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Illegal web series Review: Worthy premise, middling treatment- Cinema express

Illegal web series Review: Worthy premise, middling treatment

This 10-part Voot Select show is an admissible legal thriller held down by convoluted writing

Published: 10th May 2020

Courtroom showdowns don’t command the same importance in modern legal dramas. From Goliath to Better Call Saul, the emphasis is always on character study and the vile machinations outside of court. On a lesser plane, the new Voot Select series, Illegal, also highlights the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings of modern law. It’s a welcome shift, given the profusion of trite courtroom dramas in India. But that does not make it interesting — not necessarily so.

Cast: Neha Sharma, Piyush Mishra, Akshay Oberoi

Director: Sahir Raza

Streaming on: Voot Select

The principal antagonist of the show, played by Piyush Mishra, doesn’t set foot in court until the very end. He’s named Janardhan Jaitley, the owner of a reputed law firm in Delhi. In the first episode, he hires Niharika (Neha Sharma), a bright, idealistic lawyer from Bangalore, to fight a pro bono case on the thorny issue of capital punishment (seemingly inspired by the 2008 Amroha killings). But JJ’s motives are anything but pro bono, and no sooner does Niharika join his firm that she’s dragged into another, equally complex case.

The subject of sexual assault binds the show. In the first episode, we see Niharika publicly out a sexual predator; not only does it threaten her career, but also creates a moral conundrum later on, when she’s asked to represent a rape-accused. Meher Salaam (Kubra Sait), the death row prisoner in the pro bono case, is routinely brutalised in prison, and a history of abuse runs through Niharika’s past. 

Unlike the 2019 film Section 375, Illegal isn’t exploitative in its depiction of complicated rape trials. It points out, albeit in all-too-obvious tones, the systemic mistrust doled out to victims in the guise of due process. The problem isn’t of intent or sensitivity, but uneven execution. Once the pace picks up, a barrage of twists and double-crossings fill the screen, and the narrative bobs across too many threads to do justice to one. 

A wily, false-haired presence, Piyush Mishra chews out his scenes. Plonked on his office chair, he delivers teasing legal maxims in his trademark monotone, hands clasped in shrewish anticipation. He’s the one unwavering figure in a show of conflicted characters: Akshay Oberoi, playing JJ’s son, is wearying in his indecisions. Neha makes for an inadequate lead, while it’s fun to see Deepak Tijori trying to evoke a gruff tenderness.

Like every law show before it, Illegal dwells in the ethical grey zones of our justice system. Some of it is intriguing — the legalisation of passive euthanasia in India, for instance — while others are cut-and-paste jobs (the cliché of a hard-pressed lawyer peering through therapy records pops up again). Perhaps future seasons can explore these dilemmas in depth. A stronger cast and a condensed writing approach seem like the way to go. As of now, all we have is a middling show that fails to tip the scales.

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