A web series on Harshad Mehta, the Big Bull of the Bombay Stock Exchange in the 1990s, was waiting to get made. Called Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story and based on Debashis Basu and Sucheta Dalal’s book The Scam, the ten-episode series directed by Hansal Mehta and streaming on SonyLIV strikes a balance between taking a critical look at the Big Bull and evoking some sympathy for him too. The latter might sound like the outcome of the maker’s bias, but that it is not.
Scam 1992 takes off dramatically. A visibly hassled whistleblower who calls himself Sharad Bellary (Sharib Hashmi) visits The Times of India office in Mumbai. He tells a journalist named Sucheta Dalal (Shreya Dhanwanthary) that there is a fraud in the State Bank of India that is possibly worth more than Rs 500 crore. When Dalal steps out to order tea for him, this Bellary quietly disappears.
Dalal, along with Debashis Basu, begins to follow up after the mysterious man’s disappearance. That would lead to the unearthing of a financial scam unlike any India had experienced earlier.
Mehta’s is a classic rags-to-riches story. Born in Rajkot, he moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) where his father had a small business. An amateur cricketer, he did various jobs after completing his graduation. But he was an ambitious man who wanted to eclipse his middle-class circumstances in Kandivali with the bright glow of wealth.
Mehta became a jobber with a brokerage firm, but that didn’t help him make much money for himself. He eventually moved on to start his own firm. His brother Ashwin joined him in his venture, along with friend Bhushan Bhatt. The story of Harshad Mehta would begin to write itself soon.
Gujarati film and theatre actor Pratik Gandhi as Mehta is a revelation. He doesn’t share any physical similarity with the Big Bull but essays the part with easy confidence.
Mehta is an over-ambitious man for whom twisting ethics is the name of the game. He does not hesitate to take risks, exploits loopholes in the banking system and takes on powerful rivals that include foreign banks such as Citibank. While his rise turns him into the commoner’s god, he mutates into a much-hated man after his fall begins.
The protagonist lives, as Mehta did, in a 15,000 square feet home with a private swimming pool. He owns many imported cars, among them the famous Lexus that was often written about when his case had hijacked the attention of the media nationwide.
Scam 1992 gathers momentum as it progresses. As Mehta’s wrongdoings get exposed, he becomes the subject of investigations conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate, and the Income Tax Department. The number of allegations against him mounts. Although he tries to deal with his problems with a smirk and some optimism, it soon becomes clear that he has reached a point of no return.
Scam 1992 is a slightly overstretched series. But skipping parts of it is not an option because the story reveals how Mehta was the product of a flawed system in which he had outpaced his competitors, among them those who had also dirtied their hands. Although he had ‘Delhi in his pocket’, as the viewer is repeatedly told, he had to go down because he had started thinking of himself as invincible. He was rash, paid little heed to sage advice, and stuck to his beliefs and practices without assessing the risks involved.
Several noteworthy performances make Scam 1992 so watchable. Dhanwanthary as Dalal, Chirag Vohra as Bhatt, Rajat Kapoor as the CBI Joint Director Madhavan who resigns because of external pressure and Ananth Narayan Mahadevan as the RBI boss deliver many memorable moments.
Scam 1992 uses technical terms liberally, but these have been explained for the benefit of the lay viewer. For that, the credit must go to writers Sumit Purohit, Vaibhav Vishal and Karan Vyas. The city of Mumbai in the last decade of the 21st century comes alive in several sequences, although most of the action takes place indoors.
Harshad Mehta’s story is of a man whose wealth and power was the outcome of his ability to exploit loopholes and take advantage of systemic corruption. His unbridled ambition and greed would lead to his downfall, which has a lesson for brokers and others operating in the stock and money markets.
The series, in short, is a reminder that ethical practices matter. Good show, Hansal Mehta.