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Scam 2003 The Telgi Story review: Gagan Dev Riar as Abdul Karim Telgi is terrific

Rags-to-riches stories, especially when carried through by the sheer street-smartness and ‘jugaadoo’ gumption of protagonists who remain likeable and relatable even when they are patently doing the wrong thing, are always a draw. No one wants to be a steady, dull drone when you can fly, but only some of us have the chutzpah, and the luck, to go all the way.

‘Scam 1992’ gave us the Hansal Mehta-directed Harshad Mehta story, and the 2020 show stays high on the best Indian web series pole: now it’s the turn of stamp-paper counterfeiter Abdul Karim Telgi in ‘Scam 2003’, based on Sanjay Singh’s book ‘Telgi Scam: Ek Reporter Ki Diary’, directed by Tushar Hiranandani, and show-run by Hansal Mehta. Telgi was caught, and he died in jail, but his ‘daring toh karna padega darling’ schemes which gave him unimaginable returns, showed up the holes in the ‘system’ which rules us, a system that keeps the common man out of power-and-wealth circles. Both Mehta and Telgi came from nothing, and got everything—even if briefly– and that’s why there’s so much admiration and sympathy for these crooks, even now, years after their passing.

Though comparisons are odious, this new series is sure to be held up against the first one, which was an acute, insightful portrait of pre-liberalisation India, and how the Big Bull unerringly found all the soft spots to press on his heady journey to the very top of the stock market. Pratik Gandhi, as Harshad Mehta, had zing, and the whole thing was done most entertainingly.

Stamp papers are no way as exciting as actual currency, which the charismatic Harshad was using to manipulate and buy-out, nor is the master-mind behind the stamp-paper scam, a fruit-seller from Karnataka whose ambition knows no bounds. And that’s the challenge, right there, in front of the makers: how do you make this one as entertaining as the previous one, when both the main protagonist and his cohorts– an unending series of complicit cops and corrupt netas, who were happy to dip their avaricious hands into Telgi’s ‘behti ganga’– are as tawdry as the crime they are pulling off?

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Gagan Dev Riar as Telgi is terrific, his body language determinedly ordinary—a face like millions in the crowd, bush-shirt bulging over a protruding stomach– which hides a razor-sharp mind always working on how to get ahead. ‘Paisa kamaana nahin hai, banaana hai’ (I don’t want to earn money, but make it), he tells everyone around him, and even as an early friend and collaborator deserts him, the rest, including a loving wife and daughter, brother and mother, keep him insulated by their faith in him.

Also read | Gagan Dev Riar says before Scam 2003, he was worried about ‘aage ka kharcha’

By the second episode (five are out, and will be followed by five more in a few weeks), patches of dullness are evident. Not all the difficulties Telgi has to counter sustain interest: how many times can we watch a politician opening his or her mouth too wide? How Telgi manages to break through to an ultra-honest manager of the ‘sarkaari’ fortress-like Nashik factory responsible for printing stamp-papers, is an exception. But, more often than not, his companions– as well as the series– depend upon him to perk things up. Which he dutifully does: Riar, mouth deliciously downturned when things are not going his way, eyes shining when they are, keeps our eyes on him.

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We’ll have to wait for the second tranche of the Applause Entertainment production to see how it all turns out. To be continued.

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