Director: Vinay Waikul, Nagesh Kukunoor

Cast: Nimrat Kaur, Atul Kulkarni, Akshay Oberoi, Rahul Dev, Sumit Suri, Juhi Chawla, Suhail Nayyar, Bhuvan Arora

The problem with a television production house like Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji – ALTBalaji fronts as their digital wing – is that irrespective of the relevance of stories they choose to tell, there is only ever one cinematic language. The cross-section of traditional viewers they cater to hasn’t changed, even across a new medium. For example, one of their early web-shows, a homosexual love story called Romil & Jugal, pivoted on its risqué social theme as the selling point. Yet, its treatment still assumed the lowest-common-denominator grammar – replete with loud regional caricatures, glossy interiors, gym bods, fat shaming, sermonizing and cartoonish sound effects.

Therefore, it’s safe to say that only those who’ve been brought up on a steady diet of regressive saas-bahu soaps might have considered this a “brave,” progressive and path-breaking deviation from the mandatory family-friendly template.

Also Read: Best Web Shows of 2017, Ranked 

One could say the same about their latest, The Test Case: a fictitious ten-episode series about a Haryanvi woman training to be India’s first lady Commando in a combat role by penetrating a notoriously toxic alpha-male environment. The show is designed to look realistic only to the old Balaji faithful. In truth, this is yet another wasted opportunity by a studio that should in fact be acquainted with the politics of female leadership more than most. Instead, feminism, gender equality and women empowerment come across as shiny topical devices being paraded around with the sanctity of seventh-grade moral-science textbooks.

Therefore, it’s safe to say that only those who’ve been brought up on a steady diet of regressive saas-bahu soaps might have considered this a “brave,” progressive and path-breaking deviation from the mandatory family-friendly template. 

This is not unlike Bollywood’s standard sports-biopic and social-drama formula, where economics and condescension are disguised as intent and education. What so many filmmakers forget in the pursuit of trying to “affect” and entertain their audiences is that the mere existence of their subjects is often enough to heighten the parameters of this medium. One doesn’t need to package the journey in motivational colours, and one certainly does not need to reiterate the power of their messages through rousing music and one-dimensional antagonists. Despite the novelty of its environment, this series, too, rarely ever rises above the flimsiness of a rushed topical concept. Much of it seems like a theatrical extension of a trending Twitter hash-tag.

The setup promises a lot more. Captain Shikha Sharma (Nimrat Kaur), a spunky Military Intelligence Officer, is chosen in the Indian Army’s most rigorous physical course at the Special Forces Training Centre (SFTC), as a “test case” by a female Defense Minister (Juhi Chawla). Shikha is the natural underdog in a boys’ club wary of evolution. She is well aware of her status as a political pawn, and is driven by her determination to be more than a daughter to her patriarchal father. The stakes are high for a female protagonist who suddenly finds herself in a burdensome – and somewhat privileged – position to alter the thinking of an entire nation.
Surprise, surprise, because the makers never let us forget this.

Reports stated that due to creative differences with the producers, he exited, which is why it took so long to complete the show. One can sense the moments that might have led to his growing frustrations (flashy name slates introducing the faces, suggestive camera angles).  

We get that it’s a me-against-the-world situation simply by seeing her compete with the others in a hostile setting. Yet, by repeatedly magnifying and glorifying her hardships within this atmosphere, the makers end up patronizing the independent conviction of her character. They make her cagey and at least ten times more intelligent than anyone else in her vicinity. She speaks in phrases, in context of the current world’s mood rather than the texture of her own rugged North Indian upbringing. She is equipped with needless flashbacks, whose Dangal-hangover noises I understood once I discovered that director Vinay Waikul assisted on films like, well, Dangal and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The male team members come in all shapes, sizes and social commentary – at different points, she is made to sympathize with a Muslim man and a gay man, as if it weren’t difficult enough to be a woman that she needed male minorities for us to “understand” the oppression.

Also Read: 7 Reasons Why Kabir Khan’s Next Is With Amazon Prime India

Then there is the mandatory anthem named “Rugg Rugg Mein India” for the training montage, as well as dorm rooms and sanitized toilets that belong more to giant doll houses than minimalistic army housing units. It’s as if Shikha cannot be lauded without the assistance of obvious narrative elements and handpicked personalities. It’s ironic that she needs to be surrounded by clichés in order to be the “hero” of her story – even more so because Shikha later asserts that she doesn’t want the “guidance” of any male authority (even defying army protocol) to achieve a crowd-pleasing resolution to her increasingly lonely conflict. She tells this to a smug detective-like Colonel who, not unlike Om Puri’s unorthodox outlier cop-turn in Gupt, is brought in to investigate a sexual harassment case that forms the crux of the show’s plot. If only the writers listened to her reasoning.

The 43-minute long pilot of this show was released in early 2017, much before the next nine episodes that were made available in January 2018. Nagesh Kukunoor co-wrote and directed the pilot. Reports stated that due to creative differences with the producers, he exited, which is why it took so long to complete the show. One can sense the moments that might have led to his growing frustrations (flashy name slates introducing the faces, suggestive camera angles). But one can also sense Kukunoor’s straighter touches. The banter is kept to a minimum, and there is an air of rationality about adult conversations. For example, in the scene that has the Defense Minister force the two senior army bosses to recruit Shikha for the SFTC, the men don’t come across as stubbornly black-and-white villains – yet. They put forward legitimate points as professionals (“The recruits come from backgrounds where women aren’t respected. What if she is captured as a prisoner of war?”), and we somewhat identify with their anxieties.

But as the series goes forth without Kukunoor, these men turn into scheming old uncles who discuss consequences and plans as if their only goal were to symbolize the institution’s deep-rooted misogyny. The locker-room banter, too, refuses to unfurl without clownish musical cues. Each male is assigned a “role” to dramatize Shikha’s path. The course itself assumes the forced intensity and sexual politics of a gaming zone. In turn, the show’s strongest characters, Shikha and strict SFTC commander Sathe (Atul Kulkarni), begin to look like misfits in surroundings that appear intent on emulating the mechanics of a frivolous television reality show. I could swear that Sathe and his crony, Subedar Bhatti (Rahul Dev), even borrow from Rannvijay Singh and Raghu Ram’s mind-messing book of tough love.

All this amounts to a soapy portrait of the country’s first female Commando – a role that the formidable Nimrat Kaur perspires for, only to look like a sincere human stuck in a high-tech video game. As a result, for those who are slightly more exposed to the worldwide digital landscape – which is to say, pretty much everyone on the internet – shows like The Test Case appear as little more than decorated instances of large-scale cultural appropriation. No amount of token girl-walks-into-men’s-shower sequences can change that.

Rating:   star

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