Jungle Raj Inverted: ‘Maharani’ Gets Caste Better Than Many Others
Huma Qureshi starrer Maharani doesn’t just depict caste atrocities, it also shows Upper Caste justifications of it.
Alert: This article contains spoilers.
"Sarkar bhale hi aapki hogi, lekin system hamara hai" ("The government may be yours, the system is ours") – this dialogue from the Huma Qureshi-starrer web series Maharani, could well capture the Upper Caste response to the rise of leaders belonging to oppressed castes in the Hindi heartland in the past three decades.
Set in Bihar of the 1990s, Maharani on Sony Liv is loosely based on Rabri Devi's tenure as the state's chief minister after Lalu Prasad Yadav had to quit with his name coming up in the fodder scam.
In the series, Rani Bharti (played by Huma Qureshi) is shown to have become CM after her husband and Bihar CM Bheem Singh Bharti (played by Sohum Shah) becomes paralysed after being shot by assassins.
Though simplistic and even naive at times, the series is well made and does take the political drama genre on OTT platforms several notches above recent attempts like the tacky Tandav.
It has some very good performances, most notably from Huma Qureshi, Amit Sial, Inaamulhaq and Pramod Pathak.
But the most important aspect of Maharani is that it takes the debate forward in the depiction of caste in Bollywood.
Caste Violence and the Mentality Behind It
The series shows a number of massacres of Dalits similar to those carried out by the notorious Ranvir Sena in the 1990s. The most ghastly massacre is shown in Lakshmanpur, which is clearly a reference to the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre of 1997 in which over 100 Ranvir Sena militants killed 58 Dalits and OBCs, a majority of them women and children.
Significantly, the series doesn't stop at depicting caste atrocities, it also makes it a point to show Upper Caste justifications of it.
An Upper Caste cop is shown saying, "Jab jab tum log apni auqat bhool jaoge, tab tab Lakshmanpur hoga" (Whenever you (lower castes) forget your place, Lakshmanpur like massacres will happen).
The need to remind oppressed castes of their “auqat” is shown as a common thread, no pun intended, among many of the Upper Caste characters in the series - from a refined Machiavellian governor to the Upper Caste militia chief who uses scientific jargon to justify “cleansing”.
The series also resists the temptation of making an equivalence of showing "bad apples on the other side". Though it does depict Naxalite violence, they are shown as slightly more idealistic and essentially reacting to Upper Caste violence.
Caste Pervading the Political System
Though Maharani doesn't deal with the everyday experiences of Dalits and other oppressed communities, it does show how caste operates as a parallel power structure over and above the existing government structure.
It effectively shows Upper Caste arrogance when faced with a sudden rise of oppressed castes in different levels of the government. So a Dalit DGP is humiliated by a landed Upper Caste junior cop, the Ahir chief minister is constantly termed as a "blip" of history and Upper Castes hold forth on their "merit" and how "lower body parts, however much they grow, will always remain below higher body parts".
In some ways, the series tries to invert the ‘Jungle Raj’ tag that was put on the Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi period in Bihar by showing that the breakdown of the government machinery was only one, part of the reality - the main story was the Upper Caste reaction to its entrenched order being challenged for the first time.
No 'Upper Caste Saviour' Syndrome
Fortunately, Maharani avoids the 'Upper Caste saviour' trope that dominated a film like Article 15. Though well-meaning, Article 15 essentially showed oppressed castes as passive victims of atrocities needing to be rescued by well meaning Upper Castes.
Maharani doesn't do that. It shows oppressed castes themselves pushing back against oppression through political empowerment, rising to high positions in the administration and police, matching Upper Castes in political machinations and even taking up arms when necessary.
Perhaps consciously, Rani’s closest allies in setting things right in the state are all minorities of different kinds - a Bengali Muslim finance secretary (Inaamulhaq) , a Dalit DGP (Kannan Arunachalam) and a Malayali woman IAS officer (Kani Kusruti) who is her secretary.
The upright finance secretary Parvez Alam (played delightfully by Inaamulhaq) is an interesting character in itself. His Bengaliness is emphasised on much more than his Muslim identity and he's also shown to have a Hindu wife. This is the second consecutive time that Subhash Kapoor is showing a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman, the last one being in Madam Chief Minister. This is a creditable depiction in times when even ads showing such couples are being termed as Love Jihad.
Corruption a Bigger Evil Than Casteism?
However, Maharani does have its share of problematic takes, most notably the conclusion.
Perhaps the message that the makers were trying to send is that the Upper Caste hegemony is such that an oppressed caste leader can succeed only if he becomes a crony of dominant castes but that's not coming out as clearly as they may have hoped.
Instead, Maharani's main conclusion seems to be that corruption and not casteism is the biggest evil. Eventually, even the rise of the Upper Caste militia massacring Dalits across Bihar is attributed to an embezzlement racket within the ruling class.
And the final victory of 'good over evil' is shown mainly as "jailing of the corrupt" and even a leader who gave 'voice to the oppressed' is shown as being "as bad as upper caste leaders".
The conclusion becomes surprising when compared to the first three episodes which lay the context of upper caste hegemony reasonably effectively.
This is a bit similar to Subhash Kapoor’s earlier film Jolly LLB 2 (2017) which criticised fake encounters and hounding of Muslims on terror charges, but eventually attributed it to corruption and not systemic bigotry.
Another problem is that barring the DGP Siddhant Gautam (Kannan Arunachalam), there aren't enough Dalit characters. From Rani and Bheema Bharati, to the naxal chief Shankar Mahto, much of the pushback against casteism is shown to be coming from OBCs.
However, there is no denying that Maharani is a step forward in terms of caste representation. Finally, the audience is made to see that the tussle in the Hindi heartland isn't just between Akhandanand Tripathis, Guddu Pandits and other similar Shuklas, Pandeys and Mishras. There are numerous Rani and Bheema Bharatis too and they won't be silenced and invisiblised anymore.
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