The following piece contains spoilers.
Early on in the Netflix series Mai: A Mother’s Rage, there is a moment that underlines the tone of the show: a pan full of tea comes to boil and overflows while Mai or Sheel (played by Sakshi Tanwar) stares into the distance. It is the funeral of her daughter Supriya (Wamiqa Gabbi) who died in a truck accident which is later revealed to be staged. Despite the doleful setting, Sheel seems to have no break from her household chores. Trauma-stricken, she does not betray any hint of grief even though she was the sole witness to her daughter’s gruesome end. Just like the tea, Sheel’s anger will later boil over into an elaborate revenge for her daughter’s murder.
Mai tells the story of a bereaved mother seeking retributive justice for her murdered child. On the surface, Sheel’s character toes the line as a wife, mother, and nurse, but when no one’s looking, she asserts herself as a scheming mastermind who repeatedly resorts to violence. The mother-gone-rogue trope is intriguing for the Indian viewer who is more accustomed to the prevalent stereotypes of the saccharine sweet selfless mother accosting us everywhere. Mai joins a growing trend of representations challenging this notion of the selfless mother. The mother figure is out to avenge the injustices meted out to her children—think Mom (2017), Maatr (2017), Ajji (2017), Kaali (2018). While this genre has been mostly explored through the feature film format, the longer duration of series provides more space for the nuances of character to be explored as in Kaali and, more recently, in Mai.
There’s a certain allure to seeing mothers break the passive mould in these narratives. The miserable and helpless mother personified by Nirupa Roy, the famous “Ma” from Deewar (1975), is no longer the ideal. The avenging mother trope has evolved since Karan Arjun (1995) where the mother (Rakhee) waited for her murdered sons to reincarnate to avenge their own killings and that of their father. The assumption was that the lamenting mother, a paragon of virtue, was a mere pawn in her own fateful story and her lack of agency could only be resolved by divine intervention. The more recent vigilante mothers are fashioned along the archetype of the warrior goddess—like the series, Kaali—where the woman is terrifying and bloodthirsty; she’d go to any length to see justice restored.
Mai has none of Kaali’s outward ferocity. Even when her simmering rage erupts after her daughter’s killing, she appears unbelievably calm, true to her name “Sheel” which means “well behaved”. She plots a series of cold-blooded murders and single-handedly brings down the most powerful figureheads of a billion-dollar medical scam industry. Her only trusted accomplice is Kalpana, an ex-convict who murdered her abusive husband, another “wronged woman” who kills to find justice.
Mai works like a classic revenge thriller, a genre where female protagonists are still a rarity. In international cinema, most revenge thrillers like Taken (2008) showed self-righteous men embarking on a carnage to avenge the women they love. To see a woman claim this space and disengage from the frustrating labyrinths of ‘due process’ represents the “thrill of vicarious empowerment” in a post #MeToo world. The revenge thriller becomes cathartic for all those who face gendered violence—physical or emotional. Sadly, murder remains a hyper-masculine vigilante response and difficult nuanced issues of gender injustice cannot be solved with gratuitous violence.
While on her desperate path to revenge, Sheel is also evading the truth of her fraught relationship with her deceased daughter. When she learns that Supriya chose to confide in her husband about her romantic life rather than herself, she seems to question whether she has been a “good mother”. Later, while her family members go through the motions of Supriya’s funeral, she skips the ceremonies to continue executing her revenge. It’s as if she needs the retaliation to assuage her guilt.
While Sheel might appear to be in control of the chaos of her scheme, the drudgery of her domestic and professional role as a care-giver often overlap, and she finds little rest. She handles the majority of care work for two households—her own and that of her brother-in-law’s. She works as a nurse at an old age home. We know that her ambitions of becoming a doctor were unfulfilled and it seems that she tries to overcompensate that failure by overinvesting herself in her care work. It’s not hard to imagine how depleted she must be. Even before Supriya’s death, she might have suffered from emotional and physical strain of caregiving or “care-giver’s stress” that parents of disabled children often experience, given the ableist world that we live in. Her numbness seems like a sign of compassion fatigue— a rather common consequence of endless care work in which a person doesn’t respect her own need for rest. Sheel rejects the opportunity she is accorded to sit with her bereavement and continues the relentless crusade against Supriya’s killer which in itself becomes an extension of her care work for her daughter.
To build momentum for the climax, the creators resort to implausible plot points on multiple occasions. It is rather convenient how Sheel keeps chancing upon sensitive information and is always at the right place at the right time, staying ahead of an entire organized crime syndicate. However, as Coralie Fargeat, maker of the French thriller Revenge (2017) observes, while subverting the revenge genre, realism becomes a secondary concern, as the primary aim is the cathartic release.
Almost always wielding power over her adversaries as a part-time vigilante, Sheel is disempowered by her family. Her affluent in-laws have adopted her second child, Archit, without her consent. Her seemingly supportive husband took the decision to give away the child and continues to enable the imbalanced power dynamic in their family. It’s in seeking revenge for her daughter’s murder that she seems to reclaim her own power.
The antagonist Neelam (Raima Sen), is located outside the margins of the polite society that Sheel is secretly transgressing. Neelam started out as a sex-worker but ultimately became one of the top players in the medical scam. Ultimately, both Sheel and Neelam’s ambitions are thwarted.
Perhaps the best thing about Mai is that it scores pretty well on the Bechdel test. All the lead characters are women—Sheel the protagonist, Neelam the antagonist, and Supriya, whose murder triggers the action. However, Sheel is a murderous wreck and Neelam’s criminal ambitions are dashed before she is killed. As for Supriya, while it is refreshing to see a disabled character whose disability isn’t central to the plot, it’s a pity that she dies early in the storyline.
Despite her meticulous planning and seeming success, we find out that Sheel’s instincts had been wrong all along. She identifies her daughter’s murderer only in the final reveal after already having embarked on an irreversible carnage. Does the futility of the violence push Sheel into berating herself for not having chosen grieving over retribution? Will there be any rest or reparation for her after this? Or is it inevitable that she will continue until she kills the real murderer? We are left wondering.