Potential spoilers ahead.
The latest Voot Select web series Illegal is set in India’s national capital. Crookedness follows as surely as the discovery of great bargains at Dilli Haat. Just like no web series in Mumbai is complete without a gangster or two, this overheated saga of crime and punishment has opportunistic politicians, shysters whose black robes conceal bent spines, powerful fixers who pass themselves off as entrepreneurs.
Nobody makes a move unless in the direction of profit. Acts of charity mask opportunism. There are no accidents, only murders. And so on.
Trying to row her canoe through this very familiar swamp is the equal parts bright-and-dim lawyer Niharika (Neha Sharma). She sets out as an idealist and speedily evolves into a pragmatist who comes to believe that “the ones who claim to be legal are the ones who are actually illegal”. Niharika has 10 episodes, clocking around 30 minutes each, to see the light. She navigates daddy issues, ex-boyfriend issues, boss issues. She defends a suspected rapist and makes it her mission to help a woman on death row. She loses and gains, waxes and wanes. By the end of the first season, she is only half done.
Few shows have flogged their lead character this hard. It’s hardly surprising that Niharika buckles ever so often and misplaces her speech filters. “What is wrong with you? Do you even have a conscience?” she shrieks at the senior partner in the law firm she has only recently joined. Since Illegal has many more episodes to go, Niharika miraculously survives the outburst – even though her credibility as a reliable witness to never-ending venality has already been compromised by now.
Illegal has been written by Reshu Nath and directed by Sahir Raza. Vikram Bhatt, the B-movie auteur, is the creative producer. The plot pivots on a gobsmacking set of coincidences. Niharika joins a law firm in Delhi headed by legal maven Janardhan Jaitley (Piyush Mishra), who promptly assigns her to defend Neeraj (Ankit Gupta) from rape charges and to see whether serial killer Meher (Kubbra Sait) can be saved. The ambitious and ruthless Janardhan is straight out of a Sidney Sheldon novel, but he won’t be the first person to be misread by our earnest heroine.
How can blame her when Delhi turns out to be a village as well as a place that hasn’t heard of conflicts of interest? Neeraj happens to be the son of Niharika’s estranged father Surya (Deepak Tijori) from his second marriage. Janardhan is the father of her ex, Akshay (Akshay Oberoi). The couple were clearly too involved with heavy petting to learn about each other’s family members.
Rather than recusing herself, Niharika carries on, reluctantly building a defence for Neeraj and enthusiastically taking up Meher’s cause. As she sinks deeper into webs spun by Janardhan, Illegal piles on the soap operatics. No character is allowed to lurk in a corner or eke out something resembling an excitement-free existence. Conscientious public prosecutor Puneet (Satyadeep Mishra), who is Niharika’s rival in the rape case, has a score to settle with Janardhan, his former boss. Janardhan’s wife Rohini (Kitu Gidwani) is either paranoid or onto something. Akshay and Neeraj are school friends. Akshay is married but still pines for Niharika. Janardhan, aided by a murderous enforcer, is also pursuing a career in politics.
Entangled in the mess are some finer threads of thought. The MeToo movement gets some airing. Among the better melodramatic turns is Surya’s tentative attempts to reconnect with his daughter. Deepak Tijori, as the rumpled Surya, has among the few quiet scenes with Niharika, where he tries to make up for having shabbily treated her mother and her. The romantic track between Akshay and Niharika has its moments, but far more revealing are his frosty ties with his wife Devika.
Given the circumstances, the members of the cast perform remarkably well. Among those who hold their ground despite the constant lurching are Satyadeep Mishra as the honest advocate, Parul Gulati as the put-upon Devika, and Kubbra Sait as Meher, the woman convicted of multiple murders.
Neha Sharma, in her most fleshed-out role till date, is fully committed to Niharika’s journey, and can honourably acquit herself of being unable to create a worthy heroine. What kind of woman doesn’t ask her boyfriend who his daddy is?
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