The Trial Series Review: Kajol’s Streaming Debut is Guilty of Loud and Superficial Storytelling

The Indian adaptation of ‘The Good Wife’ is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
The Trial Series Review
The Trial Series Review

Director: Suparn Verma
Writers: Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal, Siddharth Kumar
Cast: Kajol, Jisshu Sengupta, Sheeba Chaddha, Alyy Khan, Kubbra Sait, Gaurav Pandey

When the first five minutes of an eight-episode (and presumably multi-season) series feel like a deal breaker, it’s a bit like embarking on a year-long backpacking trip only to have all your money stolen in the immigration line before the flight. No, scratch that. It’s like having your passport, money and spirit stolen in the taxi on the way to the airport itself. Technically, you cannot travel anymore. But the prospect of still having to go, knowing that it’s going to be an improbable and bureaucratic slog for the next 7.86 episodes, is a sapping one. I know, it’s unfair. How can a long-form narrative be reduced to the impact of its opening salvo? But life – and often, Hindi cinema – is unfair. 

The Trial (tagline: Pyaar (Love)! Kanoon (Law)! Dhokha (Deceit)!) opens like a five-minute trailer of The Trial. I’ve added those exclamation marks in the tagline for good reason. A news anchor provides a loud and lewd lowdown. Mumbai rains. The score plays out like an aggressive ad jingle. Scenes don’t begin; they continue. A sex tape of a corrupt judge. The judge, an upstanding family man, being arrested from his palatial house in front of his kids. His wife, betrayed and sad, slapping him in resounding slow-mo. Then, the couple holding hands and walking out to the blinding glare of cameras. Once the man is gone, instant hardship. One kid asks her mother if she will find a job. The other reminds her of pending school fees. (Straight out of the Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007) School of Poverty Porn: Who can forget that trash-burger?). They move into a humble three-bedroom designer apartment. And finally, the woman decides to resuscitate her dormant law career. Trailer ends. I brace for what follows. 

Kajol as Noyonika Sengupta
Kajol as Noyonika Sengupta

An adaptation of The Good Wife, Suparn Verma’s over-the-top (OTT) legal drama stars Kajol as Noyonika Sengupta, the homemaker who starts from scratch as a junior lawyer in a top-tier firm, after her famous husband Rajeev (a typecast Jisshu Sengupta) is imprisoned for reasons that are never fully clear. You wonder what the other senior lawyers are doing in this company, because Noyonika – a bright intern on a six-month probation period – finds herself arguing high-profile cases in court like she was never away for 13 years. Fortunately, nobody tells this former topper that “it’s like riding a bicycle”. Or maybe someone does and we don’t see it. I wouldn’t put it past a screenplay that treats the background score as the only screenplay. The show’s reading of struggle (and gender, and politics, and relationships) is so simplistic that it hurts. Noyonika just returns, which is lazy shorthand for a genius who’s back in the game. So what if she’s older, anxious, effectively a single mother, and the sole multigrain-bread-winner? I still can’t get over the new flat in which they live (she sells the Mercedes), and which several characters refer to as a small and scrappy place. I’m not asking for a drastic Baazigar-level downgrade here, but even the family’s skewed sense of privilege needs to look plausible. This is why eat-the-rich stories are having a moment.

Speaking of characters, there are quite a few in Noyonika’s trial by gold-crusted fire. There’s her ex-flame, Vishal (Alyy Khan), a partner in the firm who gets her this job. There’s the other partner, Malini (Sheeba Chaddha), a stern and chain-smoking boss who resents Noyonika for being a nepotism hire. There’s the hoodie-wearing rival intern, Dheeraj (Gaurav Pandey), who has a thing for Sana (Kubbra Sait), the street-smart office fixer whose answer to Noyonika’s question about a potential companion is “gareebi” (poverty). Yet, Sana hangs out at an upscale pub every other night, haunted by her affair with a Kabir-Singh-like cop (Aamir Ali). There’s a random politician, Ilias (Aseem Hattangady), who exists as an all-in-one Sengupta ally; he comes and goes, appears and disappears, influencing events when the writing reaches a dead end (Who you gonna call? Plot-buster Ilias!) without any discernible purpose. There are Noyonika’s daughters, who spend their time re-watching the sex tape of their father. Even if it is to determine whether the images are fake, the gaze is anything but forensic; it’s just very creepy. And there’s Kishore (Kiran Kumar), the maverick third partner of the firm who hides his dementia and predatory persona behind a mask of filmy flamboyance – which, in his case, means being followed by two sultry young assistants every time he enters or exits a room. There’s Daksh (Atul Kumar), the morally bankrupt primetime anchor who seems to emerge from the parallel universe of the equally guilty The Broken News . There are more characters, but I’m running out of space…like the Senguptas in their new home. 

