On the surface, The Big Bull and SonyLIV's 2020 show Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story are on the same subject " the rags-to-riches-to-jail journey of the Mumbai stockbroker who was at the centre of a multi-crore securities scam in the early '90s. And that is where all the similarities begin and end.
While the Hansal Mehta and Jai Mehta-directed series is an official screen adaptation of The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away by Debashis Basu and Sucheta Dalal, Kookie Gulati's film starts with the disclaimer " "this film is somewhat inspired by true events and is a fictional piece of work." This means that Gulati and Arjun Dhawan, who have written the screenplay, have invented a new identity " Hemant Shah (Abhishek Bachchan) " for their anti-hero but follow the same beats of the life of the infamous stockbroker millionaire.
The Bachchan-starrer cannot escape from the long shadow cast by what is undoubtedly one of the best Indian web series made in recent years. It is almost impossible to not compare, and The Big Bull comes off badly while Scam 1992 was a career-defining work by Mehta, who mixed easily digestible technical jargon with human drama to tell this gripping tale of financial fraud.
Truth vs "somewhat" inspired
While the show catapulted its leads Pratik Gandhi (who played Mehta) and Shreya Dhanwanthary (who played journalist Sucheta Dalal) on to the big stage, the film wastes its talented cast. And this is no cast to be scoffed at " apart from Bachchan Jr, the film also stars Ileana D'Cruz (playing Meera Rao, a stand-in for Dalal), Ram Kapoor (Ram Jethmalani stand-in), and Sohum Shah (Viren, the protagonist's younger brother).
Bollywood vs long-form format
The Big Bull was meant to be a theatrical release, which means that the story has been Bollywoodised. There is a love angle complete with friends setting up the couple, parental opposition, and a soulful love song set in Delhi. There is also a union leader who is surrounded by gun-toting henchmen and a back-stabbing brother to throw in some family drama. Do not get me wrong. None of this would have been a bad thing on its own and if done well, but when compared to the attention that has been given to detail on the series, the disaster that is the film is magnified.
Like the Mehtas of Scam 1992, the Shahs are obviously Gujarati but you would be hard-pressed to find any references except for the scene where the wives are making theplas before the family sits down watch to Mahabharat. And that is just one of the things that remind one of bad Bollywood fare " the template is always North Indian.
Lack of detail aside, the tropes are also straight out of 1990s Bollywood, making the film look jaded and like a relic from a past best forgotten.
For example, because the director wants to emphasise that Bachchan's character has evil shades, he has him cackling much like the demon Betaal from the Vikram-Betaal stories. It is all just supremely tacky, and if that was not enough, you have an ear-splitting rap track with lyrics like "dikhne mein sundar ye kaante wale phool, phool se bhara dekh mera pool, tum hoge yahan ke principal, Par main hoon poora school' that plays over a montage of Shah's transformation from a regular office-goer to a much-revered broker.
Glorified messiah vs full-blown character
Scam 1992, which has the luxury of time (the 10-episode series runs to almost nine hours), paints Gandhi's Mehta as both a charismatic scamster and a high-profile victim. Gulati, on the other hand, chooses to romanticise Mehta's legacy with Meera even declaring, "Maybe he taught a country how to dream". Even his critics crown him the 'one and only Big Bull' while singing his praises for triggering economic boom in a country that was on the brink of bankruptcy. There is no mention of the lakhs of small investors whose lives were destroyed by his manipulations and the subsequent scam. Instead, he is painted as a Robin Hood-esque figure who was driven by his love for the country and took on the whole political system that was rigged against him.
Journalist vs just a narrator
The other primary protagonist in the real-life story of Mehta is the financial journalist who doggedly pursued the story, uncovering little details that ultimately became the biggest story of her career. The Big Bull, while completely erasing Debashish Basu's contribution to exposing the scam, also reduces Meera to being little more than just the narrator of the story. Bollywood almost never gets journalism and journalists right so it is not surprising that this film does not either, but the newsroom in the film and Meera's methods are just laughable. Unlike Scam 1992, where one gets a sense of Dalal's journalistic integrity, the need for on-record evidence and newsroom politics, in the film Meera just walks into the audit room in a bank and goes through their books.
It is not unheard of to have multiple screen adaptations of the same story. In Hollywood, 'twin movies' is now an established tradition. Danny Boyle's series Trust and Ridley Scott's film All The Money in the World were both based on the Getty kidnapping. Winston Churchill was the subject of Darkest Hour and Churchill, that released in the same year. In 2012, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were action thrillers set in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There is also Zodiac and The Zodiac, Coco Chanel, and Coco Before Chanel, Jobs, and Steve Jobs. Closer home, in 2002 three Bhagat Singh biopics " Shaheed-E-Azam, 23 March 1931: Shaheed, and The Legend of Bhagat Singh hit theatres within weeks. Interestingly the latter starred Ajay Devgn, who is a co-producer of The Big Bull.
There is obviously place for multiple retellings of a story as long as it is done well. In this case, it just was not.
The Big Bull is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Multiplex.