'Scam 2003: The Telgi Story' review: Gagan Dev Riar leaves an imprint in a half-baked series

In Scam 1992, the desires of Harshad Mehta were the maggots beneath the coveted pie of a post-liberalisation India. Contrastingly, Scam 2003 mostly remains apolitical.
'Scam 2003: The Telgi Story'.
'Scam 2003: The Telgi Story'.

The first win in Mumbai is having a roof over your head. In Scam 1992, when Harshad Mehta rakes in enough moolah by manipulating the stock market, his primary buy is a house. The turning point in Abdul Karim Telgi’s story, in the latest outing in the scam series, comes at a similar junction. “You were asking me what my dream is, right?” he asks his accomplice. “A roof over my head.”

Telgi’s journey starts from a hutment in Karnataka’s Khanapur, which shakes every 15 minutes because trains pass by on the railway track behind. But in his life, this need for a roof goes beyond its literal sense. Telgi is seeking a ‘chhat’ (roof) as much as he is eager for a chhatra chaaya (parasol). Thus, in Scam 2003, we see him constantly greasing palms of everybody from officials to cops to politicians. What he is actually seeking is a cover, but soon the walls start closing in around him.

When I first read about Telgi, what intrigued me was his beginnings. A fruit vendor at Khanapur railway station in Karnataka moves to Mumbai, has a brief stint in the Gulf, comes back, starts working as a travel agent and sending workers illegally to Saudi on fake passports. He gets arrested and in jail meets an accomplice with whom he builds a “system” of printing fake government stamp papers. It read like a pacy thriller but Scam 2003 treats these potentially dramatic details merely as pitstops.

At least the initial episodes (only five have been released by the makers so far) feel impatient to get the ball rolling on “the scam”. And the con itself feels too simplistic. With each episode, Telgi goes from official to politician, beaming his sycophant smile, mouthing aphorisms and bribing his way up. At one point a character tells him, “This is not how it works, you can’t just pay everybody.”

In Scam 1992, the desires of Harshad Mehta were the maggots beneath the coveted pie of a post-liberalisation India. Contrastingly, Scam 2003 mostly remains apolitical. There is a sweeping mention of Babri Masjid demolition and the riots affecting businessmen, but the country’s affairs never sink into Telgi’s little world. Names of political parties and its leaders, with whom Telgi was in cahoots with, have obviously been changed. In the series’ first scene, we see the counterfeiter undergoing a Narco test.

When asked which politicians were involved with him, he sleepily replies, “Politicians were the backbone of the scam.” In reality, there were reports of Telgi taking the name of a former chief minister. Truth is not just stranger but sometimes more stimulating than fiction. Gagan Dev Riar as Telgi is a tour de force. From his paunch to his gait to the lispy way he mouths the dialogues is commendable. But, while Pratik Gandhi’s performance in Scam 1992 went in sync with the series’ narrative, comparatively, the show lacks the momentum to propel Gagan’s portrayal of the counterfeiter.

The series stubbornly clinches to the technicalities of the stamp-paper scam, which in itself aren’t that intriguing after a point. What we need, is to know the man behind the myth of Telgi. Maybe the next five episodes can offer an insight.

Starring: Gagan Dev Riar, Sana Amin Sheikh, Sameer Dharmadhikari, Nikhil Ratnaparkhi, Bharat Dabholkar

Directed by: Tushar Hiranandani

Streamer: SonyLIV

Rating: 2/5 stars

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