The format is familiar. Noyonika fights a new case in every episode – many of which are coyly inspired by real-world scandals – while her personal life becomes the narrative glue. But Guilty Minds, the well-researched and sure-footed legal drama in a similar space, will not be pleased. Noyonika’s professional challenges feel like a different story altogether, unconnected to the woman we see dealing with the distrust of her husband and family. At the cost of sounding repetitive, the tone of The Trial is shallow. (I’ve reached a stage where I google synonyms for “superficial,” as I did with Jee Karda and Taaza Khabar, shows penned by two of the three writers on this show). The dialogue tries too hard, especially during the cringey Noyonika voiceovers at the end of every episode. Why are they so echoey? Is she narrating her story to someone else in flashbacks? Or is it an internal monologue? Is it her head? Examples: “Change is the only constant: Mard ki fitrat aur maa ki zimedari (A man’s nature and a mother’s responsibility)”. Or something on the lines of “One love we deserve, one we desire, but above all, nothing can beat destiny”. 

The Trial: Pyaar Kaanoon Dhokha on Disney + Hotstar
The Trial: Pyaar Kaanoon Dhokha on Disney + Hotstar

At one point, Noyonika’s car breaks down in traffic, and her daughters yell, but the car sputters to life the moment she surmises that “everyone deserves a second chance”. At another point, when she politely opens a case by mentioning that it’s an honour to be back in court, the judge responds with “Wish I could say the same. Your husband has ruined our reputation”. It doesn’t help that, visually, the series drops the ball. The staging is hurried. You can almost see the green screen in the shots of characters speaking in cars. Or in a balcony overlooking suspiciously scenic images of the city. 

The cricket metaphors are oversmart, too. Noyonika replies that she’d rather hit a yorker for a six instead of exploiting a free hit, when Dheeraj asks why she didn’t take advantage of his mistake. When a lawyer asks for a settlement after losing a case, his colleague declares that he can’t claim a trial ball after getting out. A lot of Noyonika’s achievements in court feature a vague sequence of: Judge rules in her favour, Perpetrator looks guilty, Noyonika smirks, rinse, repeat. There is no nuance to these sequences, no intellectual or emotional rhythm – a soap-opera treatment angling more towards old-school TV entertainment than modern web storytelling. Even the cultural representation – the many women judges, a few Muslim characters, the scattered Bengali phrases – reeks of easy tokenism. It’s like a checklist that includes conflicts, resolutions and apolitical stances in different columns. Everything is more constructed than conceived. 

The performances are a casualty of this tone. The kisses are awkward; the punchlines are naive. In her web-series debut, Kajol isn’t bad, but her Noyonika is little more than a series of strong-lady vignettes. The fragile script (by Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal and Siddharth Kumar) limits her to words instead of feelings, and binary outbursts instead of slow-burning implosions. The big-screen habits are visibly hard to shed, particularly in terms of how a character reacts to smaller situations. There’s a chance to mine Noyonika’s rare balance of emotion and reasoning, fact and fiction, but it’s a chance that vanishes with the industrial telling. The lack of depth serves as an unwitting reminder of how solid Sushmita Sen is in Aarya, a similarly themed show based on the other side of the law. The film-making makes all the difference when feminist clichés come calling. Alyy Khan is probably the most persuasive of the lot here (there are shades of Arjun Rampal in his voice and gait), but his character Vishal’s arc – and his lovesick attitude towards the married Noyonika – is comically sudden. Sharad Kelkar’s corresponding third-wheel character in The Family Man is far more consistent and human. It also rarely seems like any of these lawyers are lawyering. Most of the office folks move like eager cinephiles who’ve binge-watched Suits over the weekend.

I’ve saved the best (or worst) for last. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it elevator music? Is it a disgruntled restaurant pianist? Is it a vengeful DJ? No, it’s that notorious offender we call BGM (background music). To say it’s unrelenting and awful in The Trial is an understatement. I’ve said it so often that I get bored of listening to my own thoughts. But if an entire series can sound like a broken record, so can I. It’s not as simple as condemning an excessive score. Even a high volume of background music can add value to a scene and act as an aural expression of a theme or character – like, say, in the climax of Haseen Dillruba (2021) or the whole of Bulbbul (2020). But the logic driving the score of shows like The Trial is: Silence is the villain. So there’s no actual hook or language to the music. It’s just there because otherwise how will the viewer know they’re watching something unfold? How will we know what to feel? Even by that yardstick, the score fails. There are times when two characters are conversing in a pub, and the BGM literally plays over the music playing at the actual pub. It’s impossible to tell the difference between the two. The overlap happens so often that it’s hard to imagine a more self-sabotaging series in recent memory. It’s like losing your money, passport and spirit in the taxi to the airport, and going on that trip anyway only to be detained at the border and be given one phone call with an endless music-on-hold pattern. The operator refuses to return. Now that’s a trial by choir. 

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