Jamtara review: Netflix India’s underdog series washes away the stench of recent big-budget failures
Jamtara: Sabka Number Ayega
Director - Soumendra Padhi
Cast - Sparsh Shrivastava, Anshumaan Pushkar, Monika Panwar, Aksha Pardasany, Amit Sial
At a time when the nexus between politics, the police, and the press is being keenly observed, Netflix’s latest Indian original series, Jamtara, makes a somewhat assured attempt at exposing it for what it really is. It’s something that we’ve always known – few crimes, big or small, can ever be committed without the law being either aware of or prepared for it, and news isn’t limited to what has happened but also what the consumer wants it to be. This is, however, just one of the many narrative threads the 10-episode show weaves through its intricately designed plot.
While it has been billed as a true-crime story – presumably to capitalize on the genre’s global popularity, towards which Netflix has played a major part – Jamtara is really a small-town family drama that mixes in familiar tropes with a fresh-faced energy; a show that feels at once sprawling yet rather simplistic. Watching it unfold, without tripping over itself, I was convinced that Netflix India might finally be onto something. It’s about time.
Watch the Jamtara trailer here
Despite a distressingly cynical premise that suggests greed can corrupt just about anybody, Jamtara is, in its soul of souls, rather hopeful about humanity. By pitting its criminal protagonists against a morally unimpeachable police officer, and to make her a woman in this very masculine world, sends a subtle, yet strong message.
The rest of the time, however, the show resembles the sort of thing I’m sure Anurag Kashyap must be offered on a weekly basis – a rustic crime drama, lyrically written, about power and ambition; a dressing down of the deluded Indian male.
The boys at the centre of Jamtara are all ‘chauthi fail’, a slur of sorts that is often thrown about here, directed at dropouts who’d much rather spend their days harassing women on the streets than staying in school, and despite it all remaining their mothers’ favourite human beings. But their lack of education can barely be compared to their immaturity. They might have lived wholly different lives from ours, but they are, after all, also millennials.
What happens when you provide the uneducated youth of our country with unlimited data? Some choose to spread lies and hate, others allow themselves to be exploited by the political party with the most amount of petty cash in its registers. The more crafty ones, Jamtara suggests, use technology to get back at an invisible adversary. In the show, this takes on the form of a virtual status struggle. These boys have never had anything, and so their first exposure to power ends with them taking out all their frustrations on imagined masters – the urban elite, the rich, the privileged; representatives of the forces that have always kept boys like Sunny and Rocky under their boots. The show humanises criminals, but never celebrates their actions.
Jamtara is the name of a small town in Jharkhand, infamous for having produced and cultivated a legion of criminals that specialize in phishing – a scam through which individuals pose as reputable companies in order to extract personal information such as passwords and credit card details from unsuspecting victims.
This isn’t simply a case of the poor scamming the poor. The majority of victims who fall from scams such as this live in big cities; they’re educated and wealthy (just ask my old editor). Politics in Jamtara isn’t restricted to corrupt, kurta-clad uncles, but also extends to class. By targeting the rich, the boys inadvertently expose the vast class divide our country has been burdened by.
As business booms, the group of boys must not only contend with the police and local political dons, but also infighting. It’s an all too familiar set-up, explored on screen as recently as Amazon’s massively inferior Mirzapur. That show was far too preoccupied by outward posturing - the violence, the swearing, the mayhem - to investigate systemic problems with any intelligence. And while Jamtara is a much tighter show – the episodes are around 20-minutes long, thankfully, excluding credits – it feels grander in scope.
This is partly thanks to director Soumendra Padhi’s lush visual style. His use of digital cameras and anamorphic lenses reminded me of the great Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who also tells rugged rural stories with an unmistakably slick aesthetic. This juxtaposition of the flawless images that digital cameras produce, and the unpolished environment that they are photographing, also has thematic relevance.
But alas, the writing is often far too simplistic by comparison, despite strong central performances across the board. In the six episodes that were provided for preview, the show appeared to be oddly constrained. Whether or not this is a result of a small budget or a limited imagination remains to be seen.
I’m also quite divided on whether the show plays into age-old stereotypes about this region and its inhabitants, or whether it is simply telling their stories with an attention to authenticity. There is a reason why Bihar (and effectively the state of Jharkhand) was once described by author Suketu Mehta as the ‘disaster’ of modern India. It would’ve been insightful of the filmmakers to address this reputation meaningfully, without relying on tired tropes.
Jamtara is too slight to sway the fortunes of Netflix India, which has tossed itself into a stew of its own making with recent disappointments such as Chopsticks, Bard of Blood, Drive, House Arrest and Ghost Stories. But with dozens of originals in various stages of production already, it would be foolish to believe that the refreshing success of a show so small could change the course for a corporation so huge. But once again, like Delhi Crime and Little Things and Typewriter, it is the underdog upon which the streamer must rely on to save face. This is why we signed up.
(The first six episodes of the 10-episode series were provided for preview. This should be considered a review of those six episodes only.)