Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story is perhaps the most challenging directorial work by National Award-winning director Hansal Mehta till date. The web series spanning ten episodes, each with a running time of an hour, is a bio-fiction on the life, rise and fall of Harshad Mehta, one of the most controversial figures in India’s financial history from the 1980s into the turn of the 21st century. It is based on The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away, a book by Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu, the journalists who broke the story.
Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story unfolds via the voice-over of Sucheta Dalal, said to be Indian journalism’s first woman financial journalist, who first got wind of the massive financial scam, investigated it with great determination, persistence and industry and began to draw attention to it through a series of articles in The Times of India, where she was then looking after the financial pages. This provides an interesting perspective of the protagonist, Harshad Mehta, who became the most successful ‘jobber’ at the Bombay Stock Exchange within a year of his having entered the ‘ring’. Interesting, because we get the story of the ‘Amitabh Bachchan of the Stock Market’ or ‘The Big Bull’, as he came to be known as from the very person who was determined to expose his fraud to the extent of around Rs 5,000 crores.
The two big challenges Hansal Mehta faced are – one, how to frame a bio-fiction of a ‘negative’ personality dramatically enough to draw eyeballs to the web series and two, how to manipulate the craft of the cinematic language such as script, editing, dialogue, cinematography, music, acting, etc. to create a convincing and engaging bio-fiction that makes for a great web series without being swamped under the life story of Harshad Mehta. It has to be said Mehta has managed to achieve both. We would normally expect the narrative to be biased against Harshad Mehta as one of the biggest financial fraudsters in India during his time, which he was. Yet, he is humanized and well-fleshed out by Mehta as we see him evolving from an ordinary man living in a Ghatkopar chawl with his family to the most powerful man in the country who took every top financial institution – banking and government and its subsidiaries – for a ride. From an odd-job man with an uncertain income, he rose to own assets worth around crores and crores and lived with his family in a 15,000 square foot, sea-facing residence in Worli with a swimming pool and a golf course built in. This makes us invest in him and consequently, the series as well.
The focus of the entire narrative is more on Harshad Mehta and less on Sucheta Dalal, who chases the inside story of Harshad Mehta as if her life depends on it, helped along the way by her colleague Debashish Basu. But this is not just a bio-pic of Harshad Mehta. The series reaches out to a larger horizon that charts an archival collage with the image of a ‘small’ world in Bombay inside the ‘larger’ Bombay from the 1980s into 1990s when there was no internet and no mobile phone and technically, the stock exchange was both hero and villain as shares, stocks and bonds could not be traded across the Net. The minute detailing of every frame is superb, investing the film with the realism of a documentary yet sustaining the suspense of a fictional thriller.
The close bonding between the two brothers, Harshad and Ashwin, adds to the warmth of this exciting story. But his family’s quiet acquiescence with whatever he does appear a mite unconvincing. His wife, Jyoti, does not complain and the growing children are like robots following their father. The wives and the mother are turned into shadowy figures through the series though the script suggests the backdrop of a happy family in the beginning. The heads of the big banks Harshad constantly communicates with and convinces with his business talk are much too stiff and rigid and their scenes could well have been trimmed. The scenes of Harshad’s downfall makes the viewer move on to his side because as Dalal rightly points out that it is not possible for a single man to execute such a gigantic fraud. But the others involved are either let off on bail or go scot-free and it is Harshad alone who pays for the scam and falls as suddenly as he rose.
The performances stand out with Pratik Gandhi carrying the entire film on his slender shoulders brilliantly. His body language, his slightly crooked smile, his cool confidence, his evolution from a slightly shaky young man, who once wanted to play cricket, to becoming one of the richest, egoistic and arrogant men in India is essayed with incredible conviction by Gandhi. His little-known face minus the halo of a famous star adds even more authenticity to the character. Shreya Dhanwantary as Sucheta Dalal is natural, spontaneous and believable from beginning to end, specially when she realises that she ought to get the other side of the story too.
Of the rest of the cast, Ananth Narayan Mahadevan as the RBI Head has significant footage and does it with the dignity it demands and the same goes for the ruthless and cool Rajat Kapoor as the CBI officer, who is overruled by his boss played by Lalit Parimoo. In fact, Hansal Mehta has put together a formidable cast of actors drawn from the big and small screens and they all do justice to their roles. KK Raina gives an electrifying performance as a character that vacillates between a silent dignity to a terrified and nervous old man.
Pratik Mehta’s cinematography makes optimum use of the Bombay skyline in panning shots opening with a long shot of Queen’s Necklace to shift to the large hall of the TOI office with RK Lakshman’s ‘common man’ gracing one entire wall. The cinematography expertly captures other locations such as the golf course that motivates Mehta to build a golf course inside his palatial mansion, or the interiors of the offices of the RBI, the SBI and all the other banks that Mehta deals with. The deft and skillful editing (Kunal Walve) is in keeping with the incredible dynamism and ceaseless action in Harshad Mehta’s life while the background music goes well with the suspenseful ambience of the twists and turns the series takes.
Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story is well worth a watch. What’s more, one need not know the nitty-gritties of how stock brokers or jobbers or brokers or trading agents work or how the financial wheels of the country keep rolling. And that is saying something.
Hindi, Drama, Thriller, Color