A still from the series
There is no Indian show I've waited as eagerly for its second instalment as Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020). Which is this, namely, Scam 2003: The Telgi Story. The first was a breakout series for the OTT platform SonyLIV.
Easily the best of its kind. Excitingly detailing the rise and fall of the Bombay Stock Exchange Big Bull, Harshad Mehta. Bravely naming names. Entertainingly recording events that shook up India's stock-market and personal finance. Enough to make one realise the potential of a solid, multi-layered, long-form series as a place to store popular history.
At least on paper, Scam 2003 is a similar attempt, based on the life of Abdul Karim Telgi, a Kannada crook, who moved to Bombay, to pull off a fake stamp-paper scam, running into unspecified, uncountable crores.
The only thing common between the two Scams, as a series, is the handpicked quality of its cast. By which I mean practically everyone, from the lead, that is the newbie Gagan Dev Riar as Telgi, to the old bureaucrat manning the government's printing press in Nashik, down to the ghazal singer Talat Aziz playing
None of whom you're used to, on screen. Which makes the OTT as such a revolution of sorts for matching first-timers, with appropriately prominent or walk-on parts.
Such that, soon, every aspiring actor in India, it appears, would've made it to the screen - because they appear authentic enough for that one cameo, at least, that will suit their face/personality the best!
Diligent casting agents are neatly elevating this industry. One of them, Mukesh Chhabra, the show's casting director, does a cameo as well - found throwing money at a Bombay dance bar.
It's an important sequence. Given the first time I heard Telgi's story was in context of the dance bar itself, that's been effectively banned in Mumbai since 2005.
In an early scene here, an inmate in the lock-up explains to Telgi how the dance bar and âhawalaat' are similar - once you're in, you keep coming back.
I was once told the reason Telgi eventually got caught is because he'd blown close to a crore, over a night, at the South Bombay dance-bar Topaz once. He'd fallen for a bar-dancer, Tarannum Khan. A revenue officer was in the same room. Intrigued, he did a little research on who this bizarre bloke was, and how he held that kinda liquid cash.
That's not exactly what happens in the series. Telgi does call attention to himself, however, doing the same thing. This public display of wealth is a terrible idea for anyone with much to hide, especially with multiple creditors or stakeholders in an illegal dhanda.
Post that night, we watch the cut-rates of all of Telgi's conduits, chiefly politicians and police, go up. There is a lesson on security in anonymity for all businessmen here. And which business in India is 100 per cent clean anyway.
Only that Telgi, unlike, say, Harshad Mehta, is hardly a businessman. What does he do? He prints fake stamp-papers, used for all legal documents, that the government makes R33,000 crore annually from.
It's the same as printing fake currency notes. Earlier, in a Sholay-like train robbery, Telgi and his men used to replace certified stamp papers with fake ones, while they got ferried on rail. That's how he started. The show is based on Sanjay Singh's book, Telgi Scam: A Reporter's Diary.
You could see it as a crime procedural, therefore. Only that it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to explain this process. Which is probably why, like so much of peak TV content, that are borderline decent - Scam 2003 feels like the long, first cut of a film, loosely extended into a series.
Is it authentically journalistic enough? How can it be, when Telgi is who he is, but everybody around him feel fake like pure fiction. What with, say, a "secular" party, run by a "remote control" that came to power, with white for a party flag, in 1995, Maharashtra! I can see why you can't name names, unlike Scam 1992. Only Telgi is no more!
Will the show do for the lovely lead actor Riar, though - portly Muslim man, with hennaed hair, altogether without a roar - what Scam 1992 did for the solid Pratik Gandhi, as Harshad Mehta?
Highly unlikely. Because, as against Mehta, Telgi's story has got no other dimension, let alone any messianic or redemptive quality to the lead character. Besides, that he wants to fake it, to make it. There are simply no layers.
Or maybe it's the series, for what it encapsulates - making you feel so thanda/distant, all through. As if you're going through the chronology of Telgi's life, rather than ever peeking into his head. At no point did I find myself rooting for this guy, which is the guilty pleasure that makes films/shows about bad men so alluring, anyway.
What did I feel, patiently labouring over this, in three instalments, over two days? That it's not a particular badly made show. Just a bore, frankly. And this is only the first part of the sequel. Since I've started, will finish the second one too, whenever it's out. This time, the expectations will be way lower. And that's probably a great thing, always.