Scam 1992 review: SonyLIV show on Harshad Mehta mistakes jargon for complexity

In spite of all the research, Hansal Mehta's show never quite transports us into Harshad Mehta's mind.

Tatsam Mukherjee October 10, 2020 12:24:30 IST
Scam 1992 review: SonyLIV show on Harshad Mehta mistakes jargon for complexity

A still from Scam 1992. Twitter

Language: Hindi

Hansal Mehta's 10-part series, Scam 1992: The Story of Harshad Mehta, begins on an intriguing note. The year is 1992, as a man (Sharib Hashmi) walks into the Times of India building with beads of sweat on his forehead. The perspiration does not seem to be the result of Bombay's humidity though, because he looks fidgety and insists on meeting a 'top' journalist. He has a tip. He initially speaks to an elderly person, who seems familiar.

Identifying himself as a 'common man,' and then stating his name - RK Laxman, the elderly man escorts him to an editor. The yellow-tinted visuals, the cluster of the bright tube lights in the background, and the smoke-filled newsroom, are all eerily reminiscent of David Fincher's Zodiac. This is not about a serial killer's puzzles to a newspaper, but there is a similar dread in the air. "Rs 500 crore is missing from SBI's accounts," the man tells journalist Sucheta Dalal (Shreya Dhanwantary). A voice-over tells us that this scam shook the foundation of India's economy, and was named after one man — Harshad Mehta, the 'Big Bull' on Dalal Street. 

Based on Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu's 1993 book, The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away, the series streaming on SonyLIV, is definitely a step ahead of the standard-fare depiction of stock market in Hindi films.

Harshad has been a figure of intrigue for Hindi cinema for a while now, with films (like Gafla, Baazaar) trying to understand his meteoric rise from a mere broker into the highest advance-tax paying individual in the country, only in a matter of few years. The problem with these films also lies with their grammar, which seem to portray the stock market as this fairyland, because fully engaging with this world might mean trying to explain a series of complex financial transactions. Much like the traders on Dalal Street, even the filmmakers have insisted on retaining an air of mystery around stock-brokers. What do they know, that allows them to create money out of nothing? According to Hindi films, those who trade in stocks either turn into overnight billionaires or are driven to suicide. There is no middle ground. 

The biggest strength of Scam 1992 is its ability to examine the nuts-and-bolts of the stock market with curiosity, and embrace the jargon.

The show uses multiple scenes of exposition to drill into its audience the popular initialisms of the stock exchange — BR (Bank receipts), SGLs (Subsidiary General Ledger), PDO (Public Debt Office). It is integral to understand what these are, to fully understand the murkiness of what Harshad pulled off. However, Hansal Mehta's show also seems to mistake this nerdy dedication to the jargon as its commitment to complexity in the story. Because for all intents and purposes, Scam 1992 is a relatively straightforward way of telling Harshad's story like a series of newspaper reports, minus the ambiguities.

The story begins like most of these stories do - an underdog enters the 'bull ring'; the arena where scrips are bought and sold. He has the same old problems - five people staying in a one-room chawl, and his inability to make peace with this because somewhere there is a gnawing feeling that h is made for greater things. Hansal films his protagonist gazing out of a BEST bus, and venting by throwing pebbles into the sea at Marine Drive, in case we had not caught up with his disappointment with his present circumstances. Like in Mani Ratnam's Guru (reportedly based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani), even the Harshad Mehta here comes from a family where the previous generation had failed as an entrepreneur. As if to erase the 'blot' of his father's failed venture, the son pursues his ambition with even more ferocity. He learns the tricks of insider-trading, and how to use the information for his own benefit. The proverbs flow fast and loose, as if Mehta is intent on showcasing a front where he is arrived at a fool proof mantra in the chaos of Bombay Stock Exchange. Karan Vyas and Vaibhav Vishal's dialogues in the first few episodes almost seem to be catering to the target audience of Rajat Arora's Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai. Nearly every other line seems to have been designed to draw claps and whistles.

Scam 1992 review SonyLIV show on Harshad Mehta mistakes jargon for complexity

A still from Scam 1992. YouTube

In the protagonist's role as Harshad Mehta, Gujarati theatre/film actor Pratik Gandhi is a curious presence. He is smart, he is fast, but Gandhi's everyman presence also ensures that the audience gets behind this underdog, at least, during those initial parts. It is partly wish-fulfilment, as we see him graduate from a Ghatkopar chawl to a sea-facing duplex apartment, from the local train to a Lexus, from being a blue-collared jobber (a wholesaler in the stock exchange) to a designer suit-wearing stock market guru. It is the most common aspirational fairy-tale for the Indian middle class, and yet it is only after we investigate it, do we begin to see how he engineered the perception of knowing more than everyone else. Gandhi's presence lends a certain humanity to the puzzle called Harshad Mehta, something that works against the show. Each time Harshad finds himself at a crossroad, Gandhi flashes his I-have-an-idea smile. Each time, someone tells him to slow down and go over his options, he says to them, "Everybody understands the language of profit." It becomes repetitive after a point, taking away from this complicated man's million contradictions.

There are other problems with the show as well, where none of the secondary characters seem to be fleshed out. Nearly all the scenes of the (approximately) nine-hour runtime of this show is built around Harshad Mehta. Even when he is not in a scene, all the character's lives only seem to revolve around what Harshad has done. Whether it is Nikhil Dwivedi, playing the India head of Citibank, a couple of journalists chasing a scoop, the 'bear cartel' headed by a foul-mouthed Satish Kaushik, none of them seem to have an identity of their own. Take for example the character of Sucheta Dalal, where Dhanwantary's performance while adequate, is so bereft of complexity that one could mistake her for a yuppie journalist in her first few years of reporting. Especially when she says things like "I will take my sources to my grave." As Harshad's nemeses, both Dwivedi and Kaushik have a staid presence, but they are always saying something to the effect of "who the hell is Harshad Mehta?" or "Here's hoping this is the last we see of Harshad Mehta." Is there anything more to them? We do not know.

Releasing a week after Netflix's Bad Boy Billionaires: India, a series around Indian businessmen defrauding the Indian public and escaping legal punishment, SonyLIV's Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story is in a similar vein. It is about unlimited ambition, manufacturing a talisman-like image, and then losing control of it. Scam 1992 gets the smaller details of the milieu right, like how the many characters effortlessly switch to Gujarati, the ghee-khichdi, and the overall lingo that seems to be rolling off the tongues of its characters. But where the show falls short is its inability to investigate the mind of a compulsive liar like Harshad, who even went so far to implicate former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in his case with the help of a dramatic press conference, where he presented an indelible image of a suitcase filled with cash.

The show seems to be lacking a point of view beyond the many newspaper reports, where events appear according to the datelines of the reports. The 10-part series even goes so far as to argue how Harshad was a victim of political enmity.

There is a fine line between the 'bigger picture' and actively pursuing sympathy for one's unreliable protagonist, a line this show does not seem to be minding while treading on the really thin ice it affords itself. 

It is impossible to dismiss Hansal's series, considering the visible research gone into unearthing the many threads of the Harshad Mehta story. However, one also hoped that the makers would find something beyond the obvious – greed is bad. As a portrait of a man, who constantly played the system, and had enough hubris to think that he could get away with robbing the middle class' savings as a part of his get-rich-quick scheme, the series seems awfully superficial.

In spite of all the research, the show never quite transports us into Harshad's mind — the greed, the compulsive need to be surrounded by materialist things, the arrogance of taking on the government, and the tragedy of a 'pioneer' turned into an outcast.

Scam 1992: The Story of Harshad Mehta is streaming on SonyLIV.

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