The story of Harshad Mehta, also known as the Big Bull, is a many-splendoured thing. It's a cautionary tale, showing us the consequences of hubris and greed. It's an exhilarating rags-to-riches story in which the underdog, at least for a while, beats the system. It's also a snapshot of a moment in history when the idea and ethos of India changed. And yet, there isn't enough here to carry both a 10-episode series that runs to eight hours and forty-two minutes, and a film that is two hours and thirty-two minutes long.
The truth is that leading man Abhishek Bachchan and director Kookie Gulati are up against impossible odds. Only five months ago, leading man Pratik Gandhi and directors Hansal and Jai Mehta juiced every delicious turn in this rich and twisted tale. Scam 1992 was riveting, with terrific performances, superb writing – who can forget Harshad's line "risk hai toh ishq hai" – production design that recreated the world of the late 80s and early 90s, and a theme by Achint Thakkar that perfectly encapsulated Harshad's swag and the ominous undertones of his meteoric rise. Essentially the series rendered this film unnecessary.
The Big Bull also has to contend with being a film that was originally made for a theatrical release but then tweaked to fit the perceived tastes of OTT audiences. I'm not sure what was changed but the screenplay by Kookie and Arjun Dhawan is a mess, relying heavily on exposition, jump cuts and thumping background music for drama and coherence. We begin in 1993 with a negotiation in which we hear the line, "Bhagwan se bhi zyada paise hain hain humare paas." Then we flash forward to 2020, with Ileana D'Cruz playing the Sucheta Dalal figure: she is giving a talk on the Big Bull and how she came to write a book about him. Unlike the series, here the names are changed – so Harshad Mehta is named Hemant Shah and Ileana is a journalist named Meera. The film starts with the disclaimer that it has been "somewhat inspired by true events." I'm not sure what that means.
The narrative then goes into flashback. We also have flashbacks within flashbacks and every once in a while, the story comes back to Meera, who with tasteful grey streaks in her hair, continues to narrate the rise and fall of Hemant. The trouble is that if you've seen Scam, the déjà vu is just too strong: once again, we see the Kalbadevi chawl, which is eventually replaced by a penthouse apartment with a pool – for a brief moment, the stockbroker becomes "Mumbai ka raja" playing golf high above the city. We see the flashy offices where deals are done and crores of rupees exchange hands; we see the stock exchange where men in blue coats make frantic hand signals and create or dissipate wealth; and once again, we hear the dialogue, 'share market ka Amitabh Bachchan.'
In Scam, the Mehtas seamlessly combined high drama with realistic textures. The flashy dialogue-baazi was punctuated by remarkably authentic performances. There was zero posturing, even when Harshad dropped lines like, "Success hai kya, failure ke baad ka chapter." The Big Bull is contrived in that old-school Bollywood way – we have cardboard bad guys who refer to themselves in third person; a soulful love song in which Hemant and his wife take in the sights of New Delhi; there are superficial references to Hemant being Gujarati – the accent comes and goes but we do see his wife making theplas; and least convincing of all is Ileana, wearing pretty salwar kameezes, as the morally upright investigative reporter – in one scene, she simply slips into the accounts room of a bank and looks at their ledgers.
The film projects the Big Bull as a saviour, a victim and, occasionally, a crook – so there are umpteen references to the system and government being rotten, to Hemant being a Robin Hood figure for the middle-class, a man who showed them how to dream big and change their destiny. Hemant's actions are illegal but the issue isn't so much his muddled morals as the lax banking network that allows him to thrive. This is repeated by several different characters, including Hemant – at one point he says, 'problem main nahin hoon ma'am, problem humara political system hai.' For all his flaws, Hemant is positioned as a Rockstar, an Icarus who simply flew too high.
Props to Abhishek Bachchan for sincerely trying to hold the fractured screenplay together. There is a moment at the end when his eyes, brimming with tears, reflect the anguish of a man undone by his own dreams. He still doesn't understand why he must pay. You might see echoes of his performance in Guru – also about a man with insatiable ambition – but mostly, Abhishek works the silk shirts, aviator glasses and satisfied smirk. Kookie has him do some inexplicable things – like laugh uproariously when his schemes work and he makes money. Why? This isn't an 80s villain. Sohum Shah as Hemant's brother Viren also does his best but mostly the film requires him to ask Hemant questions like: Why are we here? Whom are we meeting? He seems perennially perplexed by his smarter brother. Also, why has Samir Soni become the go-to actor to play snooty characters who reek of entitlement? It feels like he could have walked out of Mumbai Saga and into this film.
At one point in The Big Bull, a press conference is held where it's demonstrated that one crore rupees in cash, in 50 and 100-rupee bills, can fit into two large suitcases. The conference ends in pandemonium with the reporters crowding around the suitcases and the folks giving the conference walking away dramatically. Wait, I wanted to shout – what about the money?
That's when I realised how far removed from the film I was.
You can watch The Big Bull on Disney+ Hotstar.