Culture & Society

From Rural Moneylending To Stock Market Manipulation, The Bollywood’s Portrayal Of Financial Scams

While financial crime is not something often seen in Bollywood films, web series like ‘Scam 2003: The Telgi Story’ and ‘Scam 1992’ are some examples that have gone deep into how the scamsters in these cases identified obvious gaps in the system and exploited those using their daring, intelligence, and influencing ability.

Film still from ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ (1953)
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Honest young banker Ashok Tandon is falsely accused of stealing Rs. 10 lakhs from his employer Citizen’s Bank and gets imprisoned for seven years. After serving his jail term, he seeks revenge against his former colleagues at the Bank that had framed him. One of Ashok’s (now in disguise as Bikram Singh) schemes was to make them invest heavily in shares of Lamington Jute to rig the price. But when the market opens there are no takers for Lamington Jute scrip. Its share value falls like a stone from a Scottish cliff, and Ashok’s culprits go bankrupt.

Financial crime is not something often seen in Bollywood films. Even in infrequent examples like ‘Jeevan Mrityu’ (1970) above, the scriptwriters rarely delve into the details of the crime. But web series like ‘Scam 2003: The Telgi Story’ about the counterfeiting of stamp papers by Abdul Karim Telgi in the early 2000s and ‘Scam 1992’ about the stock market manipulation by Harshad Mehta in the 1990s have gone deep into how these two individuals identified obvious gaps in the system and exploited those using their daring, intelligence, and influencing ability. Surfing the wave of the popularity of these scam-related web series, it may be worth meeting a few conmen of Bollywood films who misused the financial apparatus.

The earliest culprits were the sahukar (the moneylenders) who performed a gap-filling function addressing a class of borrowers who were not eligible to borrow from the banks and non-banking financial companies (NBFCs). These sahukars would lend money to the villagers at exorbitant rates, landing the poor man into a debt trap for life. Though moneylending laws were in place, could an illiterate villager even read these, let alone interpret? For example, Thakur Harnam Singh (Murad) in ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ (1953) coerced the illiterate villager Shambhu to sell his 2 bighas (approximately 1.25 acre) to Thakur. When Shambhu refuses, the angered Thakur orders Shambhu to repay a loan that Shambhu had taken from the Thakur. The doctored loan document showed an amount of Rs 235.50 due against the Rs 65 that Shambhu believed he owed. This was forgery, not dissimilar to the way we saw the books of SBI being overwritten in ‘Scam 1992’. Submerged in debt, Shambhu tries to find work in Calcutta and is forced to work as a coolie and then as a hand rickshaw puller while his pregnant wife desperately waits for Shambhu to return to the village.   

Another form of financial fraud that appeared to be a favourite among Hindi film makers was currency counterfeiting. ‘Jaali Note’ (1960) showed a gang headed by a faceless ‘Boss’ distributing fake money from Shangrila Hotel which was its distribution centre. The outfit was fully equipped with a printing press inside a fort surrounded by water. A somewhat similar ‘Smuggler’ (1966) was about a gang headed by Deendayal, running a racket of counterfeit currency inside the Venus Soap Factory. In ‘Diwana’ (1967) a village simpleton Pyare becomes a mule for fake currency amounting to Rs 250,000. Not that the public is unaware of these crimes. But these films infused with action, comedy, romance and in instances like ‘Jaali Note’, melodrama where the ‘Boss’ turns out to be the long-lost father of Inspector Dinesh, created relatable stories out of columns of reportage. However, one wishes that these narratives had gone into some level of detail on how these fakes were manufactured. But all we got see was briefcase-filled fake currencies preceded and followed by the chase. 

‘Dus Numbri’ (1976) at least showed us a pair of blocks used for printing 100-rupee notes but then introduced incredulity by having the police fit transmitters into the blocks. Maybe the scriptwriters were themselves unaware or maybe they presumed that these details would have bogged the pace of the story down and would have bored the audience. This is where narratives like those in the web series ‘Farzi’ (2023) with their insights into the ink, dye, plates, artwork and even the thickness of paper rank far superior. Analyses film expert Kaushik Bhaumik, “Firstly ‘Jaali Note’, ‘Smuggler’, ‘Dus Numbri’ were made long ago and for a non-multiplex audience that wanted pacy ‘masala’. Today it is a more discerning ‘multiplex profile’ audience that has the intellect and appreciation for details. These are also OTT viewers.” 

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This nuance in the audience profile that Bhaumik points out is evident in films around that one financial crime that rattled the moorings of the Indian Banking system — the stock market scam in the early 1990s. This was captured on screen in ‘Gafla’ (2006), ‘Baazaar’ (2018), and ‘The Big Bull’ (2021). In these films the research is evident. And they needed to be so because these are topical films that demanded depth and yet, did not look like a documentary. Here’s where Bollywood could pick a few leaves off Hollywood feature films like ‘The Big Short’ (2015) or ‘Wall Street’ (1987). Another advantage that the ‘Scam’ web series enjoys is its flexibility and run time. Says Bhaumik, “The longer cumulative run time of a web series allows for detailing, while its episodic structure lets the audience allows the audience to breathe.” 

The timing of a film is important too. Credit card fraud has been a major headache for issuing banks for the last two decades. ‘Phandebaaz’ (1978) showed credit card usage fraud in which an underemployed daydreamer Raj, who gets hold of a Diners’ Club card of some other person, starts making heavy purchases with that by forging the original card owner’s signature. Now, this nature of financial fraud could not click with an audience back then as India hardly had any credit card users in 1978.      

Financial scams need not be related to banks and stock markets alone. Everyone is aware of the cricket betting scandal in the late 1990s where several cricketers were either banned or suspended. That Bollywood would pick up this hot topic was a foregone conclusion. Soon came ‘Ghulam’ (1998), followed by ‘Supari’ (2003) and ‘Chamku’ (2001) — all touching the betting mafia. ‘Jannat’ (2008) showed a South African match-fixing don called Abu Ibrahim using the proceeds of betting money to finance terrorism and insurgency. It also showed an Asian cricket team’s foreign coach catching the captain Shadab red-handed negotiating with the mafia. The coach gets shot to death. This was a take-off on Pakistan’s loss to Ireland in the 2007 Cricket World Cup and Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer’s death hours later.

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So, what comes next in financial scams? Credit card fraud? Or Fintech, Cryptocurrencies and NFT, maybe? All the scriptwriters need to do is keep reading the daily newspapers.  

(Balaji Vittal is a National Award winning and MAMI Award-winning author of Bollywood books, a columnist, a Bollywood commentator, and a public speaker. He can be reached on Twitter at @vittalbalaji and his website is www.balajivittal.com. Views expressed are personal.)

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