The crime drama retells one of India’s most famous debacles, based on the 1993 book ‘The Scam: Who Won, who Lost, who Got Away’ by journalist Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu
If you followed the Indian stock market closely in the Eighties and early Nineties, stockbroker Harshad Mehta is a name you couldn’t escape. Nicknamed the Big Bull or Amitabh Bachchan of the stock market, he rose to prominence within the Indian securities industry trading in shares and amassing wealth that included his Worli penthouse and fleet of cars.
However, all this came crashing down when in 1992 it was revealed that Mehta’s success had been achieved through a securities scam he ran. The events of the same were chronicled in the book The Scam: Who Won, who Lost, who Got Away by journalist Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu which has now been adapted into a web crime drama series that premiered on streaming platform SonyLiv, directed by Hansal Mehta.
In this interview with Rolling Stone India, actors Pratik Gandhi and Shreya Dhanwanthary, who play Mehta and Dalal respectively, talk to us about how they adapted to playing real-life characters, the making of the series, their thoughts on the actual incident and more.
What do you remember from when you first got the call to play Harshad Mehta and Sucheta Dalal?
Gandhi: What I remember is the shocking reaction to myself. I couldn’t believe if this really happened or not. It all started with a phone call with Hansal [Mehta] sir, then he called me for an audition. Post that he called me over to his place and offered the role, saying there is this character of Harshad Mehta and we want you to play it. And I just couldn’t believe what just happened. That’s how I got the role.
Dhanwanthary: I was very excited about the prospect of working on this massive show with Hansal, who I have been a big fan of. And when I got the role, I was so excited that I did not realize until way later, ‘Holy crap, I actually have to play a very accomplished woman.’ This living, breathing person who can look at what I am doing and say that it is complete crap. The tension hit me way later, as first, it was just excitement.
What was your preparation for this role and what were some of the nuances you brought to your performance?
Dhanwanthary: In terms of preparation for this role, Hansal guided all of us because all of us were based on real-life characters and we were playing real characters. So, we obviously did the regular housekeeping, like reading articles we could get our hands on because she [Dalal] has a very distinct voice and articles she has written. Archival footage, interviews if any so on so forth. We did dive deep into all of that. Apart from this, he made it very clear that we were not to mimic anyone who we were playing. It was not particularly caricaturist. We were advised to internalize everything so that any behavior or mannerism we create would look a lot more natural and a lot more lived-in according to the times we were playing. I am very glad that a lot of my journalist friends are calling me up and telling me that I have done justice to the role. So, whatever I did I guess really worked. You have no idea how relieved I am.
Gandhi: As a part of the preparation, I firstly read a lot about Harshad Mehta through different sources. I wanted to know what people thought about him, and the theories and perceptions they have created around him. And the script of course was like a bible for us. 550 pages of the script was a detailed research document in itself. And then there were a couple of video interviews of Harshad which I saw. I also met a lot of people who had worked with him in the past, to understand him better. I also learned the sign languages of the stock market, which are used by the jobbers in the BSE [Bombay Stock Exchange] ring. As far as nuances are concerned, Hansal sir and I both knew it was a bit challenging to look like him. That’s when he told me to have a bigger body frame and I’ll have to put on weight, and I did gain 18 kilos of weight, to look as close as possible to Harshad. Other than that, we worked on bringing the right attitude, a slight change in the walking style. These were some little things we did to bring the character alive.
Is it a boon or a bane playing a real-life person as opposed to a fictional character?
Gandhi: It’s a very interesting phase to be for an actor. I have created many real-life characters on stage while doing theater. I’ve been doing a lot of monologues, in Hindi, English and Gujarati. But to do it for the screen and for such a big project is challenging. Had it been a film, it is still limited as far as the screen time and the overall graph is concerned, whereas, for this format, it demands an actor to create and maintain the character for 10 hours of screen time. That is equivalent to five films. So, I absolutely consider myself lucky to be in this place to be able to perform his character.
Dhanwanthary: It’s a boon to play both. Honestly. If there was any bane situation it would only be the extra pressure on the fact that you are living up to an image that someone has. Someone has lived a rich colorful life and you are trying to essay that in whatever little time you have. Whether it’s in a web series format or a film. Otherwise, it is a boon to play anything. If you get a good script and a well fleshed-out character to dive into the layers and to create something from the ground up in terms of fiction or re-live something which has already been said, lived, and told. it’s truly an enriching experience either way.
How well versed were you about the actual events of the 1992 scam before the series?
Dhanwanthary: I was not exactly born during that period when the scam started which is the early Eighties and Nineties. I just knew of the fact that something like this had happened and this is something I know because of my dear dad who is a finance and revenue person. We grew up in the Middle East and we were away from India. So, he made sure we had a healthy dose of general knowledge about the world and our homeland. So, he used to sit us down and explain things, so I knew it as a matter of the fact but I did not know deep the stories behind it were which I came to know obviously after reading the 550 pages script of the show.
Gandhi: I did not have a detailed idea about the technicalities involved, but I was in school in ’92 and my first cousin had lost a lot of money because of this scam. ’92 was the time when we also had communal riots. I was in Surat back then and I knew something weird was happening around the world.
What can you tell me about the making of the series and what were some of the moments that stood out for you?
Gandhi: The biggest challenge is that it is a massive project in itself and then to create that era of the Eighties and Nineties when you shoot outdoors was difficult. All the buildings have mobile towers now, and everywhere you see a digital world around you. And that was not the case then. So, hats off to the entire team, direction, photography, set designers who were able to create the Nineties feel on set. Apart from that, another challenge was we were working with a huge cast of 65-70 people, it was a tremendous task to shoot over nine months. That was very challenging.
Dhanwanthary: Interestingly [there were] surmountable hurdles not particularly challenges. There were hurdles for which we had to figure out ways to overcome. Because like I said you are playing a journalist who accomplished so much. She was the first female financial journalist and is a Padma Shri award-winning journalist for the work she has done. She is one of the people who brought the term scam into the public lexicon. So, in terms of that is absolutely a privilege. The production design, the art design, costumes by Arun [Chauhan], everybody on that set was very well versed with the world we were trying to create, and everybody played their part so beautifully. I feel I did the least amount of work, it’s like I showed up because everyone else did their jobs so well that they made it very easy for me to play my part. I am so grateful and still can’t believe the response.
How have you been during the pandemic and what’s been keeping you busy?
Dhanwanthary: I am very grateful that I got a guilt-free wonderful time to spend with family, an uninterrupted time. I think in the way we have been living our lives it’s just been one thing after the other, we don’t think to pause and reflect. The year we’re living through, has changed a lot of priorities, shifted perspective, and slowed down the pace. Well, I wrote, directed, and produced a series [A Viral Wedding] early this year which is streaming on Eros Now with a beautiful and wonderful cast.
Gandhi: As I mentioned, I had gained good enough weight to get into Harshad’s character. We finished shooting on March 5th and from the 15th, the lockdown was announced. So, it worked out in my favor, because the first 60 days, I used that time to shred off the extra weight. And apart from that, despite taking full precautions, I and my family were tested positive for the virus. So that also took one and a half months of time to recover. So that’s been my lockdown.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
Gandhi: Next, I am hearing a lot of scripts now for web series. Good mainstream films and projects are coming my way. Scam 1992 has proved to be a great milestone in my career. Apart from that, I will keep continuing with my regional cinema work.
Dhanwanthary: I just want to keep providing stories, entertainment and I hope for more opportunities. I have Family Man [web series] coming up in December and I have a project with [director-producer] Nikhil Advani coming next year and a couple of other things.