Director: Sahir Raza
Writer: Reshu Nath
Producer: Irada Entertainment
Cast: Piyush Mishra, Neha Sharma, Akshay Oberoi, Satyadeep Mishra, Kubbra Sait
Streaming Platform: Voot Select
Voot seems to have a finishing problem; Asur, The Raikar Case, and now Illegal. They build up their shows quite well, but end each of them on a cliff-hanger, sometimes with such artlessness (because even a cliff-hanger must clear vital sub-plots; everything cannot be left in a state of flux), that you wish to have just been pushed off that cliff.
This show plays out like the middling love child of Star Plus and Sacred Games. It has the ambition of the latter, but the execution, tonality, and writing is extremely soap-operatic
Illegal, spanning 10 episodes, half-hour each, is a courtroom drama with JJ’s law firm at the center of all the action. For JJ (a stunningly machiavellian Piyush Mishra), written like the mythical Krishna waxing eloquent on Arjuna, the duty of a lawyer towards their client triumphs everything, the morality of the duty be damned. There’s quite a telling moment when he defines truth as this: “Sach vo hai jise saabith kiya ja sakta hai.”
He hires Niharika (Neha Sharma), “the mad lawyer” whose steady moral compass, and #MeToo instincts stir the pot. Her character is established with unbelievable shoddiness in the first episode, but as the episodes progress, the narrative comes into its own. There’s her unreconciled affections for an ex who happens to be JJ’s son (Akshay Oberoi) that plays out as she defends her step-brother at a rape trial. JJ’s previous associate Puneet (Satyadeep Mishra) who broke off from JJ’s firm and methods, stands opposite Niharika to fight for the alleged survivor. There’s also a subplot with Kubbra Sait playing a woman to be executed. Instead, she is being given a life-term in prison (since women are never executed), being assaulted and violated by the wardens. Niharika is fighting for her too.
Now if this wasn’t enough to build a complex and gripping legal drama, they also add psychological elements to the mix with hallucinations and an inability to parse stories told from stories lived. This is the undoing of the show. In a genre where the right-wrong binary keeps flipping as additional evidence comes to light, adding unreliable narrators felt ill-disposed. So, those meant to be flagbearers of this right-wrong binary are themselves flighty, and now you have a legal drama where as an audience you are not sure which side to support.
One of the great cathartic functions of such a genre is for the audience to tack onto a position and watch that position triumph (Aitraaz, Pink), or to keep the new evidence pouring with such alarming but sensational frequency that the thrill of a new twist keeps you going. Here, while it starts off as the former, the unreliable narrations, and the pat expositions of new evidence keeps the pace sluggish. But to the credit of the show, this never veers into the territory of the unwatchable.
Add to this that the only “stable” character, JJ, is given political ambitions and so his flip-flopping between political parties only hurts his credibility established thus far. If this weren’t inconsistent enough, Niharika, the supposed flagbearer of survivors and consent, in one scene, grabs the arms of the alleged survivor, standing on the witness box, vigorously, without consent, thus shocking her. I wondered if the character traits established so far were all just lip service or was there something more?
There is a very telling scene where Niharika schools her ex about the difficulty of female survivors on trial, where they don’t come forward to report violence because sometimes it is not just the act, but the relentless judgments that they fear. It’s quite intriguing to have her say these things in a law firm bankrolled by such relentless judgments, where within an episode she herself would wield the same armoury.
This show plays out like the middling love child of Star Plus and Sacred Games. It has the ambition of the latter, and it shows. But the execution, tonality, and writing is extremely soap-operatic; where people are just killed without impunity, evidence tampered with effectiveness, law firms, lit like a morgue, with wafer thin walls, characters speaking in metaphors referencing mythology, and tacky flashback sequences which are needed to establish current affections. It’s quite on-brand with the other shows on the platform. Where you cruise through a show with alarming ease, while flooding your mental list with notes of aberrations, of which, believe me, there are many.