For the average person from Tamil Nadu, the name ‘Jayalalithaa’ conjures up strong feelings ranging from that of a decisive, bold woman who broke the glass ceiling in a nasty man’s world despite the odds to a vindictive, unforgiving leader who intimidated critics. While the reputation of the late Chief Minister is hotly contested, the factors that shaped the larger-than-life personality largely remains an enigma. Which is why Queen, the MX Player web series directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon and co-directed by Prasath Murugesan takes on the interesting premise of a woman who rose to unimaginable heights and yet remained a mystery to the thousands on whom she ultimately left an indelible impact.
The show, while inspired by true events, gives you the standard disclaimer of being a fictional retelling with creative visualisation to boot. So while the landscape of the web series is populated by characters and events that your mind will acknowledge at once, the show itself is based on Anita Sivakumaran’s book The Queen.
The story is centered around the seminal interview between Shakti Seshadri (Ramya Krishnan), the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and Lillete (Lillete Dubey), a television interviewer. The two women, who talk on and off camera, are engaged in a free-wheeling chat where the interviewer has seemingly persuaded her subject— one who is fiercely protective of her privacy— into reflecting on her entire, troubled life, being philosophical and candid all at once. While one may try to look past the suddenness of the premise, the conversation takes a preachy tone, full of spiritual declarations on life. The meandering, TED-talk-esque writing by Reshma Ghatala is sometimes frustrating. Ramya Krishnan sparkles with her screen presence as a woman hardened by the quest for meaningful relationships. The seasoned actress lives through a dizzying range of emotions in the climax. However, the portrayal of Shakti is rather subdued for the powerhouse actor who is known for her solid performances.
The dialogues are not period-appropriate for the 70s and 80s (also, did Indian political leaders give each other the finger back in the day?) and feel forced for much of the show.
Anikha wonderfully slips into the role of a young Shakti, a diligent convent student whose dreams are brought to an abrupt end. Unprepared for the vagaries of a celebrity life, the actor’s portrayal of a child hoping to get love by giving love is laudable. Sonia Agarwal, who plays Shakti’s mother Ranganayaki is grossly underutilised by Gautham Menon and other directors. The toxic relationship between mother and daughter, an important enough propeller for Shakti’s quest to find love, had a lot of potential.
The story progresses at a painfully slow pace after this point (seriously, why do characters speak with a zen-like calmness even when they are mid angry fight? How many tracking shots are needed to make a simple point?). The largest chunk of the series centers around the acting years of Shakti where she meets her first love and the man who changed everything— GMR (yeah, we know). GMR (Indrajith Sukumaran) is a married man who unabashedly seeks to exercise full control over every aspect of Shakti’s life, traumatising her. The series squanders the opportunity to present the consequences of this abuse and power imbalance, and maybe the makers kept away from treading any further on it as it would have invited trouble from the state. Indrajith plays the film star convincingly, but it is hard to buy him as a nuanced politician, who by the way is popular despite having no original ideas and relies on his team for almost everything.
The best part of the series is the portrayal of the relationship between Shakti (Anjana), the actor and Chaitanya Reddy (Vamsi Krishna), her Telugu film director. But this comes as no surprise for Gautham Menon happily allows the couple their intimate cooking adventures, old fashioned dinner parties and visits to a vegetable market to show the budding romance.
While the show doesn't make any meaningful commentary on Dravidian politics where the events unfold, it spends enough time in presenting Brahmin victimhood even as Dravidian leaders question why a Brahmin should lead their Dravidian party. By contrast, it papers over the social capital that put a child from a nearly bankrupt family into a prestigious convent school in Chennai.
The 11-episode web series primarily disappoints with its glacial pace and poor screenplay. Too many contradictions are apparent even to the casual viewer (like a cash-strapped family goes on holiday to find itself). Also, ‘Veezhven endru ninaithayo?’ is officially overused in Tamil cinema. There, I said it. Sorry, Bharathiyar.
The show is yet another reminder that however pleasant and intense a background score (Darbuka Siva) maybe, it cannot fix an unwieldy, contradictory plot.
A life story that is already in the popular imagination needs the sharp drama of film to elevate it, even if it is loyally hagiographical. But Queen is so slow-paced, you wonder why the time wasn’t better utilised in building the multiple characters who become the sounding board for the protagonist. And that is when you realise that while the show comes with the disclaimer that it is not based on real events, it dishonestly relies on the audience’s familiarity with characters to further their presence in the story.
Rather than a factual retelling, much of the show is based on the anecdotal tales that have done the rounds of Tamil Nadu's political and film circles for decades and are now the overpowering ghosts in the biographical narratives about these leaders.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.