The big city is a fickle mistress. Most outsiders start at the bottom. This is when the hustle is strong. The work matters. The ambition is artful. The city isn’t a place, it’s a collection of streets and offices. The neck is too busy navigating the crowd to crane upward. The higher a person rises, however, the more the city reveals itself. Its clothes come off. It seduces. Its eyes find the penthouses and balconies of the climber. And the climber, in turn, courts the city. They start to be seen together. One gets associated with the other. This is when the climber’s craft gets sacrificed at the altar of his story. The ambition becomes egoistic. The pride of his narrative outweighs the integrity of his profession. People speak about what he has “conquered” instead of what he represents. The climber buys into this romanticized image: he stands at the top and looks downward, admiring his shiny trophy.
Mumbai plays this mistress to perfection in the Sony Liv web series, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story. When a younger Mehta is a jobber on Dalal Street, he rarely mentions the city. It’s all about ideas and insider trading and chasing a better life. But once he becomes the star stockbroker, all we see is Mumbai. All he sees, too, is Mumbai. Many of his scenes are shot at a height. He answers phone calls from his terrace pool against the skyline; he has debates with his brother in the living room of the sea-facing penthouse. This isn’t some style statement; Mehta is genuinely infatuated with his new identity. He is in awe of his own wealth. We hear him mouth phrases like “BSE ka Bachchan” and “The Big B(ull)” and filmy idioms (“Risk hai toh ishq hai”) because Bollywood superstars, more than most, are synonymous with the idea of taming Mumbai – their success after a point is measured in geocultural currency instead of artistic ability.
The people trying to nail Harshad Mehta have different, lower views of Mumbai. The Bear cartel, led by Manu Mundra, operates near ground level. Their scheming takes place in dance bars and cramped offices – almost as if they were trying to pull Harshad back down to the city he emerged from. Ditto for the money market gang – led by Citibank head Tyagi and his broker Ajay Kedia – who despite their lofty status are mostly seen discussing Mehta at parties, events and weddings. The SBI bankers and the CBI officers fret from the bottom too. Times of India reporter Sucheta Dalal, whose scoop triggers Mehta’s downfall, operates from a few floors above the streets. She tirelessly chases sources and deadlines from a mid-level vantage point – the hero sandwiched between villainous heroes and a heroic villain. Her position gives her a clean view of everyone, above and below, but she chooses to focus on Harshad because he’s the one touching the skies. He’s the story that already considers itself a story.
Harshad Mehta is a natural fit in filmmaker Hansal Mehta’s reverse-Ken-Loach universe. Like Shahid Azmi (Shahid) and Professor Siras (Aligarh), he becomes a victim of a ruthless system. Like terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh (Omerta) and thief Praful Patel (Simran), he is oblivious of the harm he causes. His rousing personality brings to mind two fallen icons: ex-IPL honcho Lalit Modi and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. The playing field is level, everyone is a scamster, but their only fault is that they are better at being corrupt than their peers. That’s where, in Mehta’s case, the Gujarati-businessman ego comes into play. “More” is not just an anthem but half of Mehta’s company name too. Every risk he takes is, at its core, an emotional reaction – to the melancholy of the past (his father’s failed textile company), to the hostility of the present (Kedia’s smug “advice” to Mehta at a reception).
This primal theme of revenge is mirrored in the show’s use of retro Hindi film songs and Mehta’s Bachchan obsession. Middle-class Gujarati boomers are more inclined to treat Bollywood as a bible of life lessons. Mehta is conditioned to imagine that revenge is the hallmark of heroism. (For reference, a childhood friend in Ahmedabad would freeze and shoot icy stares at those who teased him. Only later did we discover that his father was a Sunil Shetty fan.).
The language of Hindi cinema plays a prominent role in isolating the Harshad Mehta narrative. Just as the writing refuses to dumb down the dense financial exposition, it also refuses to dignify Mehta’s “dialoguebaazi” with the tonal response of a masala movie. The moment Harshad starts to indulge in axioms and wordplay, there’s no stylistic flourish in the camerawork or music. Instead there’s always a Gujarati colleague by his side, mostly his impatient brother, who calls out his showmanship: “Bhaila, stop with the muhavare and be serious”. It’s a nice wink to the tropey biographical drama, but also a correct cultural indicator of how a Gujarati celebrity’s inbuilt theatricality defines both his rise and his fall. Even in crucial meetings, when Mehta is convincing a new client or listening to Sucheta drop truth bombs about his exploitation of systemic loopholes, his crooked grin and Agneepath-ish gait (he leans back on a chair with one arm) paint the picture of a silver-tongued patriot who aims to movie-hero his way into public conscience.
