A lot is conveyed by the opening montage of Mai. Sheel Chaudhary (Sakshi Tanwar) wakes to the sound of chirping birds. An equally chirpy song plays on the radio as she sets about her day. She sweeps the courtyard, sifts through laundry and prepares an early lunch. Later, she dresses before a mirror, smiling admiringly at herself before turning to greet her husband. Defined roles, happy faces, hopeful demeanours. In a crime thriller, that’s like a pair of sitting ducks.
Cast: Sakshi Tanwar, Wamiqa Gabbi, Prashant Narayanan, Seema Pahwa, Vivek Mushran
Streaming on: Netflix
Expectedly, the couple’s lives are upturned. Their daughter, Supriya (Wamiqa Gabbi), is killed in a truck collision. It happens right before Sheel’s eyes—a few seconds of puzzled silence giving way to devastation and shock. The courts convict a driver and the case is brushed aside. Sheel, though, is unconvinced. She couldn’t be…not with everyone talking cryptically around her (“I didn’t want to do it”, “I’m sorry for your loss”, “You shouldn’t meddle in these things…”). With no ready answers in sight, she strikes out on her own.
Sheel’s transformation—from grieving mother to doughty detective to ruthless avenger—happens a bit too fast. Within a couple of episodes, she’s circling the right suspects and digging dangerously deep. She unearths a nefarious medical scam (the show is set in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh). She takes hostages on her own. She “sweet-talks” her way in and out of trouble. If the believability of her track is questionable, so is our condescension towards female protagonists in thrillers. Who, afterall, would be better equipped to handle these ploys than a nurse, someone versed in sedatives and the superficiality of human caring? And why do we cling to the core thrust of her journey—despite the convolutions and escalating narrative stakes?
The answer to the second question is Sakshi. The actor, who came up embodying the ideal homemaker on TV, skillfully upends the cliches of domesticity. Sheel uses her acceptability as a cover, and weapon. Sakshi is brilliant in the role, stealthily occupying the edges of scenes and then becoming their centre. This is one of the most well cast shows on Indian web: for sheer kicks, we get Seema Pahwa, Akash Khurrana and Saurabh Dubey in minor or walk-on parts, and an enjoyably pulpy double turn from a veteran. Wamiqa and Vivek Mushran (as Sheel’s husband Yash) are memorably human, while Raima Sen’s cool crime boss wages a war against ashtrays.
Mai‘s biggest flaw is its apparent setting up of a second season. A thriller this engrossing—and so driven by its central quest for justice—deserves a proper finale. It’s not the first time a Netflix India title has been thus truncated (Bombay Begums, Call My Agent and The Fame Game also ended mid-sprint). “The more word spreads,” says a character in Mai. “The less useful it becomes.” The same applies for perfectly effective stories dragged into multi-season bores.