Director: Tushar Hiranandani
Writers: Karan Vyas, Kiran Yadnyopavit, Kedar Patankar
Cast: Gagan Dev Riar, Sana Amin Sheikh, Mukesh Tiwari, Aman Verma, Bharat Dabholkar
Streaming on: Sony LIV
When the first five episodes of dropped on September 1st, Gagan Dev Riar’s lead performance was the only thing that made an impact. But it would’ve been unfair to call him the saving grace. The Hansal Mehta-developed series had enough moving parts to suggest that the release of the next five episodes might provide a fairer picture. Given how poignant the downfall of the protagonist was in its predecessor, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020), I was cautiously optimistic about the Abdul Karim Telgi narrative. Yet, with the full season streaming now, it’s safe to say that Riar’s turn is indeed the saving grace. There is little else. On the whole, Scam 2003 is strictly middling – or ‘mid,’ as they call it these days – because it settles into more of a dull franchise formula than a narrative rhythm. I found myself scrolling through cat reels while the stamp-paper counterfieter’s story unravelled in uneven spurts. Needless to say, that’s not a good sign. Dog reels are better.
The strengths of the show – the unorthodox cast, the flowery and filmy dialogue, the wheeling and dealing, the verbal jousts – start to feel repetitive. Even Riar’s mannerisms, and his uncanny resemblance to the real Telgi, run out of context; there’s often a sense that he’s imitating the man rather than adapting him. Thankfully, the actor reins it in when it matters; he continues to play a person whose flamboyance isn’t as cool as he imagines. The dad jokes, open gait and anti-heroic swag are cringey because they’re supposed to be cringey. A lot of the show’s problems, instead, stem from director Tushar Hiranandani’s staging of scenes. Despite the density of the plot, the tone is more like Madhur Bhandarkar’s than Hansal Mehta’s. The writing, too, is more like Rajat Arora’s in terms of how every normal exchange turns into a duel of punchlines.
In isolation, perhaps the mainstream quirk is entertaining, but it seldom suits a series that looks like it’s trying to sex up a long-term procedural. When an anti-corruption team of old-timers is introduced (“bina daant ke sher” – “toothless tigers”), they make some typically colourful arrests. One of these features them picking up a sleazy cop at a dance bar – they literally dance their way into the joint, bringing to mind the cartoonish subordinates of Om Puri in Gupt (1997). Even the juxtaposition of Telgi getting arrested at an Ajmeri mosque with a montage of its planning is awkward at best. A song scoring his capture is intercut with the soundscape of people talking and rushing, a creative decision that does justice to neither of the threads.
An example of the quirk done well is a scene where Telgi celebrates his return from prison. He throws a lavish party for all the greedy politicians and ‘associates’ in his apartment, determined to bolster his network and double down on his business. A famous Satya (1998) track plays in the living room, and all the drunken men start to sing and dance. In the balcony, however, Telgi is having a serious conversation with his brother. His ego reaches so high that, in a moment of defiance, he unzips and urinates from his balcony, punctuating this act with that iconic Bhiku Mhatre line from the film. At another point, an officer – the kind of grizzled veteran that movie governments tend to call on – interrogates Telgi in a mock Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) format. This infusion of the era’s pop culture into Telgi’s arc is a page from the Scam 1992 book. It’s a nice way to suggest that, at the end of the day, life is never beyond the fiction that it inspires.
But these little triumphs are few and far between. A lot happens in these five episodes. Maharashtra and Karnataka get into a political slugfest to capture Telgi before the general elections; several new characters jump onto the bandwagon; he is diagnosed with HIV, his family life slowly goes to pieces and his associates keep betraying him to save their own backsides. The supporting cast of familiar faces playing unfamiliar roles – Mukesh Tiwari (Suryapratap Gehlot), Bharat Dabholkar (Jadhav), Aman Verma (CP Jagdish Suri)– is a misfire. The background score is like a mosquito buzzing about our ears, even in the scenes that require ambience sounds or silence. It’s used as a device of forced urgency, because the sequences themselves lack polish. Again, Telgi’s religious identity is very much a subset of his rage – his impoverished past in a Muslim family turns honest aspiration into desperate ambition. When he makes money, he is not succeeding so much as proving a point. When he speaks, his confidence morphs into arrogance. I like that this is never really spelt out – it never reduces Telgi to the sound of his name – but it’s hard to ignore that the series also shies away from his social dimensions. There is a reluctance to link the history of the early 2000s to his journey, which, in the long run, separates Scam 2003 from the India it is based in.
One can detect the broader intent of the narrative. The walls are closing in on Telgi, but he’s so busy defeating his own demons that the only way he can lose is if he chooses to. That’s where the passing moments with his family – a dying mother, a disillusioned wife, a sad daughter – come into focus. The idea is to show Telgi as an addict who keeps relapsing; he keeps promising his wife that he will reform, only to get pulled back into a war he loves to fight. Despite Riar’s control, the emotional scenes lack a sense of gravity. It’s the family that convinces the criminal to quit on his own terms, but the busy setting never lets his guilt truly shine through. It works on paper – this illusion of a chaotic head tamed by the heart – but the result feels like a copout. The treatment veers dangerously close to asking for our sympathy, not empathy. All that remains after ten episodes, then, is a performance. A performance that – if described by an analogy-loving character in the show – plays out like a Sachin Tendulkar knock in the Nineties. The wickets keep falling around him. And the channel is changed the second he is dismissed.