‘Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story’ review: one of 2020’s finest

Right off the bat, what didn’t work for me in Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story was the almost imperceptible yet hard-to-ignore underdog (and under-God) crown that the 10-part series places on its subject’s harried head. Add to that, an almost hero-who’s-felled-by-the-system send-off, including a close-to-maudlin score set to New Year’s eve’s fireworks overdoes the drama just that bit too much. More about that problematic bit in a bit. 

But my heart didn’t bleed for Harshad Mehta, the stockbroker who ruled the Bombay Stock Exchange and Dalal Street from the mid-80s to the early 90s, manipulating the very system that’d consume him later. It instead bleated for Abhishek Bachchan, who, as luck would have it again, faces the release of his The Big Bull close on the heels of this fantastic series. For—though the comparison between movies and series is fraught with speciousness—this is a tough act to follow. No matter how good the movie is, it’s opening its curtain to invite juxtaposed views. Good luck with that. 

Director Hansal Mehta (aided by Jai Mehta) and writers Saurav DeySumit PurohitVaibhav Vishal, and Karan Vyas spin out a terrific web of financial misdemeanor, crime, and systemic rot that encapsulates all that is wrong with the markets and—if you care to glance at the pink papers—how little that rule has changed: the system aligns with the powerful. And that moneyed muscle, is, like all power seats, a slot, a position, that simply glows on the men and women who inhabit it. The moment they fool themselves into believing that they’re the ones who’re emanating that candescence, it’s downfall time. 

Shreya Dhanwanthary doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

Director Mehta wraps the true story using Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu’s book, The Scam: Who Won, who Lost, who Got Away as his reference point. But that’s just the frame of reference. Where he succeeds so brilliantly is to lend the series an edgy, pulsating thrum that’s in sync with the beat of Bombay. Plus, he demystifies a lot of the economic jargon that was so designed (per my theory), much like taxes verbiage, to confuse us Adam Smith-challenged low-lives so we’re always at the mercy of intangibles such as market sentiment. That sentiment is what Harsha Mehta (Pratik Gandhi) wants to make a move on, understand it, and finally control it. From a matchbox chawl tenement in Bombay, he overrides his doubting Thomases—that includes his father, Shantilal Mehta (Ramakant Dayma) and brother Ashwin (a brilliant Hemant Kher, his quietude of an act barely concealing his roiling worries)—to slowly and surely build pent-up houses of dreams and big money for himself and his family, that includes wife Jyoti (Anjali Barot, very good), Ashwin’s wife Deepika (Brinda Trivedi), and mother Rasilaben (Kumkum Das). 

Pratik Gandhi: beating the loopholes out of loopholes.

But this game, like most greenback dynamites, needs money, people, and power. The series takes a sweeping, crackling look at how Mehta slowly but surely usurps the father of bear market, Manu Mundra (a superb Satish Kaushik) and his gang to begin a bull run that draws in people from every layer of the society, wanting to earn some of that bull money for themselves. Mehta along with his brother and ex-jobber Bhushan Bhatt (a high-wire, deep act by Chirag Vohra) roller-coast the system, minting for themselves and their clients. The series opens with a nervous, clammy Sharad Bellary (Sharib Hashmi) landing up at the Times of India office, wanting to expose muddy dealings at the pulse (and pension) of the national bank, State Bank of India (SBI). Which is how Sucheta Dalal (Shreya Dhanwanthary) hears of Harshad Mehta. Again. With some tight scripting and superb framing, the series goes into flashback mode, and begins to tie three threads that lead to Bellary’s surreptitious visit—the Mehta story, Sucheta Dalal’s entry into journalism and then financial reporting, and the banking system, all of which get inimically intertwined to create a fuse-wire that’s lit by superb production design (Payal Ghose and Tarpan Shrivastava recreating the nostalgia and the murkiness and the sheen that is the scintillating paradox called Bombay), a headbanging title music and atmospheric background score by Achint Thakkar, and a top-notch, impeccable cast put together by casting director Mukesh Chabbra