Pratik Gandhi’s lead turn is at the forefront of Indian long-form storytelling because of how he is able to – not as an actor, but as Harshad Mehta – merge a climber’s reality with a striver’s performance. Filming a majority of Mehta’s interactions in Hindi is a commercial decision. But Gandhi’s use of “Gujarati Hindi” is integral to the reading of Harshad’s arc. You sense that Hindi – which isn’t his mother-tongue – is his mask: it’s the voice he’s putting on to be the Big Bull and democratize the drama of making money. It’s his brand. Only with his family members does the veneer break, with Gujarati phrases tumbling out in the more vulnerable moments. Gandhi’s is essentially a character within a character: infamy dressed as the imitation of fame. We eventually feel for Mehta not because he is harassed by the CBI and a complicit administration, but because Gandhi’s masterful body language reveals the life being sucked out of him. There is no greater tragedy than watching energy die – irrespective of whether it’s black, white or grey.
But the most significant aspect of Scam 1992 is its supporting cast. New-age casting is inextricably linked to the history of the Hindi film industry, and by extension, the city of Mumbai. The reel tends to weaponize the real. Take Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. The ensemble holds an extra layer of authenticity because underappreciated actors – Gauhar Khan, D. Santosh, Naveen Kaushik and Mukesh Bhatt – play unappreciated workers of a corporate company. Their talent is being recognized on two levels at once: as both real artists and reel professionals. Then there’s the Anurag Kashyap universe, where off-screen hunger morphs into on-screen genius: a prime example is Vineet Kumar Singh, a spirited journeyman, delivering a knockout punch with Mukkabaaz. Kashyap’s casting director, Mukesh Chhabra, combines these two formulas to invent a third with Scam 1992: a technique that, by succeeding, reveals how the old-school Bollywood ecosystem may have denied generations of actors the privilege of realizing their full potential. Exceptional turns by Gandhi and Shreya Dhanwanthary (as Sucheta Dalal) aside, almost every bit-role is played with fresh precision by a familiar face – by veterans who’ve long been typecast as loud character actors, or miscast as leads, in mainstream Hindi cinema.
In short, Scam 1992 finds beauty in the discarded. Sample the names. Nikhil Dwivedi is unrecognizable as the self-important Citibank honcho. Jay Upadhyay, who stood out in Tu Hai Mera Sunday, is a hoot as crude bull Pranav Sheth. Satish Kaushik is understatedly ominous as Manu Mundra. Anant Mahadevan displays enormous poise as the morally conflicted RBI governor. Hemant Kher is superbly stoic as Mehta’s loyal brother. The elegant K.K. Raina is hugely affecting as NHB chairman Manohar Pherwani. Even Vivek Waswani, in all of two scenes, is wonderfully elite as the SBI chairman. Shadaab Khan, son of Amjad Khan and star of Rani Mukerjee’s doomed debut Raja Ki Ayegi Baarat, is phenomenally pompous as Ajay Kedia. Mamik Singh, better known as Ratan from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, has a slick cameo, while Lalit Parimoo shines as the CBI chief. Even as I write this, I’m reminded of Kaamyaab and Sanjay Mishra’s turn as a long-time character actor looking for his 500th role. Which is to say, a dormant artist exists inside the unlikeliest of performers – it’s all about finding the right frog to kiss.
This is best characterized by Chirag Vohra as Bhushan Bhatt, the third wheel of Mehta’s legacy. The unassuming theater actor has played peripheral characters in Hindi movies for close to two decades. His name is rarely listed. In Scam 1992, he has a stirring showdown with Harshad Mehta in the final episode – a scene where he demands acknowledgment for his years of faith, and a scene that, just like Rocket Singh, is informed by the actor’s real-life pursuit of dues. Vohra’s explosion is raw and heartbreaking: a personal favourite for how he visibly pulls on years of Bollywood-jobber angst.
As a result, Scam 1992 thrives on a lyrical paradox: The protagonist’s performance is inspired by Hindi film acting, but the secondary cast is composed of Hindi film actors turning in inspired performances as real people. At some fleeting level, their triumph ties into Harshad Mehta’s relationship with the big city. All of them, career outsiders: for whom the hustle is still strong, the work still matters, the ambition is still artful – and for whom the integrity of their craft still outweighs the pride of their narrative. Their success is measured by the currency of opportunity. They represent Bollywood without conquering Bombay. That a series called Scam unshackles them is, by all accounts, a great heist. That the story of a scam spotlights the value of every cog is, by some accounts, a grand irony.