The story of Harshad Mehta, the infamous stock broker and his involvement in India’s first major financial fraud has captured the imagination of the burgeoning middle-class for years, with his audacious acts of blatant financial trickery repulsive to some, but providing vicarious thrills to others.
And yet, “The Big Bull,” the latest movie on the scam artist, by Kookie Gulati, which claims to be “somewhat inspired by true events,” evokes a different set of emotions from its audiences — that of bewilderment at its comical discrepancies followed by sheer disappointment.
“The Big Bull’ follows the life and times of Hemant Shah, a paper-pushing clerk-turned smalltime stockbroker, who manipulates the loopholes in the country’s archaic banking system to create a massive bull run on the stock exchange. But at a time when the Indian economy was taking its big leap towards liberalization, it was only a matter of time before Shah’s dream run ended in a nightmare.
This rags to riches true story that has captured the collective conscience of the world has been told successfully before in a bestseller and a hugely successful web series, so there is little we don’t know already about India’s multi-crore stock market ‘scam’. So, co-writer and director Gulati had a mammoth task at hand in this two–and-a-half-hour-long feature film.
And for a film that’s ‘somewhat inspired by true events,’ Gulati succeeds only partially, as the real-life story is far more fascinating and exciting. Here, we are quickly taken through Hemant Shah’s (Abhishek Bachchan) journey from a salaried middle-class man to a seasoned stockbroker, without actually seeing him slug it out in the stock market. The basis of his meteoric rise from the common man to the Messiah of the common man, feels rushed and underwhelming.
Glimpses of his modest life in a Mumbai chawl, his relationship with his family and Priya (Nikita Dutta), the girl his heart beats for, takes up more time than his stock market shenanigans. In the second act, however, the film’s narrative picks up pace, as Hemant Shah’s rising popularity and riches earn him name, fame and enemies.
Writers Arjun Dhawan and Gulati manage to build some intrigue and tension around various episodes of Hemant’s run-ins with police, politicians and media, as he brazenly goes about manipulating each and every one. Some scenes stand out for their confrontational value. Also, the non-linear storytelling helps in breaking the monotony of repetitive conflicts. While it’s always a delight to see Mumbai when it was Bombay, the cinematography of the few south Mumbai locations does not live up to our vision of the glorious city.
Soon enough, Ritesh Shah’s uninspired dialogue writing catches up with the goings on, reducing the limitless potential of the endeavor even further. The resultant cinematic offering is a drab mishmash of trope-laden storytelling, laying the groundwork for some ludicrous moments on screens.
Bachchan Jr. delivers a decent performance, despite the fact that his character could have done with so much more depth and detailing. For starters, his appearance remains quite constant from his youth to middle- age, making it hard to believe that his character has indeed come a long way. The repeated loud and fake laughter shots look forced and his chemistry with Dutta is sorely lacking. Hemant’s pursuit of his love interest comes across as forced and unnecessary, culminating in a cringey romantic number that feels out of place, only serving to slow down the pace further.
The likes of Sohum Shah (as Viren, Hemant’s younger brother) and Dutta look jaded too as they try to bring to life characters who are entirely driven by their interaction with the lead figure. Seasoned character actors like Saurabh Shukla, Ram Kapoor and Mahesh Manjarekar light up the screen with their magnetic yet fleeting presence. Ileana D’Cruz, as journalist Meera Rao (based on real-life scribe Sucheta Dalal) digging after Hemant’s scams, tries hard to put up an honest performance. Instead of her character offering an insight into the world of Indian journalism, she appears to be a mere ornamental presence, serving as a lusterless, narrative device.
Gulati and Arjun Dhawan’s screenplay is effective in most places. Ritesh Shah’s dialogues, however, are sharp. Gulati’s direction is decent. Despite Abhishek’s best efforts to portray the fallen stalwart of the Bombay Stock Exchange, the film comes across as a drab attempt to glorify its problematic protagonist.
One cannot help but compare it with last year’s “Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story,” which, unlike this movie, didn’t have the luxury of using fictitious names for familiar characters, to stitch together a radically-altered narrative. And yet, the sheer difference in writing for both the pieces stand out in their stark differences in quality. The former’s diligent attempts at stacking together a coherent narrative only highlights the drawbacks and the breakneck pace at which “The Big Bull” unravels. To top it off, deficiencies in character development plays a major role in stifling the organic build-up of its main story.
Thus, despite “The Big Bull’s” earnest attempts at coming across as a serious drama piece, it ends up locking horns with some basic tenants of logic and practical filmmaking, serving as a cautionary tale for patrons of nuanced storytelling. Watch it if you’re an Abhishek Bachchan fan, but don’t let the stock of your expectations rise too high. “The Big Bull” is playing on Hotstar.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters andPhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at OakGrove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.