The Big Bull, On DisneyPlus Hotstar, Is A Rushed Portrait Of A Slow-Burning Legacy, Film Companion

Director: Kookie Gulati
Writers: Kookie Gulati, Arjun Dhawan; Ritesh Shah
Cinematography: Vishnu Shah
Editor: Dharmendra Sharma
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Ileana D’Cruz, Saurabh Shukla, Ram Kapoor, Mahesh Manjrekar, Sohum Shah and Samir Soni
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

The comparisons are unfair but inevitable. The Big Bull, a feature-length biopic based on (in)famous stockbroker Harshad Mehta’s life, comes six months after the critically acclaimed long-form series, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story. Newcomer Pratik Gandhi’s titular performance was the highlight of a breakout year for Indian web television. But The Big Bull, plying on a near-identical narrative journey, lacks more than just first-mover advantage. One suspects that even if the dense 155-minute film had emerged in the same week as its well-constructed 10-episode counterpart, the chasm in class, style and viewer satisfaction might have reflected the distinction between ODI cricket and Test cricket. When the subject is common, it’s the medium that makes all the difference. Ironically, this isn’t the first time co-producer Ajay Devgn has been involved in a period-twinning saga. In 2002, his Bhagat Singh biopic (The Legend of Bhagat Singh) hit cinemas the same day as the Bobby Deol-starring 23rd March 1931: Shaheed. It’s another matter that neither of them succeeded. 

As is the case with most Hindi-language biopics, the limitations of The Big Bull are a direct consequence of its rapidly compressed form. It’s not as simple as recommending this film as a crash course in Harshad Mehta-ness to those who lack the patience and bandwidth to consume a series. There’s a more fundamental problem. Whereas Scam 1992 earned the luxury of greyness – Gandhi’s Mehta had the time to be designed as both high-profile victim and charismatic villain – The Big Bull deals in strictly black and white shades. Abhishek Bachchan’s Mehta is Hemant Shah, a man whose legacy is romanticized so hard that it stops just short of having a citizen declare “he’s not the hero we deserve but the one we need” in the climax. The film erroneously injects its virginal 1990s palette with a narrative wisdom of hindsight – it repeatedly makes its characters state how Shah is the sole trigger of economic liberalisation, and how his Robin-Hood-esque crimes were necessary to undo the systemic crimes that left India tittering on the brink of bankruptcy. Even though the protagonist is presented as an egoistic middle-class man, the film itself whitewashes India’s ultimate icon of moral ambiguity. Even though a power-drunk Shah is shown cackling like a Bollywood baddie behind closed doors, the story refuses to acknowledge this duality – instead choosing to service the patriotic image he peddles, even getting the film’s narrator (Ileana D’Cruz’s one-note version of financial journalist Sucheta Dalal) to consider him as an all-out national saviour (“maybe he taught a country how to dream”). In short, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that an anthem featuring Hemant Shah jogging across Dalal Street wrapped in the tricolour was part of the original theatrical cut. 

The Big Bull opens in 2020, with veteran journalist Meena Rao (D’Cruz, wearing her greying Barfi! hairdo) unveiling her book, The Big Bull, at a posh MBA institute. She presumes that the students there have a good three hours to kill, and so starts to narrate Hemant Shah’s life story. Unfortunately, even this flashback is divided into two timelines – the “present” featuring a wealthy Shah already fighting his case through a Ram Jethmalani stand-in (Ram Kapoor) that allows for a hero-entry scene in a purple silk robe, and the “past” featuring a meteoric chawls-to-penthouse rise that advances too quickly to register Shah’s change in lifestyle and attitude. Blink and you’ll miss Shah’s grasp of insider trading, his first ‘scheme’ involving a local right-wing leader, his monopoly of the BSE trading floor, and his Sitaraman-sized access to government funds. Blink and you’ll hopefully miss a romantic song between Shah and wife in a Delhi five-star hotel on one of his early business trips. Blink and you might not miss the absurd editing, which incidentally emulates the blink of a human eye by using blackouts as visual transitions. 

Dozens of supporting characters are distilled into generic personalities – Saurabh Shukla (who again uses eating/belching as an invaluable character trait) as a displeased Manu Mundhra stand-in, Samir Soni as the sheepish face of the ruling party, and worst of all, Shah’s brother (played by Sohum Shah) is reduced to the cowardly yin to Hemant’s fearless yang. There is no space for silence in the film; the background score is everywhere, but oozes the urgency of an action thriller about a plane crash instead of a decade-long financial thriller. 

In this cinematic equivalent of a pre-pandemic Virar Fast at peak hour, Abhishek Bachchan’s version of Harshad Mehta is far more compelling than the story it defines. The Guru hangover is obvious, but not a bad thing in terms of Bollywood’s Gujarati-businessman-hero landscape. Bachchan’s nice-guy image in fact elevates the inherent edginess of someone like Mehta. There are times when he seems to be swimming against the film’s simplistic perception of the protagonist – especially in scenes that explore Hemant Shah’s hustle in the face of a crippled economy. The movie eventually reduces Shah to an idea, but Bachchan’s tailormade sincerity is perhaps the only thing that makes The Big Bull intermittently watchable. 

It’s not so much about a sense of authenticity or accent as the cultural spirit of his role. His confidence often morphs into obsession and back into righteousness within the same scene, which hints at Shah as sort of a two-faced character putting on a philanthropic act for the world. If only the filmmakers recognized this too, maybe The Big Bull might have been a fairer picture of a figure who subverted the notion of fairness. And maybe the film might have become more than a glorified highlights package.

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