The Whistleblower review: Bad writing spoils Vyapam scam-based SonyLIV series
The Whistleblower review: SonyLIV released a new series this Friday, based on the Vyapam scam but it could not come close to the streamer's another scam-inspired marvel.
Like the Americans have made a habit of ravaging third-world countries with war and making films about them to assuage guilt, the new Indian trend seems to be to do the same with financial scams.
Last year, we had SonyLIV’s superhit series Scam 1992 which starred Pratik Gandhi as disgraced stockbroker Harshad Mehta. The same month, Netflix rolled out its docuseries Bad Boy Billionaires, which looked into the wheeling-dealing of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Subrata Roy and Ramalinga Raju.
Such material produces a two-pronged thrill: the viewer gets to know how one games the system to make a quick buck, and, by the end, the anti-hero is punished, because popular entertainment’s job is to dispense moral values. In New India’s fiercely neoliberal political economy, where everything is up for grabs, and the Prime Minister exhorts citizens to be “atmanirbhar” (self-reliant), such stories will naturally be popular.
Watch Whistleblower trailer here:
SonyLIV’s nine-episode The Whistleblower highlights the Vyapam scam i.e the mass-scale rigging of admission exams and recruitment procedures for medical colleges and sundry government jobs organised and overseen by the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, or the Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal (Vyapam). In the Madhya Pradesh-set series, the fictional examination board is Rashtriya Pariksha Mandal.
Under the Vyapam scam, talented proxies wrote exams for undeserving candidates, who went on to score seats, jobs, and become doctors. Between 2013 and 2015, the Vyapam scam came to light. A chunk of the mafia was arrested. Those who came in the way of the mafia or were about to expose the scam, died under mysterious circumstances.
With films and shows about criminal conspiracies, the hero is usually a figure on extreme ends of the good-bad spectrum. Either the hero is the investigator who is digging into the conspiracy from the outside, slowly uncovering murky details, and the audience sees what they see. For e.g, Netflix’s recent series Aranyak. Or the hero is the top bad guy who rises from the bottom and becomes the head of a criminal empire, and the audience hopes they get away with it. For e.g, Scam 1992. Netflix’s Sacred Games had both the types.
The problem with The Whistleblower is that the hero is neither the top good guy, like a cop or a journalist, or the top bad guy. He is in the middle, a part of the scam. At some point, he switches sides and becomes a good guy. As we follow this hero, we also learn how the scam operates, so there’s no mystery left. But because the hero is also not the ringleader, this is also not the story of an all-powerful anti-hero getting his just desserts.
Final-year medical student Sanket (Ritwik Bhowmik) is the titular whistleblower. From episode one itself, Sanket is a brat who doesn’t inspire sympathy or empathy. His father is the Dean of a private medical college and hospital, so he has no issues with money. But he becomes part of the scam to get a “kick” out of it. He cheats on his girlfriend with her sister and his shenanigans lead to the death of a family member. After this tragedy, Sanket, who until then had no inner life, takes a U-Turn and becomes a ‘double agent’. I am not making moral judgements, but such an unremarkable, stupid kid who is out of his depth, conning a dangerous mafia--Bunty-Babli style--and getting the bad guys arrested, is unbelievable by any stretch of imagination.
The Whistleblower is created by Ritesh Modi and directed by Manoj Pillai. Ajay Monga has written the story, and co-written the screenplay with Shivang Monga. The dialogue is by Ajay Monga and Chintan Gandhi. Their research is on point. We get to know several details about how a scam of this nature and scale operates state-wide. But the writers are unable to turn this research into compelling drama. Relationships between characters are not well-established. They are frequently shown to be either gullible or forgiving of one another’s past indiscretions, just so that the plot can chug along. The only relationship that gets some kind of a clear arc is the one between Dadda (Ravi Kishan), one of the top minds of the mafia, and Sanket, with whom he develops a mentor-protege relationship. Ravi Kishan is the best thing in the 400-minute-plus series, which is mostly a tiresome watch.
The series’ problems are at the writing level. The writers don’t seem to know who is the most compelling character in this story. (The intrepid journalist, played by Ashish Verma, is a more interesting character than Sanket, for example). Good actors like Sonali Kulkarni and Zakir Hussain are wasted in badly written roles. The villains spend most of their time sitting on sofas and chairs, making calls to one another. The heroes’ harebrained schemes to trap them are out of Famous Five or the likes. And all the deaths happen offscreen for some reason.
The Whistleblower is altogether a bad me-too Scam 1992. If you are hungry for a better watch on the same subject, try the 2020 Hindi film Halahal, which also stars Sachin Khedekar as a good doctor helplessly drawn into the rabbit hole of evil.
Director: Manoj Pillai
Cast: Ritwik Bhowmik, Ravi Kisan, Sonali Kulkarni and others