Queen web series Review: A leisurely portrait of the early life of you-know-who
Queen is better consumed as a slow-burning character study of a woman who learns that the way to survive in a world that’s hostile to women is to try and take charge of it.
In another country, or perhaps in another time, the makers of Queen—directors Gautham Menon and Prasath Murugesan, and the producer, MX Player—would have proclaimed that the web series is a fictional take on the life of the late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa. It would have helped us stop worrying about making inevitable comparisons with Jayalalithaa’s life, about viewing the series with knowledge of the highlights of her life. This constant reminder of who this woman went on to become adds great flavour to your enjoyment of her early life in this series. In the first episode (of the series’ 11 episodes), you see Jaya—, sorry, Shakthi Seshadri, exhibiting her authority as the head girl of Church Pa—, sorry, St. Louis Park School. It’s hard not to have a smile on your face already, as you can’t help but compare this with the sort of authority she will eventually go on to wield.
Director: Gautham Menon, Prasath Murugesan
Cast: Anikha, Anjana Jayaprakash, Ramya Krishnan
However, one of my favourite aspects of Queen, written by Reshma Ghatala (who also wrote Gautham Menon’s Neethaane En Ponvasantham), is its reluctance to simply ride on the highlights of its protagonist’s illustrious life. The eleven episodes, apart from tracing broad milestones in her early life, look to meditate on what living must be like for a free-spirited, strong woman. The series cleverly uses portions from an elderly Shakthi’s interview (with a person seemingly modelled after Simi Garewal, who has done a famous interview with Jayalalithaa) to help us segue into key portions in her life. It’s a clever replacement for a voice-over and does so much more than simply expose information. It offers some profound reflections on life as a woman, some scathing commentary on men, and occasionally, just dwelling on subjects of life, like one’s relationship with parents, for instance. Like when Shakthi talks about how children expect parents to be embodiments of perfection, and how they wait to latch on to a single mistake. Like when she comments on how the death of a parent sneaks upon children, no matter how long it’s been coming. Like when she says that we always seem to plaster the 35-year-old image of a parent on them, no matter how long they live. These are profound observations to make about life, and in these portions enacted by Ramya Krishnan, you could squint and see Jayal—, you get it. The actor portrays quiet strength and a certain guarded vulnerability beautifully.
All this vulnerability is partly on account of Shakthi hailing from a broken home. In a sense—and bear with me about this comparison—she’s a bit like Harry Potter. She’s unhappy at home, and the only place she finds any belonging in, is at her school where she’s famous. The episode, Home and Away, helps you understand what she views to be her home. These intimate portions really took my mind away from the larger-than-life quality of you-know-who.
This web series is available in Tamil, English-Tamil, and Hindi. After trying out all the languages, I can say with some confidence that the English-Tamil version is the best, as it gives you the best of both worlds. The Tamil-only version of the web series results in the awkwardness of characters having Tamil conversations where they would ostensibly be speaking in English, like in Shakthi’s convent, or like when she’s to be talking to a person who can’t speak Tamil. I watched this series in a single stretch, and given that some of the episodes stretch till an hour almost, it’s fair to say I put in a proper shift. I think it’s better to allow breathers between episodes, as some of them are quite heavy, with the occasional one or two almost feeling sluggish, especially in the context of the whole show. Perhaps that’s also why the series has been split into three main segments: Shakthi as a school student (Anikha), as a young actor (Anjana Jayaprakash), and as a politician (Ramya Krishnan), with each of these segments, tastefully being poured into the other every once in a while. The three actors almost begin to look like one another, helping give this series a lived-in feeling almost. I thought the Pinky family wasn’t as convincing though, as was the decision to change Shakthi’s mother from Sonia Agarwal to another actor (whose performance I totally enjoyed). A big shoutout also to the actor who breathed menace as Shakthi’s adversary, Pradheepan. Watch out for a monologue towards the end of the season when he talks about how some women are actually beneficiaries of this being a man’s world. While on great stretches of acting, I loved Anikha in that phone scene when she deals with the disappointment of knowing college education will never be hers, for no fault of hers. Of the three, I took the longest to warm up to Anjana Jayaprakash, whose episodes serve us some vintage Gautham Menon romance, replete with the initial excitement, those flirtatious glances, those back-and-forth jabs, and compliments… Having said that, this is a series whose biggest rush is that it’s based on you-know-who and her ascent to power, and so, the seemingly lengthy romance portions with Telugu filmmaker Chaitanya Reddy do get tedious after a while.
The series expands on portions in Shakthi’s life from when she’s a school student up until that decisive moment when she sits watching over the body of GMR (!) at his funeral. Many of you-know-who’s problems arrived later when she was in power, and so, any accusations of romanticisation of her life, as far as the first season is concerned at least, don’t seem fair yet. The series does show that Shakthi’s strong will could sometimes feel like stubbornness, that her yearning for a family could manifest itself as an emotional weakness that could be taken advantage of by someone like… Suryakala Dhanraj. I would have still loved to learn more about the GMR-Shakthi relationship, given it’s at the very heart of everything that comes to be in her life. We get hints of his problems concerning his relationship with her: He’s possessive (as opposed to protective, according to Shakthi), he likes to mark territory, he is mistrustful… We get hints of Shakthi’s issues with him too. She wants more—like legitimacy—and he can’t give her that. But these are flavours, and I did catch myself wishing we had got more of this powerful relationship than as much about the Shakthi-Chaitanya bond.
Queen also shows a lot of self-awareness. You wonder if Shakthi constantly paints herself to be a victim, and another character asks her if she’s a victim or a participant. You wonder if she’s really in love with GMR, and the interviewer asks her if she thinks she suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. Still, I would have loved to hear a less talking about these issues, and a little more showing, especially given the time they had. All the run-time, the slo-mo shots, the deliberate pacing… is made more palatable by Darbuka Siva’s atmospherical music. The theme track has really grown on me too.
All the evident enjoyment drawn from comparisons with you-know-who aside, I do think there’s a strong case to be made for why Queen is better consumed as a slow-burning character study of a woman who learns that the way to survive in a world that’s hostile to women is to try and take charge of it. As she says, “Take power, if only to keep harmful people at bay.” In a series about a public personality, the private revelations are my most favourite. She had a tough time saying no. She was frightful of phone calls. She was desperate to prove a point to her estranged friend. She yearned for a family she could call her own. And for being as sensitive, when they could have so easily just ridden on you-know-who’s fame, I have no hesitation in calling Queen the rare good Tamil web series.
The series is currently streaming on MX Player