What makes the Harshad Mehta story resonate today?
For one, this is the story of a working-class cowboy strutting into the highest echelons of India’s banking system and political corridors, manipulating them to his favour. For a while, Mehta’s bull run in the stock market became a one-stop solution for India’s middle-class to mint money in the post-liberalisation 1990s. It is also the story of a time when journalism managed to get a high-profile crook his just deserts.
Today, the Indian economy is in a tailspin, and India’s World Press Freedom ranking is an abysmal 142 in a list of 180 nations. The Harshad Mehta story has all the reasons to make a return. Above all, it serves as a harbinger for homegrown crony capitalism that has only intensified ever since.
Kookie Gulati’s Disney+ Hotstar release The Big Bull stars Abhishek Bachchan as Hemant Shah in a fictionalised retelling of the exceptionally juicy Harshad Mehta story. The problem with the 155-minute movie is that this story has been told much better in a 10-episode series that was released merely six months ago.
The Hansal Mehta production Scam 1992, which featured the use of real names as much as possible, had way better performances, direction, writing, production design, and score. Its writers also had the time to delve in detail into a complex web of data, information, and news, all of which had to be put in context of India’s political economy at the time.
Furthermore, what doesn’t work in favour of The Big Bull is that the screenplay by Kookie Gulati and Arjun Dhawan does not offer any new insights to the Harshad Mehta story.
Most biopics are pedestrian visual accounts of Wikipedia pages of their subjects. The Big Bull is no different. It unfolds as a series of events that have to be ticked off a list. Abhishek Bachchan’s lazy and uninspired performance makes matters worse. Nowhere on his face is the smouldering rage and brash brattiness of a street-smart conman which the character is on paper. Perhaps, Bachchan wanted to play the character cool, while Pratik Gandhi essayed Harshad Mehta with flair. It does not work.
Without the shadow of Scam 1992, The Big Bull could have appeared slightly better.
A novel way to crack a biopic which has already been attempted before was shown by ace screenwriter Aaron Sorkin with the Danny Boyle-directed Steve Jobs (2015). This arrived two years after the forgettable Jobs (2013), starring Ashton Kutcher as the legendary Apple co-founder. Sorkin picked just three key moments from Jobs’s life and amplified them to give perspective to a popular and complex character, much like Harshad Mehta.
Taking a stab at the Harshad Mehta story from a similarly oblique angle could have helped. What we have instead is a paint-by-numbers movie. Its best contribution will perhaps be felt at screenwriting classes. A comparative look at the screenplays of Scam 1992 and The Big Bull could help one understand how to expand and contract the same story to produce two different products.
Without the shadow of Scam 1992, The Big Bull could have appeared slightly better. There are little moments to appreciate here, which are mostly the supporting performances. Samir Soni is sharp as a politician’s industrialist son. The always dependable Saurabh Shukla is fantastic as a bear trader. Sohum Shah churns out a functional performance as Hemant Shah’s brother-cum-man Friday. Ileana D’Cruz isn’t bad either. Abhishek Bachchan, who cannot catch a break with nearly any role, unless Mani Ratnam is directing him, single-handedly drags The Big Bull down.
The conspicuous similarity between the approach taken by the makers of both Scam 1992 and The Big Bull is that both parties are on the side of the charismatic hustler. After Guru (2007), in which Bachchan had the similar role of a Dhirubhai Ambani-inspired capitalist thug, he once again thunders about the injustices of the elusive “system”. It’s one thing for the big bull to create a pretence of moral conviction, but do his chroniclers also have to buy his bull?