Maamla Legal Hai Review: The Bar is Low in This Middling Workspace Comedy

The Ravi Kishan starrer is streaming on Netflix.
Maamla Legal Hai Review: The Bar is Low in This Middling Workspace Comedy
Maamla Legal Hai Review: The Bar is Low in This Middling Workspace Comedy

Director: Rahul Pandey
Writers: Kunal Aneja, Saurabh Khanna
Cast: Ravi Kishan, Nidhi Bisht, Naila Grewal, Anant Joshi, Anjum Batra, Yashpal Sharma

No. of episodes: 8

Streaming on: Netflix

Maamla Legal Hai is the sort of modest misfire that makes you search for euphemistic terms like “well-intentioned” and “quirky” because it doesn’t really work but you also don’t feel like dismissing it. You wonder what the dominant gene is: Is it an average show with a handful of decent scenes or is it an affable series with a bunch of lazy moments? Or maybe it’s such a middle-of-the-road (or as the kids today say: ‘mid’) production that it’s easier to romanticise the concept — a workspace satire based in an East Delhi district court — than pan the execution. It’s simpler to praise the idea — weaving real-life cases and social issues into a sitcom-style setup — than criticise the result. It’s nicer to admire the tone — a lightweight courtroom comedy in an era of bleak procedurals and self-serious legal dramas — than slam the disharmony between theme and treatment. 

And when all else fails, of course, you resort to the final word in polite condemnation: Praising the lead performance. Ravi Kishan is characteristically relaxed and reliable as VD Tyagi, a senior advocate who dreams of becoming the president of the Delhi bar association and ultimately, the attorney general of India. Tyagi’s hustling is the primary narrative in this case-per-episode format. It’s the actor’s second shady-but-golden-hearted role in a week that features his scene-stealing turn as a small-town inspector in Kiran Rao’s Laapataa Ladies. Could he have played someone like Tyagi in his sleep? Probably. Could the makers have done more to platform his timing and talent? Probably. Is the show missing the screen-writing fluency to make him a memorable Munna Bhai-styled protagonist? Definitely. But asking for more in 2024 is a crime that not even the lawyers of this series can bail you out of. 

Comedy or Satire?

The setting has potential. Tyagi is the godfather of Patparganj district court, and he’s surrounded by an entourage of colourful characters. Vishwas (Anant Joshi), the court manager with readymade Suits references. Ananya (Naila Grewal), the posh Harvard-return newbie with legal-aid aspirations. Sujata (Nidhi Bisht), the armchair-lawyer who takes Ananya under her wing. Mintu (Anjum Batra), court jester and Tyagi’s hype-man. Phorey (Yashpal Sharma), Tyagi’s crass and corrupt election rival. A veteran judge (Tanvi Azmi). Two goofy interns named Law and Order, and a clerk-turned-MRO (monkey repelling officer). The real-world headlines baked into episodes range from a foul-mouthed parrot on trial, sex and natal care in women’s prisons, and dogs disguised as lions on court premises to a man seeking divorce because his wife wasn’t “coy enough” on their wedding night and a lawyer with a fake degree winning a judgeship. 

My problem with Maamla Legal Hai is its clunky skit-like tone. I get that it’s supposed to look silly, with humour shaping a system where justice and emotion usually go hand in hand. On paper, it makes sense. But satires aren’t the same as comedies – the former trusts the inherent fictions of life, the latter exaggerates the fictions of life. The eight-episode series is more of a garish comedy – condescending sound cues and score, hammy dialogue and facial expressions – that tries to oversell the eccentricity of an environment that’s naturally eccentric. It needs no treatment. A deadpan gaze might have worked better than slapstick gags and tickle-the-audience reminders, because the actual cases are funny enough. The situations are farcical enough. Yet, the show is stranded in no man’s land between the two genres. For instance, it’s not enough that a judge who is star-struck by a famous lawyer says an amusing line like “sir is so big that he refers to ‘high court’ as ‘court’”; the bumbling judge must secretly record the man’s opening argument with his cellphone, too. It’s not enough that Tyagi represents a cop against a lawyer so that he can deliver a reverse-monologue about how well he understands his own community; he must end in fake tears so that we know he’s fooled the cartoon villain. It’s not enough that a lawyer moonlighting as an acupuncturist prefers to advertise Sujata’s relatable face rather than Ananya’s moviestar swag; he must make a cringey “my clients prefer to be Vidya Balan, not Katrina Kaif” joke, too. 

“Quirky” and “Well Intentioned”

Maamla Legal Hai works at a fundamental staging level. I like that the inner workings of a small-time court form the core: Advocates playing the “game” while the judiciary is the umpire; the acrimony between higher and lower-court judges (“imagine the humiliation when the high court judge cancelled my death-sentence verdict – twice!”); the mad dash for an air-conditioned chamber and needy clients; female lawyers uniting in the face of casual patriarchy; advocates attracting elite recommendations by writing performative articles and taking up socially sensitive cases; Tyagi wearing expensive glasses (“worn by Salve, Sibal and Subramaniam”) to invoke an aura. This normalisation of legal bureaucracy is a welcome antidote to Bollywood’s history of theatrical courtroom monologues. The sheer dysfunctionality behind the scenes make for a mildly entertaining watch. 

But there’s something weird about seeing grave issues like child marriages and the POCSO act in villages, caste and gender minorities making a statement, a Delhi rape case, police violence and suppression viewed through a comic lens. Trivialisation and apolitical gaze aside, the balance between humour and drama is off. The emotional scenes don’t land because they’re symbolised by an abrupt tonal shift; they aren’t earned. Tyagi’s strained relationship with his father, for example, is too planted. His transformation from opportunist to do-gooder, too, has no rhythm; the sentimentality of the moment — where a judge shows him what a difference they can make in court — is derived from cinema rather than life itself. The design is awkward, in that the change of background score is more prominent than any change in conscience. 

Even within its low-stakes body, the show lacks a long-form soul. Some of the cases feel repetitive and incoherent. The makers also miss a trick by not correlating Tyagi’s ambitions to Ananya’s – they barely appear in a scene together – given that both of them strive to make it on their own, independent of their privilege and family names. The mentor-protege equation is shoehorned elsewhere, and Tyagi’s redemption arc doesn’t pack the punch the series thinks it does. His motives remain murky till the end, despite a slow-mo payoff that patronises the viewer with its children’s-film mood. But I suppose shows like these are innocent even when proven guilty. Because hey, his journey is quirky and Maamla Legal Hai is well-intentioned.

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