Actor Gagan Dev Riar looks strikingly different from the stout, scheming scamster on the poster of Scam 2003: The Telgi Story. Although he looks lean enough to give dietary tips, I still impishly ask him how he managed to get the weight on his face for the role. “Drink four beers every night,” he suggests. “And hang out with Tushar and Hansal sir.”
The Telgi Story is the second installment in the Scam anthology, if it can be called that. The first part, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, was helmed chiefly by Hansal Mehta, who decided to take a back seat as the showrunner for this one. With Scam 2003, he passed on the directorial baton to Tushar Hiranandani.
“Both of them were my mirrors,” says Gagan. “Whenever I came on the set they used to say, you look thinner today. That night I made sure I ate four more gulab jamuns.”
It wasn’t just the physical transformation, Gagan shares. “I completely surrendered to Tushar and Hansal’s vision for Telgi,” he says. Gagan, who has an expansive background in theatre, explained that to formulate the persona of the infamous stamp paper scamster Abdul Karim Telgi, he had to start from the place the character itself began his journey.
“I focused on two things: the body language and the tonality or the sur of Telgi. To get that sur, I travelled to Khanapur in Karnataka from where he started,” he says. “I went to the shopkeepers there and inquired about the prices of their wares, just to strike a conversation. Even though I knew the way, I asked for directions from people on the street. I recorded all these interactions and later incorporated their mannerisms into my performance. The rest came from watching videos and photos of Telgi. I copied even his slightest gestures.”
The actor further speaks about the importance of not judging the character. “Here was a criminal guilty of a scam worth Rs 30,000 crore. But I kept on thinking, did he ever think of surrendering?” says Gagan. “It was important to see Telgi not only as a criminal but also as a person with a life and a family. Somebody who still chose to tread the wrong path.”
Although Gagan is no stranger to the screen (he played minor roles in Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy (2020) and Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya (2019)), this was the first time he was taking up the mantle as a lead, and that too for a series whose previous installment marked the explosive debut of Prateek Gandhi.
“My days in theatre have taught me this,” shares Gagan. “Never think of the destination before taking the first step. It’s important to walk before you can run. I was not apprehensive when I was approached for the role. If I had gotten afraid, I wouldn’t have been able to do whatever little good I did with the performance.”
However, it was strange waters for director Tushar Hiranandani, who spent most of his career as a writer for commercial comedy films (he has written Masti (2004), Sunday (2008) and Housefull 2 (2012), among others). “Scam was a different game altogether,” says Tushar.
“But I like biopics. The first film I directed, Saand Ki Aankh (2019) was a biopic, and so is my upcoming project Sri with Rajkummar Rao. Doing a series is hard but Applause Entertainment (the production house backing the series) made it easier.”
The grimy world of Telgi, comprising shady accomplices and dance bars, comes in stark contrast with the high-rise, corporate look of Scam 1992. Talking about the approach the makers took with the spiritual sequel, Sameer Nair, the CEO of Applause Entertainment shares, “We wanted the series to get away from banks and offices. No Lexus cars and that sort of stuff. There was going to be a natural comparison with Season 1, so we wanted the new season to stand on its own. Completely fresh.”
Before we wrap up, I ask Tushar if it’s true that he once saw Telgi at a dance bar (the scamster was a patron and once spent Rs 93 lakh on a dancer). “This was around the 2000s. He used to be a star at these dance bars, Drums Beat, Topaz.” He looks at Sameer and laughs. “I guess I should stop talking now.”