Jamtara Review: Season 2 is Shapeless, Layered, Tense

Based on the infamous phishing scams, Jamtara is streaming on Netflix
Jamtara Review: Season 2 is Shapeless, Layered, Tense

Is being scammed funny? The second season of Jamtara, based on the phishing scams that emanated like hot, blinding rays from Jharkhand’s Jamtara district, seems to think so. It follows, sympathetically, the lives of scammers — Sunny (Sparsh Shrivastav), his wife Gudiya (Monika Panwar), and his brother Rocky (Anshumaan Pushkar) — whose operations get co-opted and eventually expanded with the help of the wily, local politicians — Brajesh (Amit Sial) and his aunt and opponent, the ex-chief minister Ganga (Seema Pahwa) — who have flung their moral compass into the grime-stained wind.

Everyone is morally fraught. It is only a matter of degrees. In the midst of this is an investigation into these scams by Superintendent of Police Dolly, (Aksha Pardasany) and Sub Inspector Biswa Pathak (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), who are constantly being propelled or pressurised by the powers-that-be.

Be warned: You cannot watch this season meaningfully without watching a twenty-minute recap. The writing in this second season turns Jamtara into a chaotic, tense, unwieldy and shapeless vortex. Often a character props up, a storyline resurfaces, and you go “Aha! I had forgotten about you.” This labour of remembering on part of the audience feels unearned because the first season was Netflix's dry stab at rooted storytelling, leaving neither stain or style worth revisiting. The second season fares much better.

Directed by Soumendra Padhi and written by Trisant Shrivastava, there is no sympathy or worry for those who are scammed — men, women, politicians, plebeians, educated, uneducated — in Jamtara. A dance instructor is called by someone pretending to be from a bank and over the course of the conversation, trusting the other end of the call, he gives his one-time password (OTP). The call ends, he puts his phone down, and we are given a shot of the scammer’s account being credited with money. The instructor, the scam-ee, goes back to his class and continues dancing. He doesn’t yet know he’s been scammed because the show isn’t interested in that — in the personal aftermath of being cheated. The focus, instead, is on the lives of the scammers, on the socio-political fallout from the expansion of such operations. On how they fall on either side of the political divide.

This season, Gudiya, armed with her deadpan — but not passive — intensity, with the blessings of Ganga runs for local office against Brajesh who physically assaulted her in the previous season, using the scam money to push victory forcefully through. This isn’t virtuous revenge. It is the kind of revenge that is plotted over piles of dead bodies, cash transfers, kidnappings, and lynchings. And yet, the narrative conspires and collects your affection so accurately, you root for her.

By not showing the aftermath of the scam on the life of the scammed, Jamtara makes phishing seem like a vanilla enterprise of affectless theft, refusing to distinguish being enterprising from being exploitative. The show makes it look easy and it makes the consequences look surmountable. Even when the police are closing in on the phishing gang, your worries are reserved for the scammers, for their wit, their tact, their bubbling minds.

It is this rowdy collection of events — an impending election, people swaying between parties, the creation of new scams as older ones wither in potency — and a relentless puncture of details, like calling an avocado “angrezon ka papita”, from which the show draws its propulsive force. One of the most arresting visuals, lensed by Sayak Bhattacharya taking over Kaushal Shah’s dust-caked first season, is of a banyan tree in Adivasi land, in the middle of nowhere, with phones dangling like roots; sunlight reflecting off the screens as the phones move in the wind. The scale — and grotesque beauty — of the enterprise suddenly feels jarring.

Also troubling is how Jamtara persistently refuses to take caste more seriously. In the first season, Gudiya, who belongs to the Mondal caste, notes, “Jiske paas paisa hai, vohi thakur, vohi brahmin (If you have cash, you’re the thakur, you’re the brahmin),” conflating caste and class in a world that allows the two to be conflated. But the schism is not just economic. It is socio-economic. What of that?

With its cliffhanger ending, the first season of Jamtara was Netflix India doing what a lot of Indian streaming platforms had found an appetite for around 2019-20 — incomplete storytelling; creating a first season that ends with such spectacular ambiguity, with so many threads unaccounted for, that the audience should feel a need for a second season. The audience was less invested in what would happen in the next season than it was frustrated by the futile investment of time because the story refused to reach a conclusion. The art of a cliffhanger is to release just enough tension for most if not all the conflicts to feel resolved, while something larger throbs, something less immediate, but more important that keeps you yearning for the world, if not the specific story to continue.

This second season heralds a change, with screenwriting lessons learnt. Instead of 10 episodes, we have eight, each with a run time between 40 to 60 minutes. The move towards longform duration from sitcom duration — each episode was 25 minutes long in the first season — shows gumption. The ending of the second season, too, promises another unfurling, without leaving too much hung to dry. Along with gumption, there’s overconfidence, with the narrative taking up issues of demonetisation and cow vigilantes as side-plots, but not giving these any political heft nor moral perspective. A mere passing reference folded into a side-character’s trajectory, as if to tell us, “We know what is happening in the world, we aren’t playing wilfully ignorant artists". It is too much, though, this performance of knowledge. One on the one hand you wish Jamtara had dug deeper instead of spread wider. But on the other hand, who has ever preferred mousy mouthings to brash overconfidence?

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