Is Ekta Kapoor and Nimrat Kaur’s The Test Case the feminist Hindi entertainment series we’ve been waiting for?

Could it be that India has finally delivered the answer to Netflix? And given us not just shows made specifically for online telecast, but also shows worth tuning in for and maybe even binge-watching? Okay, before I get carried away, have we finally got a show—in singular—which is of the same calibre as what is available on Netflix? And is the person we have to thank for it, no less than the doyen of all things trash and soapy and popular, Ekta Kapoor?

The answer it seems is a resounding yes.

Around two weeks back, Ekta Kapoor’s new endeavour, AltBalaji hit our broadband waves. AltBalaji is Kapoor’s answer to Netflix. She’s producing various series on it, which are made for an online audience, not for TV. Much like Netflix and Amazon Prime, some of these shows have three to four episodes which are released in one shot. So you can binge-watch them if you’re so inclined, as opposed to the appointment viewing we have to indulge in for TV programmes.

All good, till you watched the first set of shows which were uploaded. They were supposedly risqué content, which Kapoor may not have found an audience or advertisers for on a traditional TV entertainment channel. But they veered between average at best and puerile at worst. There was a show on a group of 30-year-old male friends who’d been together since school, called Boygiri. There was Dev DD with a young woman playing the role of Devdas. There was Ram Kapoor and Sakshi Tanwar playing an alcoholic has-been superstar and a counsellor, respectively, in Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat. There’s also a show about an extra-marital affair between two 30-something married people. The acting across the shows ranged from over-the-top to simply bad. The scripts were weak. The situations didn’t make sense and the dialogue was very amateur. It took all my effort to watch beyond one episode of each show.

Till I saw The Test Case, starring Nimrat Kaur as the first female officer to be sent to be trained to be a commando with the Purple Berets. The fact that Kaur is acting in it is a winner in itself. It would make the most cynical TV watcher tune in. So, hats off for the casting coup. While the trailer had been quite disturbing, starting as it did with Sagarika Ghose, the first episode more than delivered on what was expected.

The Test Case is directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, and stars Kaur as the protagonist. The cast includes Juhi Chawla as the minister of defence, Atul Kulkarni and Rahul Dev as commanders and Kaur’s superiors in the training academy. The story, which I have not heard of before and suspect shockingly maybe original—another novelty for Indian TV and film—is about the defence minister deciding to implement President Pranab Mukherjee’s statement that women should be enlisted in combat positions. The defence minister chooses Shikha Sharma/Kaur to be the test case for the army, much against the wishes of the generals. The show is essentially about Kaur’s experiences while training in the decidedly sexist environs of the army, alongside men who think she’s being given special privileges. And as she is informed, whether she may be capable or not, she is part of the training programme only because the minister/Chawla insisted she join the programme.

What works is the realism of the production. It seems well-researched. I’m simply impressed that Balaji Productions knew about the Maroon Beret, which is worn by 50th Parachute Brigade, the President’s Body Guard and the Special Forces Unit. This does not look like a Balaji production from any angle. Kaur is not roaming around looking like she’s lost her way, while going to shoot Naagin. She wears au naturel makeup, looks fit and not thin, and acts flawlessly—which is her wont. The rest of the cast is extremely well-chosen. The dialogue is as normal as it gets. These are young men who think that the world is their oyster and that they’re men’s men. They say “fuck", “balls", “piss" in everyday dialogue. It’s actually a delight to hear Kaur say “pussy" and “vagina" while trying to establish that she doesn’t scare easy. The men affectionately call her Military Barbie. And the dialogue slips effortlessly between Hindi and English. The pushback Kaur gets, both from the commanders as well as from her colleagues, is palpable. But most importantly, it all seems very real. And without artifice. Once again, very unlike anything we’ve seen out of the Balaji stable till date.

There is a segment towards the end of the 41-minute first episode, which seems a little too pat. Almost a let-down after such a tight beginning, but I suppose one must give some leeway for Hindi entertainment. There’s much to appreciate in this show, at least till now. It’s great to see an entire series hinged on a female character who isn’t prettied up or playing a mother, sister or wife alone. As if that is the defining aspect of the character. It’s also great to see a show tackle the hardcore sexism that is ingrained in the army, head on. No film out of India has till date done so, nor has any TV show. There’s also a very nuanced moment where we see the casual racism that is commonplace against people from the northeast, in the way one of the men speaks to another called Thapa. The exchange is barely 10 seconds in duration, but it’s hard to miss.

If indeed Kukunoor and Kapoor stick to their guns and don’t give in to having Kaur fall in love with one of the commanders or start dancing in the rain, this may well turn out to be a turning point in Hindi entertainment programming. Yet, as talented as Kukunoor and Kapoor be, if it wasn’t for an actor of the calibre and skillset of Kaur, this show wouldn’t be half as effective as it is. Should you watch this? I would say definitely give it a shot.

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