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Hansal Mehta, Gagan Dev Riar ‘stamp’ their class – Beyond Bollywood

After Scam 1992 [2020], showrunner Hansal Mehta, Sony Liv, Applause Entertainment deliver another stunning scam saga series.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️? (3.5 / 5 )

Gagan Dev Riar as Abdul Karim Telgi in Scam 2003 [2023]

By Mayur Lookhar

In Kaliyuga [the age of demon], it is relatively easy to lure a corrupt soul but the Herculean task is when you ought to have an incorruptible soul by your side. Abdul Karim Telgi [Gagan Dev Riar] tried wooing Madhusudan Mishra [Vivek Mishra], the incorruptible Deputy Manager at India Printing Press, earlier but he ended up losing his job. He can’t eliminate him but neither can his nefarious designs move an inch without Mishra. 

JK [Shashank Ketkar], his Nashik accomplice, advises Abdul to swallow his pride, abandon his illicit business plan. Telgi is a little tense. It appears that he too has given in when he realizes that men like Madhusudan Mishra can’t be bought. The only way to have them on your side is to give them respect. Telgi does something that soon uplifts Mishra’s standing in India Printing Press. The righteous Mishra senses that Telgi is behind this overnight appreciation. An emotional Mishra questions Telgi, “Why are you doing this to me?” A smiling Telgi replies, “Sir, you are incorruptible, but what has years of righteousness earned you?. I’ve done nothing. You deserve this [new found] respect”.

With one back channel maneuvering, Telgi has brought Mishra onto his side, without denting the latter’s dignity.  What does this say? In Kaliyuga, you maybe incorruptible, but not infallible. 

After the very successful series Scam 1992 [2020], showrunner Hansal Mehta, Applause Entertainment, and Sony Liv have returned with yet another scam. A franchise on scamsters is a bold step as you incur the risk of glorification. What works in Scam 2003’s favour is the ease in understanding the nature of scam. Harshad Mehta’s stock manipulation, calculations were perhaps beyond the realm of humble civilians. In Abdul Karim Telgi’s case, it was a simple affair. Starting off by selling revenue stamps, Telgi switched to selling stamp papers. Watch the five episodes of Vol.1 to unearth Telgi’s modus operandi.

Abdul Karim Telgi didn’t even exist for most Indians, until the counterfeit stamp paper case story broke out in 2001. He was arrested earlier for a similar charge in 1995, but the magnitude of the scam wasn’t big then. According to reports, the entire scam is said to be worth around Rs30,000 crore.  Those familiar with the Abdul Telgi story, know his fate too.

It is not the first time that the Telgi story has been told on celluloid. In 2009, one unheralded filmmaker Shakir Sheikh had helmed Mudrank: The Stamp. Controversial OTT app Ullu made a series titled Paper [2020] with Rohit Roy playing Telgi. The 2001 stamp paper cases was the first story in Money Mafia season 1. With all due respect to the above creations, but when a Hansal Mehta decides to tell the Telgi story, that is when it evokes larger public interest.

Two decades on, the lasting image of Telgi is the televised result of the Narco-analysis test. Telgi had taken some big political names but such test isn’t admissible as evidence in the court of law. Showrunner Mehta, his director Tushar A Hiranandani are brave to begin Scam 2003 by recreating this Narco-Analysis test. Of course, the bigwigs aren’t named but Telgi gingerly says, “Politicians are the backbone of any business”. As an informed viewer, one is immediately hooked onto Scam 2003.

The series then follows a linear narrative – background, turning point, breakthrough, success, trouble and more trouble.  For a guy who hailed from Khanapur, Belagavi [Karnataka], is it natural for him to harbor big dreams? Nobody imagined that once a fruit seller at a local station would go on to become the kingpin of a Rs30,000 crore stamp paper scam.

In the beginning, young Telgi seemed resigned to selling fruits. During once such day, impressed by his sales skills, Shaukat bhai [Talat Aziz], a Mumbai bound passenger, urges him to come to the city of dreams. Though a Commerce graduate, Telgi found no employment in little known Khanapur. His economic apathy compelled him to try his luck in Mumbai. Where else would he land but at Shaukat bhai’s South-Central Mumbai guest house. Soon Telgi fills the empty guest house with regular guests. In the process, Shaukat’s daughter Nafisa loses her heart to Abdul. 

