Scam 2003: The Telgi Story Review: A star is born

Scam 2003 is divided into two parts. The first part, comprising five episodes, is now streaming on Sony Liv.
Scam 2003: The Telgi Story Review: A star is born
Scam 2003: The Telgi Story Review: A star is born

Director: Tushar Hiranandani
Writers: Kedar Patankar, Karan Vyas, Kiran Yadnyopavit

Cast: Gagan Dev Riar, Hemang Vyas, Vivek Mishra, Bharat Jadhav, Sana Amin Sheikh, Nandu Madhav, Talat Aziz

Streaming on: Sony Liv

A spiritual successor of Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020) but a tonal descendent of Farzi (2023), Scam 2003: The Telgi Story expands the cultural language of the Indian financial thriller. The formula is foolproof: Spice up the slow-burning mechanics of a rags-to-riches tale with a great cast of underutilized actors, present a long-term heist, and design the protagonist as villain and victim of a bad system. It’s easier said than done, of course. The con jobs are dense and technical, while the central characters are greedy crooks posing as restless heroes. The neutral gaze – one that balances tragedy with cautionary tale – is hard to maintain. That’s where the craft comes in. 

Inspired by Sanjay Singh’s book Telgi Scam: Ek Reporter ki Diary, Scam 2003 explores the life of infamous stamp-paper counterfeiter, Abdul Karim Telgi. With the first part (five out of ten episodes) now streaming on Sony Liv, it’s safe to say that the stage-setting of the Hansal Mehta-run series is potent, albeit in a been-there-done-that way. The film-making is solid, but also a bit safe.

Scam 2003: The Telgi Story
Scam 2003: The Telgi Story

Telgi’s Rags to Con Artist Story

We know the drill. The small-town entry in the 1980s: Young Telgi impresses a passenger with his silver-tongued, fruit-selling skills on a train. The filmy ambition: He vows to make it big in Bombay. The city-hustle montage: He doubles the business of the guesthouse he works at, marries the owner’s daughter, and returns home after toiling in the Gulf for seven years. The first setback: Telgi is arrested for running a fake-document racket. The jumpstart: He finds a collaborator in prison and takes baby steps into the stamp paper-vending landscape. The speedbumps: He becomes a political scapegoat, struggles to get a vendor license, and falls out with his partner. The audacity: Telgi dismantles the red tape with bribes, sweet-talking and relentless scheming. The performative charisma: Idioms and Harshad Mehta-style punchlines (“I don’t want to earn money, I want to make money” or “Be a rat, because lions get hunted”) mark his rise as the patriarch of a family of corrupt allies. And the blinding success: Everyone – ministers, cops, government servants, lawyers – lands on the Telgi payroll. The ego that birthed a Rs. 30,000 crore  scam has just begun to emerge. 

Going by the rhythms of Scam 1992, I suspect that the better half of this series – the downfall, the world closing in, the hyenas turning on their king (there I go sounding like Mehta and Telgi) – is yet to come. 

Having said that, there are some chinks in the show’s armour (so far). For starters, there’s no real context to Telgi’s hunger. He’s already a story by the time we meet him; we barely know him as a person. The reason behind his morally dubious approach to business, his disillusionment with the economy, his experience in the Gulf, his social identity, his relationship with a globalized India – all of this feels pre-written, simplified by his voice-overs, or reduced to punchy dialogue. 

What makes him tick is never clear. He is smart by virtue of being a biographical figure. I get that money is his only religion, but his status as a Muslim businessman in post-riots Bombay is rarely addressed. Secondly, a lot of screen-time involves Telgi explaining his intricate ideas to co-conspirators. But where do his plans come from? How does he know so much? Why do the others not know anything? His genius gets a bit repetitive after a while. It’s almost like the makers are worried about the narrative potential of stamp-paper (as compared to stock markets), so the exposition is passed off as a character trait. Then there’s Telgi’s fallout with his first partner Kaushal Jhaveri (a terrific Hemang Vyas), which feels weirdly abrupt. We only see Kaushal getting sidelined in a few scenes and giving Telgi the stink-eye, followed by a showdown that almost antagonizes the Gujarati man’s sensible stance. It feels like a rerun of Harshad Mehta’s spats with his brother in Scam 1992, where the maverick keeps getting warned for flying too close to the sun. 

Scam 2003: The Telgi Story
Scam 2003: The Telgi Story

Spotlight on Gagan Dev Riar

As a result, it isn’t the writing so much as a brilliant lead performance that holds this series together. Gagan Dev Riar, like Pratik Gandhi before him, is an uncut diamond. His presence seeps into every frame – a supporting character trying to trick the spotlight into focusing on him – thus turning Telgi into a larger-than-life kingpin who looks jarringly like life itself. It’s not just the fact that he’s a physical ‘counterfeit’ of the real Abdul Karim Telgi. Or that his voice sounds like he’s almost amused by our popular notions of a mastermind. Or that his everyman gait – untucked shirt, pot-bellied walk, sly grin, middle-class twitching (one where his fingers constantly roll invisible boogers) – makes the scam feel strangely personal. It’s also the fact that Riar allows the viewer to detect the subtle grammar of Telgi’s ego. 

For much of the five episodes, we see Telgi as someone who is quick to forget his humiliation – he gets beaten up, manhandled, abused and dismissed by different players. Like a real-world version of a Shah Rukh Khan action hero. This makes us perceive Telgi as an underdog, as someone who’s so obsessed with the big picture that perhaps his social stature makes him more immune to these little indignations. You can tell that he has been at the receiving end of enough stigma and bigotry to desensitize him. He never dwells on the insults, and routinely returns with renewed zest the next day. Police portions aside, this is most evident in his time with an ethical Nashik-based manager (a scene-stealing Vivek Mishra); it feels like he ultimately wins the veteran over, when he’s actually beating him into submission. But Riar’s turn reveals that Telgi is more like a pressure cooker waiting for the right altitude to explode at. All the pain isn’t forgotten, but conserved and accumulated until he is influential enough to break bad. 

The fifth episode features a difficult sequence in a dance bar, where Telgi loses control and gets into a crass cockfight to prove his ill-acquired prestige. Riar plays it like a shark tasting blood for the first time, unable to stop himself, possessed by the sudden ability to be the apex predator. The way the actor builds up to this moment – Telgi is a teetotaler, so he doesn’t have the crutch of substance-fuelled theatricality – is remarkable. We never really notice Telgi getting rich or refined, we only see him wheeling and dealing, which is why this outburst becomes a haunting sign of the power (finally) reaching his head. He claimed it was about money all along, but it’s equally about respect. Riar keeps us hooked and waiting for the future, one in which Telgi is destined to pay the price for ‘daring’ too hard. After all, the descent is the toughest part.

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