In the bull market that is Indian streaming TV, Scam 1992 arrives to scratch a specific itch: a show with a journalistic bent. The gold standard is David Simon’s expansive productions, not just The Wire but also Show Me A Hero and The Deuce. These shows vary tonally and in subject matter, but their basic impulse is towards longform storytelling. The same can be said for Hansal Mehta’s series (streaming on SonyLIV), which tracks the rise and fall of Harshad Mehta, for a while India’s most famous stockbroker, then its most notorious scamster.
When Harshad (Pratik Gandhi) first steps onto the floor of the Bombay Stock Exchange, he’s frozen in delight, even though everyone around him is frantically buying and selling. He’s found a home—and yet, his place isn’t among the shouters. He wants to be the one who makes them shout. Because he has no wealthy backers, he establishes contacts in trade unions to keep track of management decisions, and uses that to bet on stocks (in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, still the best film in this genre, Bud Fox also got a leg up by providing insider information). Soon, Harshad is on the rise, calling the shots in the stock market, then in the money market. But his instinct is always to game the system, and eventually the system turns on him.
Scam 1992 is linear, detailed and dogged. It isn’t shy about peppering its conversations with finance talk and market jargon, but co-directors Hansal Mehta and Jai Mehta and writers Sumit Purohit, Saurav Dey, Vaibhav Vishal and Karan Vyas find inventive ways to dress up the exposition. I was encouraged by a detail in the show's first scene. A nervous whistleblower (Sharib Hashmi) arrives at the Mumbai Times of India office looking for an editor. The first person he comes across, under a large cutout of the Common Man, is cartoonist R.K. Laxman (happily, the show uses actual names, from Reserve Bank of India governor S. Venkitaramanan to prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao). They have a short exchange and Laxman deposits him in the editor’s office.
There were any number of ways that man could have ended up in the office but I can’t think of a neater solution than this. Similarly, a scene with three of Mehta’s detractors discussing the market takes place in a dance bar, not unlike Sean Parker in The Social Network yelling over the noise of a club to Mark Zuckerberg. Other scenes are constructed around cricket and golf games, over dessert in a restaurant. It’s not quite The Big Short subbing in Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie to explain financial impropriety, but it’s definitely a dose of sugar where none would have been fatal.
The ordering and drinking of tea is a recurring motif. Harshad first talks of insider trading over chai outside the stock exchange. Later, when he wants to show how financially sound he is, he gives instructions to all the local tea-shops to bill him for his fellow brokers’ expenses. In the State Bank of India office, as the '92 scam threatens to break (he’s taken ₹500 crore of their money), he's offered tea by the office boy without the boss saying anything—testament to his stature. He pronounces the tea bitter; later, when he returns their money, he says it's sweet. Tea also figures prominently in the meetings of Sucheta Dalal (Shreya Dhanwanthary), the reporter who breaks the story, with her sources.
Gandhi's sunny performance suggest how Mehta’s charisma could have overridden the ethical concerns his investors and creditors had, while Dhanwanthary’s Dalal is a closer approximation of a doughty journalist than anything Hindi film has managed in recent years. But it’s the supporting performances that really sing (credit to Mukesh Chhabra's pinpoint casting as well). There’s an excellent rogue’s gallery: Satish Kaushik as a foul-mouthed seth, his three minions like a Greek chorus, Nikhil Dwivedi and Shadaab Khan as smooth, smarmy bankers. Rajat Kapoor seems to enjoy himself playing a blunt instrument of a CBI investigator (“Surprise!” he shouts cheerfully when Harshad opens the door to a raid). Anant Mahadevan is wonderfully dry as the RBI governor, and Chirag Vohra, as Mehta’s long-time associate, is a tremendous study in moral weakness.
At 10 episodes of 50 minutes each, there’s enough time for the show to stretch out and introduce incidental characters and subplots. My favourite passage involves a SBI employee named Sitaraman (Jamini Pathak), who’s given Mehta the 500 crore and left for his son’s mundan in Palani, Tamil Nadu. Once the story breaks that Mehta is using bank funds to play the market, the SBI head sends employees to personally bring Sitaraman back. In a shorter series, this semi-comic interlude wouldn’t be possible—it’s not even necessary here. There are dozens of scenes like this, which give the impression of a whole complex world, not just whatever’s going on with Mehta.
Towards the end, there’s an attempt to say, look, Harshad might have been wrong but so was everyone else. Yet, for most of its running time, the series manages to balance its admiration for him with a clear-eyed view of the devastation he caused. Some of the most incisive acting on Gandhi’s part is the look of utter incomprehension when Harshad tries and fails to bluster his way through his problems in the later episodes. It’s rather poignant that he’s the last to realize he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy.
This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 13 October 2020.
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