Sana Amin Sheikh as Nafisa in Scam 2003 [2023]

He himself can’t believe his luck. How could this most beautiful lady marry the ugliest man?  Nevertheless, who would turn down such a blessing. The guest house was, too, small for his big dreams. He indulges into petty trafficking and is soon caught by the local cop Madhukar Dombe [Nandu Madhav]. In custody, he meets a fellow inmate Kaushal Jhaveri [Hemang Vyas], the man who plants the Stamp idea in his head. Though Jhaveri is the architect of the phrase, ‘daring toh karna padega darling’, going ahead, it’s Telgi who truly displays it. He has his original signature line too, “Mujhe paisa kamana nahi, banana hai” (I don’t want to earn money. I wasn’t to make it) . Once a man is ruled by greed, there’s simply no end to his ambitions.

Scam 2003 is based on author Sanjay Singh’s book Telgi Scam: Reporter Ki Diary. We haven’t read it. The (series) disclaimer has made it clear that whilst it is inspired by the particular scam, but it has taken some creative liberties to build characters, drama. A member from the Telgi family had raised objection, accusing the makers of misrepresentation. Her efforts to seek a stay on the series yielded no result.

Through his films, Scam 1992, Hansal Mehta has shown his mettle as a serious filmmaker who knows how to build an engaging narrative around such subjects. Mehta isn’t the director this time, but as showrunner, we presume that Scam 2003 is also his baby. Karan Vyas is the lone writer from Scam 1992 to also write Scam 2003. He is joined by Kiran Yadnyopavit. The duo has penned a highly gripping, engaging screenplay. Mehta often resorts to realism but his stories also stand out for its intriguing characters, and captivating dialogues [dark humour].

Screenshot from Sdam 2003 trailer

Telgi comes with the Belgavi sense of humour. Gagan Dev Riar has similar physical features, but the unheralded actor ‘stamps’ his class and talent all over Vol.1.  For all his nefarious designs, Telgi speaks in a soft tone. He has the gift of the gab.  Riar brilliantly adapts to the Belagavi tone, communicates equally well with his body language.  Scam 1992 made Pratik Gandhi into a household name.  Riar may or may not achieve the same, but as an actor, he has shown abundant talent.

The humanizing of these grey character is often subjective.  Riar makes you empathize with Telgi in certain personal moments. You don’t condone his acts, but deep within there is some admiration for his acumen. It’s a dangerous place to be in for any character/series.  That tiny respect for Telgi is later shattered in an unexpected moment of rage. 

Riar is flawless, but the others too impress. Veteran singer Talat Aziz has found the actor in him this year. Earlier, he was liked for his cameo in Gulmohar [2023].  Shaukat Bhai is the reason why Telgi came to Mumbai. With another compelling act, Aziz has perhaps opened more doors for future acting assignments.

Young Sana Amin Sheikh is impressive as Telgi’s wife Nafisa.  All along, she is a modicum of honesty, and often remains loyal to her husband. This even after the man was known to splurge in dance bars. 

No scam can thrive without a syndicate and support from vultures within the system. Mehta’s Telgi has an interesting analogy for them.  He (Telgi) is the lion in this jungle. He hunts alone, but the spoils will always first be devoured by the hyenas in police, politics and bureaucracy. Once the hyenas have tasted blood, their greed is eternal.  Inspector Madhukar Dombe [Nandu Madhav] is not high in this syndicate hierarchy, but he has the greediest face.  It’s a natural gift that Nandu possesses. He can never change his colors, but the chameleon-like face is his biggest asset in playing Dombe.

Sameer Dharmadhikari has largely played positives roles in his career. He embraces the corrupt politician in Tukaram nicely.  Unheralded veteran Vivek Mishra is endearing as the righteous bureaucrat Madhusudan Mishra.

Screenshot: Gagan Dev Riar and Hemang Vyas

Hemang Vyas surely will help to pull in the loyal Gujarati audience to the Scam franchise.  Jeez, even casting director Mukesh Chhabra makes an impression in a guest appearance.

After two fine opening episodes, the momentum drops a bit in the third. Mehta, director Hiranandani though rebuild it in episode 4 and there’s no looking back. Vol 1. ends at a critical moment setting the stage for a thrilling Vol.2 

The Scam theme music has become addictive from Scam 1992. Ishaan Chhabra leaves his stamp with quality background score in Scam 2003.

The scam series will ways divide opinion.  Hansal Mehta’ though has earned his stripes by telling such stories in a mature, balanced way.  Sony Liv, Hansal Mehta’s latest scamster does hold your attention.

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