The Whistleblower review: SonyLIV show is an engaging primer on the Vyapam scam
The events in The Whistleblower are fictional recreations of the real-life scam that was first uncovered in 2009, and then became national headlines in 2013.
Nothing spawns copy-cats in India quite like something successful. Whether it’s the highly regularised ‘duplicate goods’ available at nearly every traffic light in the country, our education system mass-producing replicas of one another, or even our film industries. Everyone seems to want to retrace the steps of the most recent ‘successful’ undertaking in their vicinity.
When I saw the teaser of Sony LIV’s new original, The Whistleblower, I was reminded of their flagship show from last year, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story. So vivid was the similarity for my eyes and ears, that even when the show’s theme music (by Ketan Sodha) played I was reminded of Achint Thakkar’s banger opening credits theme. Another thing that most people will notice is Hemant Kher, the actor who played Pratik Gandhi’s elder brother in Scam 1992, is also playing a significant part. Add to this a smug voice-over of the protagonist, Sanket (Ritwik Bhowmik) who says things like “If necessity is the mother of invention, then kick is the mother of fucks ups.” One peek at the credits and it’s not surprising to learn that it’s possibly the writer of Corporate and Fashion (Ajay Monga) who came up with this line. One might think it’s already a lost cause by now, but then the scam kicks in. And not only is it a whole lot more dense than Harshad Mehta’s, but it’s also a whole lot murkier the more one gets immersed into it.
The Whistleblower is engaging for the most part. But in a nation of simple-minded folk (including the writer himself) whose memory is only as good as the last newspaper headline they read, and who need to be spoon-fed carefully machinated scams with generous portions of familiar faces and ‘entertainment’, the show created by Ritesh Modi paints a stark picture of the vast expanses of the Vyapam scam. It unravels the nuances of an enterprise, which left a stack of corpses in its wake.
The events in this series are fictional recreations of the real-life scam that was first uncovered in 2009, and then became national headlines in 2013. Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal (Vyapam) is rechristened as Rajya Pariksha Mandal (RPM) here, a body that conducts many entry-level examinations for the public services like police, administrative services and even the PMT (Pre-medical Test) required to apply to the country’s top medical colleges. It’s not the first time we’re witnessing this scam being depicted in a film/show. Prakash Jha’s Apaharan (2004) had something similar, where the protagonist Ajay Shastri (Ajay Devgn) misses out on a police job after paying a bribe, because of his principled father. Munnabhai MBBS showed its lovable goon protagonist sending someone else to write his pre-medical entrance test. The film is referenced more than once in the show, just in case, the audience has trouble understanding what a ‘proxy’ looks like. There’s also Why Cheat India, which ensures Emraan Hashmi uses his smarmy screen presence to dip his toes in the ‘scam’ in the Education sector in pure Jannat fashion.
It’s a fascinating premise if you think about it. The education system, envisioned as the ultimate leveler in a country as unequal as India, is found to favour the privileged and therefore hacked by a few people so that the oppressed can fall into deeper debt with the promise for a better life. “Do you know how much a Doctor groom gets as a dowry these days?” a character asks a hapless farmer before coaxing him to sell all of his lands and use the money to ‘invest’ in his son. It’s almost as warped as the wild west, where concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘morals’ change on an hourly basis.
The plot of The Whistleblower, for all its shticks, unravels like a systematic postmortem. Sanket (Ritwik Bhowmik) plays a grey protagonist, a final-year M.D student who likes to party with cough syrup on dry days, and is the cocky, upper-class brat, who seems to have borrowed his life’s mantra from Disha Patani (in Malang) where she says “... to live life from one high to the next”. His voice-over is so smug, it could put early Emraan Hashmi movies to shame. A wizkid with a saint for a father (Sachin Khedekar), who is also the founder and a dean of a medical college, our poor little rich boy gets sucked into the dark side. The voiceover recounts again and again, how he is amoral and how much he regrets getting embroiled into the scam of a lifetime.
Sanket is a brilliant student and is merely two months away from his M.D degree, and yet he’s impressed by Jaideep Jatav’s (a nearly flawless Ravi Kishen) empire. For a ‘kick’, he agrees to appear as a candidate for one of Jatav’s clients, getting a favour of his own in exchange. The farther he gets into the scheme, Sanket begins to realise how deeply the scam has permeated into the soil of the state of M.P. Everyone seems to be in on it, making all of them potential threats. Unsurprisingly, after a tragedy, Sanket is forced to become the whistleblower.
Ravi Kishen’s Jaideep Jatav is his meatiest role since Mukkabaaz (2017), a product of his oppression as much as a beacon of ‘India Shining’. Jatav is a man, who has come to terms with the fact that if he’s tactful enough, he can have pretty much anything he ever desires. As someone who has arguably faced discrimination from an early age, the realisation about the depths of corruption in India must have come as an elixir of life. Kishen’s performance is a smart one, where he dials it down by several notches from his usual pitch, and that makes his eventual meltdowns even more picturesque. The supporting cast including Hemant Kher, Ashish Verma are really good for their parts.
Bhowmik, as the lead star of the series, is adequate like the show. Starting out in last year’s Bandish Bandits (where he was strictly ‘not bad’ as well), there’s a sense that he suffers from what I like to call the Shahid Kapoor problem. There’s a requisite amount of skill, lots of good intention, but being handed substandard dialogue in crucial scenes and/or not getting enough good direction, make him seem like a lesser actor. Still, there are moments where he shines, like for example: when he meets the character of Jatav for the first time, and he communicates his ‘conversion’ wholly by his body language.
The Whistleblower, like Scam 1992, will surely enlighten many people about the constant barrage of headlines about some impersonators being caught at test centres. If nothing, it will make some people care about the trail of suspicious deaths (around 64 in the real Vyapam scam) that it left behind. One thing where this show scores over Scam 1992, is the lack of a charismatic person like Pratik Gandhi-figure at the centre of this show. Which actually works in its favour because that makes it all the more likely for the people to focus on the deeds, rather than a messiah’s one-liners. Hopefully we won’t miss the point of the show here.
The series is streaming on SONY LIV.
Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based out of Delhi NCR.
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