Director: Hansal Mehta, Jai Mehta
Writer: Sumit Purohit, Saurav Dey, Karan Vyas,
Cinematographer: Pratham Mehta
Cast: Pratik Gandhi, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Satish Kaushik, Ananth Narayanan Mahadevan, Rajat Kapoor, Anjali Barot
Producer: Sameer Nair, Deepak Segal, Indranil Chakraborty
Streaming Platform: SonyLiv
Hansal Mehta is a meditative filmmaker. In his frames you sense an ease with time, and an eschewing of chaos. It works if the story demands it, like in Aligarh and City Lights. In Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story it agonizes, even as it swaggers. A rags to riches story is inherently dynamic. A scam uncovered is ripe for pulsating drama. There’s journalism and the law, both with hawk eyes. But by boiling all of this on a slow-simmer, Mehta gambles a risk, and it doesn’t entirely pay-off.
Based on Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu’s book “The Scam”, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story covers the rise and fall of BSE (Bombay Stock Exchange) ka Bachchan. It starts off as a rags to riches tale, before it congeals into one of greed, and exposés. The rags to riches is the capitalist fantasy, and the scam, its logical extreme. By covering both with a sympathetic eye, Hansal Mehta paints everyone opposed to Harshad Mehta, as a crony or a crook. When it comes to Harshad Mehta, this story is unable to differentiate between his ambition and his greed.
Sadly, I just don’t understand the intricacies of the stock market. So most of the criminally long stretches about his stock-trading days despite being over-explained, felt hazy, stopping well short of making perfect sense. Over-explained, because you sense very clearly when the dialogue is written to make the story make sense, as opposed to further it. (A similar note about the time appropriate staging. A reference to Agantuk here, a reference to Bachchan there are very obviously written in to make a point about the time it’s set in- it’s too forced.)
Hazy because despite this, so much feels obscure, as if it was designed to confuse. Stock markets use money to make more money, but then there are schemes and scheming and much of it gets lost in translation. To the credit of Hansal Mehta and his writers, Sumit Purohit and Saurav Dey, they are able to make the story move despite it not making easy or entire sense.
An acid washed Bombay landscape and a brilliant background score introduces us hastily to Harshad Mehta, and from then till the last episode, not much about him changes- he is arrogant but feels deserving of it, he sits with his legs apart, and effortlessly banters for cashew biscuits in the midst of a discussion of 500 crores being missing. Pratik Gandhi plays him, and his teetotalling Gujarati proclivities with immense dynamo- it’s a pleasure to watch him unfold. Some of the dialogues he is given though, with excessive idioms and metaphors, are too messy and awkward to even listen to! (‘Risk hai to Issq hai’ pales in front of the buffalo idioms) Similarly, it’s a bit tiring that all Hansal Mehta is able to do to add flesh to a South Indian character is have him ask his wife for filter coffee in a singsong tone.
Shreya Dhanwanthary plays Sucheta Dalal, the Times Of India journalist who uncovered, and christened Mehta’s dealings a “scam”. She’s brilliant and her cinematic ease cuts through the male clutter, as does Anjali Barot who plays Harshad Mehta’s wife with such disarming charm, swelled by the background score. They lend ease to the otherwise frigid and masculine goings-on.
What also undoes the potential brilliance of this tale is how characters come and go without a trace or lead-in. There’s an unnamed Swamiji with political clout who just drops in and out, RBI governors, CBI investigators, friends and foes float by the narrative. As does history. I got a feeling that this story was one layer removed from what was happening in India, as if Harshad Mehta wasn’t personally affected by the events- the Babri Masjid demolition, Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Pokhran- but only by how the stock market was affected by these events. With his taut and unyielding ego he is established as a genius of sorts and that remains unchanged through the show. I wondered what I did after watching Guru. How much of telling a story is mythologizing its protagonist?