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The new web series by ALTBalaji, The Test Case, opens up a conversation about women in the special forces. It is certainly a tough job, but not quite mission impossible.
On her very first day at an institution that claims, “We make Men out of Boys,” Capt. Shikha Sharma is asked, “What shall me make of you?”, and she answers, without a blink, “Commando, sir!” And that is just the first episode of this brilliant web series.
The first episode of this 10-episode series has been streaming on ALT Balaji for the past year, but the remaining 9 episodes released only on 26th January, 2018 –frankly, a great way to honour the country and its Constitution on Republic Day.
It features Nimrat Kaur as Capt. Shikha Sharma as “the test case,” –the first woman to be inducted into the Special Forces Training Centre, at Kolipad, in an effort to get women into combat roles in the Indian Army. Needless to say, it isn’t easy for the Defence Minister, played by Juhi Chawla, to convince the Army to give Shikha a chance, and neither is it easy for Shikha to walk into this male bastion, on the recommendation of a politician. But as she points out, she may be the Defence Minister’s poster girl, but she is no political puppet. She is here to fulfill her own dream.
The series is not a dreamy, inspirational take on women in the Army, that shows Shikha overcoming obstacles with ease from the get go. Instead it chronicles in detail every painful and difficult moment. As Shikha herself says in a later episode, there are many reasons given by the authorities for why women cannot be in combat roles, and they are valid, but this is her only opportunity to prove them wrong. She is there to prove a point, going through hell, and we, the audience are shown every step she takes. Be it excuses as mundane as, “but how will she eat, sleep and bathe with men?”, to “but women are physically weaker,” to the very serious, “but what if they are sexually harassed?”, Shikha busts every argument with such confidence, that one cannot help but cheer at the screen.
One of my favourite scenes is when fed up with men not yielding the bathroom to her, she walks in anyway and proceeds to take a shower in her underwear. “It’s just anatomy,” she schools the men. Preach, lady!
The real turn comes halfway through the series. During what is their toughest test, a simulation exercise named Camp Dozakh, something happens which leaves Shikha unconscious and with injuries that are not normal combat injuries. The audience is kept in the dark, literally, to the actual events, but it soon becomes clear that Shikha has been raped. She refuses to lodge a complaint and refuses to name and shame her abuser. Along with the rest of her team, she claims that nothing untoward happened. The why and how of this makes up the rest of this series.
Only this bit of the story feels dramatic and unreal, especially the bit where Shikha exposes her rapist to the authorities. But even then, one is willing to suspend disbelief and allow Shikha this moment. As she says, this is her story, and in her story, there is just one hero—herself. She doesn’t need anyone to “save” her.
Nimrat Kaur’s portrayal of Shikha is perfection. She captures her pride, her joys, her sorrows, her anger and her vulnerabilities. It is a convincing portrayal of a pioneer who is pushed harder just because of her gender. She is supported by actors like Atul Kulkarni, Rahul Dev and Anup Soni, who let her do her thing without overshadowing her performance. Set in a predominantly male environment, there are understandably, few other women— Aparna –a lady medical officer, and Capt. Shikha’s mother are the only other female characters. But it passes the Bechdel test.
I never expected a show this progressive to come from the same people who introduced the regressive saas-bahu soaps, but then again, ALTBalaji does not cater to the same audience. Web series cater to the younger, more internet-savvy audience. I cannot help wondering however, if such progamming is needed more in mainstream, prime-time television, currently dominated by saas-bahu dramas and mythological serials. We need more such TV and movies, because popular culture influences public discourse.
The Test Case certainly opens up a conversation about women in the special forces. Because yes, it is a tough job. It is not something all men can aspire to, and in the same way not all women. But surely, there are some women out there who can be the “elite of the elite.” The Test Case is both a question and an answer of hope.
Header image is a still from The Test Case.