Betting on Bombay: What it took to turn the clock back for web series Scam 1992
It’s like time travel, in a city least suited to such a thing. So how did Hansal Mehta and his team recreate the Bombay of the 1980s and early 1990s so effectively, for the web series Scam 1992?
Most of the on-location shoots had to be done in South Mumbai, says director of photography Pratham Mehta. “It’s the only part of the city that hasn’t been rendered unrecognisable over the past 30 years.”
In South Mumbai, the crew sought out structures that had been shuttered for decades or left stuck in time. “The RBI office was set inside a college. We used their library and made the books look like files. For the SBI office we used an old CBI office that was shut down in the ’90s. The CBI office in the series is actually a functioning BMC office, where we shot on weekends,” Pratham says.
It helped that the city is so well-documented, he adds. “We had plenty of old photographs to fall back on for visual cues.”
The 10-episode web series streaming on Sony Liv follows the life of Harshad Mehta, the stockbroker behind the securities scam that led to the stock market crash of 1992, as well as new laws and permanent changes to how India traded in stocks. It was after the crash of ’92 that the country moved to demat or dematerialised accounts and introduced more stringent documentation.
The brief was always to follow “the time rather than the man,” says production designer Payal Ghose. This meant vintage furniture, lamps, upholstery — even a special hunt to find enough of the checked shirts that were the uniform of the white-collar up-and-comer.
“From the ’80s to the ’90s, that’s a crucial period of change and transition, the look and feel of spaces and interiors had to reflect that. A government office, for instance, had to look authentic, they could not be aspirational,” she says. “Politician George Fernandes, part of the joint parliamentary committee that was investigating the scam, was a certain kind of person. The top shot of his room [in which journalist Sucheta Dalal who was following the Harshad Mehta story rummages through the files] with Fernandes’ table thus had to be full of study materials; his bookshelves, the pedestal lamp and the jacquard upholstery are period-appropriate.”
“The hardest part of my job was the numbers. We had around 300 people that I had to dress accurately,” says costume designer Arun J Chauhan. He looked up documentaries on the BSE to understand the dress code of brokers. “Sucheta’s look [the series is based on Sucheta and Debashis Basu’s book,The Scam: Who Won, Who lost, Who got away] was the most difficult to crack. She wasn’t a fashion conscious person, for her it was just about the story…we tried high-waist skirts on her that Indian girls wore in the 80s and 90s and in the end decided that a salwar kameez, would be the best for her,” says Chauhan.
The mission was to evoke another world. “India was on the cusp of change. The economy was controlled and needed restructuring. Technology had not yet taken over,” says Hansal Mehta. In the Dharavi sequences, for instance, the crew had to shoot so as to show no dish antennas.
What you get on the screen, then, is a Mumbai of raw enterprise, jugaad, big dreams of big money — captured with all the effervescence that marked the 1990s, as markets opened up and anything seemed possible, at least for a while.
For a young man on the make like Harshad Mehta, the son of a failed small businessman, risks yawned on every side. He was a rank outsider in a market of established big fish. “Risk hai toh ishq hai,” he says, with a lopsided smile. He embraces the challenge because he has no choice.
“When I was deciding how to play him, I thought of his origins in the lower middle class, his huge aspirations, the class divide he was made aware of everywhere he went,” says actor Pratik Gandhi, who plays the broker. “He was a man trying to break through walls and so his emotional graph had to take in his dreams, his confidence, his over-confidence, and that took him to a point where he could have stopped himself, and should have, but did not or could not…It’s such a Mumbai story as well.”
From a chawl home, he makes it to a luxury apartment complex in Worli. But there’s the sense of transience that comes with all success in cities like Mumbai, where nothing is really permanent and what you build can vanish overnight, either in the face of someone hungrier, luckier or more ruthless — or because it was a tenuous reality founded on fantasy to begin with.
At the BSE today, brokers have their own chambers and sit at computers. The circular trading ring that is the centre of the action in Scam 1992 is now a convention hall.
Harshad Mehta, the man who shook its foundations, died while serving out his sentence, in 2001, aged 47. “Pick any great scam and it’s the same graph,” says Gandhi. “It’s rags to riches, a rise and then a great fall. Greed kills.”