It was October 2020; everyone said the lockdown's over but we should still socially distance if we can. Instead my mother and I decided to risk taking a flight out of Bombay, where we'd been locked-down, and head home to our farm in a tiny village in Haryana. There, under home-quarantine (after we tested positive for a mild bout of COVID-19 within days of our flight), we were truly at the mercy of technology to kill time. Someone then told me we simply must watch Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, a tale of the rise and subsequent fall of Harshad Mehta, the "Big Bull" of the Bombay Stock Exchange through the late 80s and 90s. After some struggle with getting a SonyLiv account running, my mother and I strapped ourselves in for the ride.
Like most people, both of us have only a basic understanding of how stock markets operate and usually the heavy finance jargon makes my eyes glaze over so I approached this much talked about show with some trepidation. Lo and behold, I was surprised to find that right from its opening scene, when a profusely sweating Sharad Bellary (played by the always reliable Sharib Hashmi) meets India's beloved "Common Man" Mr. R.K. Laxman, I was instantly charmed. What followed was the tale of a man most uncommon, told with such simplicity that I not only understood most of it and followed along the twists in the tale of this ten-episode series but in fact stayed riveted, the cold, cough and body aches notwithstanding.
The ability of director Hansal Mehta and his team of writers, Sumit Purohit and Saurav Dey, to break down the complexity inherent to the stock trading world into a surprisingly human story of greed, rebellion and eventual downfall is their biggest accomplishment. They're ably aided in their efforts to do so by the performances of Pratik Gandhi, playing the titular Harshad Mehta, and of Shweta Dhanwanthary, playing journalist and Harshad's foil Sucheta Dalal.
Pratik lends Harshad an air of the everyman, someone you'd want to invite home for tea to counsel your wayward younger son or just have him regale you with his crazy larger-than-life ideas. As you watch his journey, you know cerebrally what happened was wrong and while it may not entirely have been against the letter of the law, it was definitely unethical. And yet, I was surprised to find myself liking the guy! I found his dogged determination to have everything that was refused to him, the fearlessness of his actions and even his megalomania to be tempered with real warmth and likeability. So even when he sits across from the chairman of the SBI, owing the bank hundreds of crores, and he still wonders why he isn't being welcomed with some tea and biscuits, you can't help but laugh at his audacity.
Most of the story is a recounting of the tale as Sucheta Dalal knew it to be and so hers is the voice you hear most in a lot of the exposition. Dhanwanthary's performance is earnest and the sincerity she brings to the role gives her credibility as the moral compass of the series. It's easy to mirror her incredulous disbelief when the game is laid bare. You feel her horror and disdain reverberate within you. You want to applaud her for sticking to her convictions even when faced with recriminations from Harshad's family.
The only other female character of note is Harshad's wife, Jyoti Mehta, played quite competently by a very likeable Anjali Barot. She does well within her limited role; she has little to do beyond standing beside her husband and being either the coy or the simpering wife as the situation necessitates. Hansal Mehta builds a predominantly male-dominated world with a largely competent cast of supporting actors. For the most part, they exist only to tell the tale of Harshad's scam and we learn very little about their lives independent of it but given the complexity of everything that was unfolding on screen, this was an understandable trade-off.
What I enjoyed most though was really just how fun the show was. Nothing distracts you from Harshad's journey – not the sepia tinted frames of the somewhat clunky period set pieces, not the heavy expository monologues, not even the gimmicky cussing by the extremely watchable Satish Kaushik. With every turn of the tale I really just wanted to know what this seemingly limitless man would do next. And the show did not disappoint.
Equally fun was the opening credits sequence and choice of music at the end of every episode. Even my mother, a 70-year old self-professed addict of card games on her phone, would sit up straight and look at the TV expectantly every time she heard that first refrain at the start of every episode. This series proved to be immensely binge-able.
At the end of the series, I confess, I was more than a little conflicted about my feelings for Harshad's fate. That he should have had to face jail time for the myriad laws he broke was of course inescapable. But seeing this once fearless man dying alone in an empty corridor on the bench of a government hospital, the vast wealth he'd accumulated being eventually useless to him, left me deeply affected.
Kudos to the team of Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story for a tale well told. Recovering from COVID would really have not been the same without it.