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‘Illegal’ Review: A Compelling and Problematic Portrait of Justice

Toeing the line between sensationalism and substance, this legal drama emerges as a riveting watch despite a contentious purview

Jessica Xalxo May 16, 2020

Satyadeep Mishra as Punit Tandon, Neha Sharma as Niharika Singh and Piyush Sharma as Janardhan Jaitley in 'Illegal.' Photo: Voot Select

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★ ★  ½

Everyone is a pawn in New Delhi and advocate Niharika Singh (Neha Sharma) is just beginning to get the lay of the chessboard. Voot Select’s latest offering, the 10-episode drama Illegal, follows Singh as she learns and adapts to the power plays that shape how a verdict unfolds in the courtroom. Delving into the grey areas of law and administration, this legal drama makes for a flawed albeit gripping watch, exploring how a sentence is decided as much by the judge as it is by the press and the politics of a country.

Dismissed from her previous workplace for blowing the whistle on a senior lawyer and sexual predator, Singh seeks a fresh start at Jaitley & Associates, the country’s top criminal law firm. Headed by the powerful and diabolical Janardhan Jaitley (Piyush Mishra), the new office holds both opportunity and redemption. When Singh is faced with two confounding cases, she has to decide which path to bet her career and conscience on. 

Neha Sharma as Niharika Singh in ‘Illegal.’

Illegal’s plot continually poses an interesting premise: in the four estates of democracy, who has the privilege of contesting their perception? Singh’s journey is centered around the Meher Salam case (opposing capital punishment for women) and the Neeraj Shekhawat case (defense of an alleged rapist) and the plot unfolds much like it would in any legal drama, where case details are rationed and revealed over the course of trial while personal and political threats corner all involved. Writer Reshu Nath and director Sahir Raza find breakneck rhythm in the pacing of the narrative and Illegal is compulsively watchable. Every half-hour episode bears an almost hypnotic quality as it transitions between intrigue, scandal, duplicity, ploy and mystery, offering borderline melodramatic fodder of bingeing dreams. 

Piyush Mishra as Janardhan Jaitley in ‘Illegal.’

Nath and Raza, however, steer chaotically neutral in their rendition of the modern-day courtroom. I use the word ‘chaotic’ because while the intent is inferred over the 10 episodes, Illegal is also plagued by a jarring unevenness that diminishes its potential as a breakout drama. While series such as 2019’s Unbelievable (based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong that reported a series of rapes and their investigations between 2008 and 2012 in the U.S.) have established that legal and police procedurals can pan neutral and still imbue their lens, writing and characterization with sensitivity, pop culture is still in a space where it’s learning and unlearning how to relate narratives of trauma on-screen. 

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Illegal tries to tick every box with its all-sides-of-the-story approach (even delving into a post #MeToo media and world) and there are moments in the series where this pays off. There’s a segment during the Shekhawat hearing where Vartika Tripathi (Aditi Tailang), the survivor, delivers a brief monologue to challenge Singh’s line of questioning (seethed in victim-blaming tirades). Tripathi goes on to deconstruct how the plausibility of a crime is upheld in court only if it meets society’s frigid degree of what counts as severe and how that measure should hold no bearing when meting out justice; this forms a powerful minute of agency in the series. Similarly, scenes involving Meher Salam (an eerily stellar performance by Kubbra Sait)—the woman on death row for committing murder—are grounded and haunted by the self-intercession of a convict seeking justice in incarceration. These numbered moments, however, neither balance nor eke out the harsh edges of a narrative that in its attempt to add detail, often undermines the gravity of the material it’s dealing with. 

Kubbra Sait as Meher Salam in ‘Illegal.’

From the manner in which medical facts are blurted to Singh’s physical intimidation of Tripathi in court and how a survivor is expected to “perform” in the aftermath of trauma, Illegal’s attempt to portray procedural and post-trauma realities often succumbs to its lens and writing that are not equipped to do them justice and the series repeatedly veers inconsistent and sensationalist in how both cases (and the narrative at large) play out, sacrificing its characters’ vulnerabilities for dramatic tension. The story is also not helped by Singh’s credo as an advocate that erratically shifts according to the plot’s convenience (from “only the entitled get the defense” to “innocent until proven guilty” to “prove it to me”). 

Satyadeep Mishra as Punit Tandon in ‘Illegal.’

When the plot is not exploring the procedural, it’s spinning a parallel web of professional, political and personal relationships that add a compelling—albeit at times unnecessary—layer to the flawed drama. Singh and prosecutor Punit Tandon’s (a sagaciously somber Satyadeep Mishra) history with Janardhan’s law firm as well as shared ideals make for an interesting battle of ethics outside the courtroom while Janardhan’s (a wickedly brilliant performance by Piyush Mishra) own political motives shift the tide of judgments in the country. Through Janardhan’s son and firm partner (as well as Singh’s ex-lover) Akshay Jaitley (Akshay Oberoi), Illegal also effectively explores how toxic systems of unconditional acceptance and support exist in ‘bro culture,’ delving into the cradle to grave bond shared between Akshay and his rape accused comrade Neeraj Shekhawat (Ankit Gupta). 

Akshay Oberoi as Akshay Jaitley in ‘Illegal.’ Photo: Voot Select

A particularly convoluted family thread plays out amidst this all, linking Shekhawat to Singh, and like most family skeletons, this plot addition too should’ve rotted in the closet. The series also makes an attempt at romance by way of an inane arc between Akshay and Singh, eventually enlightening more in its depiction of Akshay’s failing contract to wife Devika (a performance wherein Parul Gulati delivers delicate monologic excellence) that in a capital full of secrets, ends up being a potent look into the business deal of a marriage. 

Neha Sharma as Niharika Singh in ‘Illegal.’

Ultimately, Illegal is a riveting portrait of hits and misses that despite its many flaws (the list goes on: tacky background score, cheesy—though at times spectacularly sharp—dialogue, hammy editing that favors one too many close up shots and more), emerges as a series capable of giving rise to legitimate discourse about privilege and trauma in the legal system. The hope is that if renewed for a second season, the series does better in its depictions of important issues that it tries but fails to do justice by.

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