Introduced as a fruit-seller in a train who wraps the produce in copies of his degree certificate, Scam 2003: The Telgi Story’s protagonist Abdul Karim Telgi (Gagan Dev Riar) instantly strikes you as someone with a panache for ‘selling’. From that moment on, the audience gets an even deeper insight into this ability.
After being scouted by a guesthouse owner, he eventually gets married to the man’s daughter and moves to the Gulf to make money. However, he doesn’t believe the distance from his family to be worth it and moves back to Mumbai where he starts off making counterfeit documents for people who want to go abroad to work. He fancies himself a Robinhood of sorts – he is only helping the poor, he argues.
A stint in a prison cell introduces him to a friend and business partner Kaushal (Hemang Vyas). They both decide to move into a business of counterfeiting stamp papers. Kaushal shares Telgi’s vision but not his drive.
Scam 2003: The Telgi Story is directed by Tushar Hiranandani and Scam 1992 director Hansal Mehta serves as a showrunner. This is perhaps why the latter’s charm is all but evident in the former. Scam 2003’s writing is taut and gets to the point – there is very little beating around the bush. The first few episodes, however, do have a very similar linear progression – Telgi continues to approach people whose palms he can grease to get his business off the ground.
The only difference is that these palms belong to bigger and bigger sharks as the show progresses – sharks that Telgi compares to hyenas with himself placed at the lofty throne of the lion.
Telgi's journey of going from a lion to a scapegoat doesn't hold the audience's attention because it's novel. Instead, it's Riar's brilliant performance that keeps you hooked. One continues to wonder how Telgi will get out of every hurdle partly because of how well Riar has captured the character's every nuance and subtlety.
From the slight smirk when he knows he has been thrown under the bus to the glint in his eyes when he uncovers a path to success, his act sets him apart from the show's setting but he doesn't stick out like a sore thumb.
Telgi enters, faces pushback, presents an undeniable selling pitch and his problem is solved. At some point, even clever dialogues can't save the show from seeming monotonous. The only respite comes from Telgi's battle of wits and perseverance against an honest manner of a Nashik-based factory that handles printing.
It's not all in vain though. One of the necessities of a show like this is that it requires a little exposition – the main character, in this case Telgi, must explain some of his ideas like the audience is 10.
For this, multiple characters who require sale pitches to be sold on Telgi's lofty promises play an important role.
Scam 2003 is an astute exploration of a character like Telgi – one who is blinded by his ambition to the point where he laments that he is among those most affected by the horrific riots happening in Mumbai.
It delves into how the powerful hold on to power and attempts to satirise how the common man is almost always kept at the fringes of this power play even when he sees himself as an unlikely ally.
From corrupt cops to politicians, everyone enters the fray but everyone is looking out for themselves.
With Scam 2003, it's difficult to not draw comparisons to Scam 1992, especially since I've seen the world 'Scamverse' be thrown around. The latter was easily one of the best web series released that year but the very amount of entertainment that they managed to fill into every episode is missing here.
Nevertheless, only five episodes of the former are available for now. If the show only gets better from here, there's still some wonder to behold.