The protagonist of the new Hindi film The Big Bull is called Hemant Shah, but it is clear from the story, its location, the time period in which it is set and its covert promotions that it is based on the life of the infamous stockbroker Harshad Mehta. Even the convoluted opening disclaimer begins with the words "this film is somewhat inspired by true events".
Why the producers avoided using real names is a mystery, since they have played the then Finance Minister (subsequently Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh's voice from an archival TV bulletin (or is that a voice doppelganger?) at a crucial juncture in the narrative, and in one scene the camera falls on a figure very obviously physically modelled on the bald-headed, dhoti-wearing late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. To leave viewers in no doubt about the subject of the biopic yet leave enough room for denials if required? Okay then.
Abhishek Bachchan plays Hemant Shah in The Big Bull
Mehta is synonymous with the 1992 securities scam. He was routinely on the front pages of newspapers back then as he faced charges of manipulating the stock market. Journalists chronicled his phenomenal rise from modest beginnings to his even more sensational descent into disgrace. His is obviously a story worth telling " more dramatic than most fiction writers could imagine. It is unsurprising then that he has so far been the focus of writings, films and series including Hansal Mehta's acclaimed web show, Scam 1992, that is streaming on SonyLIV. The Big Bull directed by Kookie Gulati seems to have been made with the dual goals of humanising Harshad Mehta and dispersing blame for his deeds.
Supriya Pathak Kapur and Sohum Shah
Actor Abhishek Bachchan has been cast in this film as the fictionalised Hemant Shah, a man from a lower middle-class economic background who becomes interested in the stockbroking business in the late 1980s. Hemant detects loopholes in the Indian banking system and uses systemic weaknesses to his advantage in his profession, ultimately becoming the highest tax payer in the country. His brother Viren (Sohum Shah) and mother (Supriya Pathak Kapur) are worried about the speed at which he attains stratospheric levels of wealth, but he will not slow down. Somewhere along the way, he also marries his sweetheart Priya (Nikita Dutta).
The Big Bull's questionable production values " including glaring use of CGI " are staring off the screen from pretty early in the narrative. What works all the same is the way the writers " Gulati himself, Arjun Dhawan and Ritesh Shah " steer clear of too much jargon and demystify Hemant's financial machinations by smartly getting conversations going in laypersons' language without coming off as evident explainers for inexpert viewers.
I enjoyed these portions, the investigations by journalist Meera Rao (Ileana D'Cruz) and Hemant's grandiose conviction that he was doing what he was doing for India's sake, to make the stock market accessible to ordinary Indians. Even if you have not followed the events around the real-life Mehta, there is logic in the film's own conviction that Hemant alone was not culpable in the scam and his mistake " articulated by a lawyer played by Ram Kapoor " was that he got caught.
However, this reasoning and Hemant's pomposity are gradually clouded by the writers' defence of the man through his words and through other characters, including the journalist responsible for his fall. Having pulled down Hemant, Meera Rao spends a considerable length of time in The Big Bull pedestalising and romanticising him.
Even while all this is happening, the team of the film comes across as being conscious of their bias, which can be the only explanation for why they tie themselves in knots in a bid to look and sound balanced. This convoluted effort leads to verbosity that is the ultimate downfall of The Big Bull.
When a member of the public on Twitter asked Abhishek Bachchan why he should watch The Big Bull when he has already seen Scam 1992, the star " an ace at repartee on social media " replied, "I'm in it." In a sense he is right. There is curiosity around a film starring him as the solo lead after such a long time. This is an actor with a likeable screen presence, and his sincere performance in the ensemble film Ludo just months back was a reminder of how watchable he can be.
Abhishek has clearly worked hard on his body and body language for the part of Hemant. He does not lose himself in the role such that the actor is replaced by the character he plays, but he is moderately effective " well at least to the extent that it is possible to be, considering the gymnastics that the screenplay indulges in.
The supporting cast includes several naturalistic actors. Sohum Shah (Ship of Theseus, Tumbbad) has one of the meatiest of these roles and does well as the ethically conflicted, less ambitious brother who remains in Hemant's shadow. Kanan Arunachalam is first-rate as a banking official associated with Hemant.
If you can ignore the moony look Ileana D'Cruz's Meera acquires when she speaks of Hemant on a book promotion tour (and her makeup team's idea of ageing), one has to say that she gets the on-the-job demeanour and attire of a journalist right, which is not something one can often say about actors who play journalists in Bollywood.
In the end, that matters little in the face of the lack of clarity in the writing of The Big Bull.
Rating: 2 (out of 5 stars)
The Big Bull is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.