‘Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story’ series review: A real fake

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A still from ‘Scam 2003 - The Telgi Story’

A still from ‘Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story’

Scam 1992 (2020) was a sensational 10-part series about the making and unmaking of a financial fraudster. A lot separates its protagonist, Harshad Mehta, from Abdul Karim Telgi, the hero of a stand-alone second season. The former excelled in insidious market manipulation; the latter sold counterfeit stamp papers to a margin of thousands of crores. One was a Mumbai-bred Gujarati; the other was a Muslim immigrant from Karnataka. Mehta’s vices, if I remember correctly, were limited to expensive cars, cricket games, and a brief flirtation with golf. By contrast, Telgi, a non-smoking, non-drinking prude, once famously splurged lakhs of rupees on a bar dancer he adored. As played by Gagan Dev Riar, he’s an equally colourful — and compelling — character as Mehta. Why, then, does he pack the weaker punch?

One answer might be showrunner Hansal Mehta passing on the directorial baton to Tushar Hiranandani. Hansal was on top form with Scam 1992 (a strike rate he reiterated with the terrific Scoop earlier this year). He has a feel for the world of corruption and graft, of big money and how to track it down narratively. He also understands commercial, multi-dimensional Mumbai like no other Hindi film director at the moment. Hiranandani, who’s written Bollywood comedies and action films and last directed the sports drama Saand Ki Aankh, does not possess that long-form grasp. In Scam 2003 — five episodes of which are now streaming on Sony LIV — you can see him relying frequently on the Hansal handbook. When Telgi and his partner (Hemang Vyas) walk up to the Bombay Stock Exchange building in 1992, the visual grammar of an encore (It’s a miracle Pratik Gandhi doesn’t show up in a cameo).

Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story Episodes 1-5 (Hindi)

Showrunner: Hansal Mehta

Cast: Gagan Dev Riar, Hemang Vyas, Sana Amin Sheikh, Sameer Dharmadhikari, Nikhil Ratnaparkhi, Bharat Dabholkar

Episodes: 5 of 10

Runtime: 45-55 minutes

Storyline: The rise and rise of Abdul Karim Telgi, a humble fruit-seller from Karnataka who becomes the boss of stamp paper fraud

The new series is based on journalist Sanjay Singh’s book Telgi – A Reporter’s Diary (the writers are Karan Vyas, Kiran Yadnyopavit, and Kedar Patankar). Telgi, born in Khanapur, Karnataka, moves from vending fruits on train carriages to managing a tranquil guesthouse in Mumbai. His real knack though, he discovers, is forgery. He starts out small, faking documents and passports for emigrating labourers to the Gulf. Then, scaling up, he starts pilfering government stamp papers and replacing them with cheaply minted fakes. It’s daylight thievery (conducted in the cover of night), but Telgi insists all along he’s doing something right. His unswerving credo confounds his cohorts. “I want to make money,” Telgi tells them, “not earn it.”

By this point, we have a good sense of Telgi’s modus operandi. He has a genial manner and a confiding grin, which puts circumspect strangers at ease. He dresses plainly — in untucked shirts — yet is crafty enough to pepper his patter with English (The real Telgi funded his own education as a child). Knowing that he cannot possibly sustain such a complex racket on his own, he starts greasing some heavy and important palms, taking into his confidence cops, lawyers, politicians, railway employees, NGO workers and religious heads. In Episode 4, there is a fascinating subplot where he tries to suborn, fails, and then suborns again an important government officer — a darkly comic demonstration of what can be termed the seven stages of greed.

It feels strange to say — given how smoothly Scam 2003 leapfrogs from Mumbai to Nashik to New Delhi — that it lacks the sweep and scope of its predecessor. Harshad Mehta’s rise dovetailed with the biggest economic transformations in modern India. Telgi’s journey unfolds in roughly the same period. Yet, as rendered in the show, the historical backdrop doesn’t feel as epic or essential. Unlike Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s sardonic narration in Sacred Games, Telgi’s voiceover is calm and self-absorbed. We get a montage about the 1991 reforms followed by the Babri demolition a year later, yet all Telgi – a Muslim immigrant in Mumbai – has to say about those tumultuous times is that it inconvenienced ‘dhanda’ (business).

Gagan Dev Riar is a stunningly close approximation of the real Abdul Karim Telgi. He gets those pudgy cheeks and eyes, that lopsided grin. It’s a decidedly unglamorous portrait of a middle-aged scamster who resists refinement or class — unless it serves his ends. Despite Ishaan Chhabra’s mischievous score revving him up from time to time, Riar resists playing Telgi as a hero, combining his frustrations and his fire, his weaknesses and his spite.

He’s helped along by some colourful writing in the scenes: bribes stashed in biryani boxes, or a shot of jail inmates singing ‘Vande Mataram’ in unison, with a physically deteriorating Telgi collapsing in their midst. If these observations stack up ahead, perhaps the remaining episodes will shine, offering a dense and detailed look at one of India’s biggest forgers who died in 2017. For now, the show needs, as Telgi would attest, a ‘plan change’.

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