Jamtara Review: Netflix’s Tepid and Messy Romance With Rural India

This web-series, 10 episodes, 25 minutes each, is a fragile reconstruction of the Jharkhand phishing scam it is based on. It’s inessential viewing.
Jamtara Review: Netflix’s Tepid and Messy Romance With Rural India

Director: Soumendra Padhi
Writer: Trishant Srivastava
Cast: Sparsh Shrivastav, Anshumaan Pushkar, Monika Panwar, Aksha Pardasany, Amit Sial
Streaming Platform: Netflix

I try not to use the word 'romance' too often; for me, it has a very specific connotation which I should clear on the outset. Jamtara's frames (Kaushal Shah's dust filtered cinematography), and the way the web-series, streaming on Netflix, is colour corrected, reeks of a desire to capture the viewer's imagination, transporting it to an elevated reality- the dust bungled rural landscape of Jharkhand. That is the romance here- to elevate, to capture. 

Not all romances work. This one barely does. 

The web-show isn't concerned about how they got together to scam people. It is much more interested in the consequences of this phishing. As a narrative choice, you are set up for failure.

Set in the village of Jamtara (which is pronounced differently by different people- JamTARA, JAAMtaDa) it tells the story of youth, mostly juvenile, involved in an elaborate phishing scam, asking strangers for their credit card details, and transferring funds from their accounts. This is based on a true story; the name of the village too, is unchanged. 

But the web-show, spanning 10 episodes, about 25 minutes each, isn't concerned about how they got together to scam people- the genesis of the idea, the first call, the convincing of friends, how they source the phone numbers to call. It is much more interested in the consequences of this phishing. Barely 3-5 minutes is given per episode to show how they phish. (Some comical, some passable, some silly) The rest is all consequence. As a narrative choice, you are set up for failure. You want to capture the audience's empathy for these characters without really setting up the characters or their intentions. 

There is Sunny, the street smart 17 year old who runs this elaborate scam (Sparsh Shrivastav, unfenced and earnest). His wife, Gudiya, (a stoic, sensational Monika Panwar) who marries him for the money he rakes in. His cousin brother, Rocky, (Anshumaan Pushkar) a stooge for a political henchman of the village. Then there is Brajesh, the henchman himself- evil dripping from his manicured moustache (Amit Sial's caricature performance for a caricature character). There is also a Superintendent of Police, Dolly, (Aksha Pardasany) whose character is about as watered down, and unimpressive as it gets. 

The consequences here are wide and varied. You have the political henchman who wants to take 50% of the profits the kids brew. You have the new SP, Dolly, who wants to get to the bottom of the scam and make arrests- Sunny, Rocky, Brajesh and their entourage. Then you also have the rivalry of Sunny and Rocky, the former unwilling to work for Brajesh. 

So you end up with an impossible triad. If you are rooting for Dolly, you have discarded Rocky and Sunny. If you side with Sunny, then Rocky (by extension, Brajesh) and Dolly are forsaken. Similarly for Rocky. To be able to choose only one character to root for is an active choice of annihilating the rest. Add to it that none of the characters are interesting at the most obvious level, and the loosely constructed plot is dangerously close to collapsing. For fun then, you try digging into the subtext. 

At one point, Gudiya asks Sunny what he will do with all the money he earns. He says he is earning to become the richest man in Jamtara. That's all we get for his 'intent'. If you take a second more to dwell on his answer, you will find the omniscient stench of capitalism- of wealth lusting after more wealth, the rich getting richer getting richest. I thought, what will happen once he becomes the richest man of Jamtara? He would want to then be the richest man of Jharkhand, then India perhaps too- the dreams keep unspooling. Then, the rest of the show just feels like a moral lesson on what this greed can make you do and become. 

Gudiya, on the other hand is the poster child of the Westward looking young, dreaming in a localized village in a globalized world. She doesn't bother about caste, for her it is about class- money. ("Jiske paas paisa hai, vohi thakur, vohi brahman") Here too, if you see Gudiya as a metaphor, the show becomes a rod warning you against dreaming too much, too soon. 

In the mix, you have a Sacred Games moment- a force fitting of Indian mythology into the narrative. You have a cult simmering on the side, predicting the implosion of Jamtara, stating that in the Mahabharata it was only Sanjaya, the man who watched the battle, narrating its every moment to the blind king, who remained alive. They want to be him. They shave their heads, and speak only in metaphors- its agonizing, and unnecessary. I wondered for a second if Gudiya is supposed to be Draupadi here. There is a vastra-haran. She does get pawned. There is the looming sense that she is the strong willed woman who will bring the plot together. I strain to think of more parallels. But that's the problem- I don't want to think of more parallels. These characters don't demand or deserve that much thought, sketched out briefly, and written unevenly. 

The series is constructed to have a second season. It ends on a "I want to know what happens next" note. But this note, to endure long enough in the imagination of the viewer needs characters who endure in the aftermath of the binge. Here, that just doesn't happen. Do I want to know what comes next? Yes. If you ask me this same question a month later, will my answer have changed? Also, yes.

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