, cinematography, and editing make the best of a script that wanders. The script sidetracks the drug trafficking and human couriering issue that triggered the main story. As you watch the series, you forget where the drug track began and when and where it ended. When Sheel finally learns who really is responsible for the tragic death of her daughter, the series just ends and there is nothing after that! So, what was that avenging drama all about?
Patriarchy has shaped Hollywood cinema in projecting idealised heteronormative portraits of women and mothers throughout history. Mainstream Hindi cinema has represented the mother and motherhood with Goddess-like attributes. She must be all-sacrificing, all-forgiving, all-loving. Becoming a killer is not the kind of revenge even patriarchy will back. A mother need not be perfect, nor set out to prove that she is one. By the same argument, she need not go all out to prove how she can undergo a complete metamorphosis when she loses her child.
The prize certainly goes to Sakshi but will Mai pave her way to better roles in the near future or will it slot her in the cliché of avenging mother roles is to be seen.