Still from the trailer of Scam 1992- The Harshad Mehta Story, Picture Courtesy: YouTube

Scam 1992- The Harshad Mehta Story Review: OG bad-boy billionaire!

By Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Updated: 13 October, 2020 08:27 IST

For a wider theme, Scam 1992 seems pitched as more of an insider-outsider story, set in the gated markets, once controlled by the old elite.

Scam 1992- The Harshad Mehta Story
On: SonyLIV
Director: Hansal Mehta
Cast: Pratik Gandhi, Shreya Dhanwanthary

Hansal Mehta has directed this series, on Harshad Mehta. Unsure if they're related; pretty sure, Hansal must've been confused with Harshad as a slip of tongue for their similar names forever. Also helps (if I'm not mistaken), both Hansal and Harshad are Bombayites of Gujarati descent, which allows the former a certain nuance/peek into the latter's life for a biopic series, that could be lost on a casual researcher; quite possible.

Watch the trailer right here:

Which isn't to suggest that enough isn't already known about Harshad Mehta—perhaps the only stock-market broker that regular Indians had ever heard of since he came on the scene. And still the best-known Big Bull, even when he's no more. I was of course a kid, unversed in economics when the securities' scam centred on Harshad broke in 1992.

And yet there are two images that sort of define Harshad for me, like for many others still. One was him posing against his swanky Lexus sedan for an India Today magazine cover-story. This series charts his rise to that point.

The other is the infamous press conference clip (brought to Indian homes by the video-magazine Newstrack, if I recall right), where Harshad and his lawyer Ram Jethmalani pulled out a large suitcase to prove that you could indeed stuff Rs 1 crore into it. That is what Harshad had allegedly paid as protection money to the then Indian Prime Minister.

Scam 1992, over ten episodes and nine hours, patiently decodes this fall—in what effectively turned out to be the biggest scam in India's stock-market history. Here's another thing for GenZ/millennials to munch on: The word scam itself was used first in Indian journalese for a financial fraud, with due to respect to Harshad Mehta alone. It's a cliché now.

In the same way that every political scandal since Nixon's Watergate has been called some '-gate' or the other; or all mainstream movie industries after Hollywood get a '-wood' suffixed to their first alphabet.
Speaking of which, this is not a typically Hollywood/Bollywood/Kollywood kinda series. Remarkably engaging yet understated, shorn of filminess/flamboyance—with a subtle plus striking background score; pithy but powerful lines; and a smart production design that naturally captures the unchanged landscape of South Bombay—the portrait of Harshad Mehta that emerges through the series is a lot closer to how he would've actually been; fitting into the times that were a-changin'.

Totally opposite of say a coke-snorting Leo in Wolf of Wall Street—he's a teetotaler, vegetarian, quietly scheming number-cruncher, whose idea of a party is Thums Up served with a Bachchan song. It is the reality for a lot of India's top businessman; why, even politicians. They derive their high from something greater/dangerous/unknown/divine, perhaps. One could argue that the script ends up humanising the crook Harshad Mehta in return. But then, he was human; no?

For a wider theme, Scam 1992 seems pitched as more of an insider-outsider story—set in the gated markets, once controlled by the old elite. It's the same worldview that framed the fairytale biopic of another middleclass hero from the same timeline—Dhirubhai Ambani, in Mani Ratnam's Guru (2007), with Abhishek Bachchan as Ambani Sr. Bachchan Jr, I'm told, is also slated to play Harshad Mehta in a forthcoming biopic, The Big Bull, which I can't imagine being similar to this.

For inspiration this one draws more from another journalistic procedural, All The President's Men (1976; on the aforementioned Watergate scandal), if you may. Given that The Times of India reporter Sucheta Dalal—chasing leads to a scam, through all its complicated financial jugglery, and a star source—forms a parallel point of view. The series is chiefly based on Dalal and Debashish Basu's book of roughly the same name. As stories go, this is the sort that one instantly dubs as 'ballsy' or 'bold'.

Because it doesn't once shy away from naming names. Actually it does, once—naming Apollo Tyres, Polo Steel. Which is mildly unfair for all the other dirty linen being washed on screen—from crooks at Citibank, CBI, SBI, UTI, all through the corporate maze, into favoured stocks, namely SPIC, ACC, ONGC, Coal India...

What you see is what you get. Making this appear to me as a much-awaited, respectful age of intelligent television, which unsurprisingly also coincides with a golden phase for discovering gems for acting talents—series after series.

In this case, the disarmingly natural leads, Pratik Gandhi (as Mehta), Shreya Dhanwanthary (as Dalal), to start with; but stretching across to the entire ensemble cast, curated with such precision and care—Harshad's brother Ashwin, their wives, the bears of Dalal Street, the suits in Bombay bardrooms, the babus from Delhi…

They keep you hooked with their casual charm, cool patois, in what's a detailed financial procedural—never deviating from the main stock of trade; at no moment overwhelming you with jargon. Unsentimental, thoroughly rigorous in its aim to be authentic; and as they say for novels, now true for a series such as this—unputdownable! Well done, Mr Mehta (clearly topped Aligarh, his previous best). Just so you know which Mehta I'm talking about!

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First Published: 12 October, 2020 19:02 IST

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