Apart from Manu Chandra, the other side of systemic manipulators is led by Citibank’s Tyagi (a smooth, suave Nikhil Dwivedi), brokers in cahoots with him, led by Ajay Kedia (Shadaab Khan—son of the great Amjad Khan, if that sort of trivia interests you—with a smile so oily, it’ll slip you up), and Mehta’s friend Pranav Sheth—Jay Upadhyay kills it with his cool, unfazed act: watch him shake a casual limb at Mehta’s residence party, where there’s no booze and he has to make do with a carbonated beverage. There’s also some superb performances by Anant MahadevanK.K. RainaKavin DaveJaimini PathakParesh GanatraVivek Vaswani, and Rajesh Jais among others. Director Mehta helms this impossibly lengthy call-sheet with finesse, adding touches of suspense to all that was speculated during Harshad Mehta’s time—including the infamous Rupees One Crore suitcase that he allegedly deposited to the Prime Minister’s office. There’s some ominous skullduggery, foul play, and tense moments, all brought to light with a feisty performance by Shreya Dhanwanthary playing Sucheta Dalal. She embodies what is true-blood journalism, dogged investigations, meetings, and just pouring over unfathomable reports. If there’s a nit, it’s her scenes with her editors, where her character’s so obviously skating on thin ice. The series could have done without that extra pushiness. 

Trinity’s still our name: Hemant Kher, Pratik Gandhi, Chirag Vohra.

Just as the other niggle that still gnaws at me. Hansal Mehta, whether he likes it or not, puts his main protagonist in the position of having used the system—like so many others before him—and then being wronged by it, by being made the ultimate fall guy. True as that is, the series glosses over the devastation that the broker’s greed caused amongst middle-class families. You could argue, of course, that that destruction was wrought by innate greed, and you’d be right. But at the head of the doomed carousel was undoubtedly the indubitable scamster who thought nothing of keeping other people’s money close to the fire he started. This angle and struggle amongst all of us—the immediacy of greed and the lure of big money that makes the system spawn more Harshad Mehtas with frightening regularity and makes people like us fall for their schemes with the same cadence—deserved more depth. An episode on families’ savings and hopes strewn by the side would’ve put Harshad Mehta’s side of the story in a truer perspective. 

Rajat Kapoor plays a menacingly good card.

But that aside, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story is an outstanding achievement in direction, writing, casting, and acting. And it is in the tiny attention to detail that makes it the class product it is. Watch Dhanwanthary’s Dalal bump into the wandering R.K. Laxman (Asif Ali Beg) and hearing some touching truisms from him. Watch the relationship between Dalal and Debashis Basu (an eminently likable Faisal Rashid) blossom, the first time when they’re standing on her balcony, the camera behind them. Very casually, Rashid’s Basu takes Dhanwanthary’s pallu and wipes his glasses with them. That’s such a beautiful, subtle touch right there. 

Playing Harshad Mehta with a solid, terrific act is Pratik Gandhi. He streams his character’s struggles, greed, ambition, and arrogance with nary a bluster or loudness. It’s just the way he does it, simply, powerfully, cloaking himself in the fabric of hubris. And if anyone makes Mehta gulp in dismay and nervousness, it is CBI investigator K. Madhavan. Rajat Kapoor as Madhavan is in sterling form here, snapping his way through a labyrinth of incomprehensible vocabulary, menacingly impatient in his demeanor, and an absolute bone-rattler. He’s so good, he makes you shift uneasily in your sofa, thanking your stars that you don’t have to deal with the likes of him. That’s when it dawns upon you. Our decisions are simply the result of a tug-of-war between fear and greed. 

Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story is streaming on Sony LIV and is rated A (Adults Only) for profanity and greed(?)

Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story
Director Hansal Mehta Time ~ 54 min
Writers  Saurav Dey, Sumit Purohit, Vaibhav Vishal, Karan Vyas
Stars Pratik Gandhi, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Hemant Kher
Genres Biography, Crime, Drama

Watch the trailer of Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story here.