‘Jamtara’ Review: A Scam Worth Investing In
With cinematography that’s artistic, dialogue that’s raw and even background performances that stun, this Indian original can move on from the drama standard set by Netflix’s ‘Sacred Games’
★ ★ ★ ★
*The review contains mild spoilers
In the village of Jamtara, 17-year-old Sunny Mondal (Sparsh Shrivastav) goes to the bank to withdraw money from someone else’s account. That’s not uncommon in this part of the country. Gaining notoriety in 2015, the Jamtara district made headlines when reports of phishing cases emerged from its tiny, nondescript towns and villages. Further booming during the period of demonetization, the racket took on a life of its own, with everyone wanting in on the winnings. Based on the real-life fraud saga, it’s not a surprising prediction when Sunny’s father (Vishwa Bhanu) casually augurs in an episode of the series: “Kisan aur karza ka jodi saanp aur aadmi ka jodi hai. Saanp kaise bhi ho, katega hi (The relationship between the farmer and a loan is like that of snake and man. You’ll eventually get bit.)” In Jamtara, the loan is time and the time for payback is almost up.
Directed by Jeypore filmmaker and former IT professional Soumendra Padhi, the Netflix crime drama revolves around a group — Mondal, Rocky (Anshuman Pushkar), Ponto (Sarfaraz Ali Mirza), Shahbaaz (Kartavya Kabra), Munna (Rohit KP), Baccha (Harshit Gupta) and more — of (mostly) teenagers whose collective earnings (bordering on Rs.50 lakh a year, a number that further skyrockets as the show progresses) attracts the attention of the local minister, state law enforcement and the public eye. Sans predilection, the ten-episode series delves into the currency of fraud and the contingent clemency of its profiteers, outlining the hand-in glove mechanics that enable the sweeping permeation of scams from the local level, their swindlers’ motivations less sinister than capitalistic in the grey absence of ‘blood.’
Sunny has the female voice’s inflection down to a pat. When he calls victims as Swati, an employee from SDI bank, the persona tricks everyone into trust. Little do they know, he’s about to dupe them of lakhs. In matters of money, it’s hard not to ruffle feathers and the group’s camaraderie soon comes to a tipping point that sets up the main dual conflict of the plot (with an ensemble cast, there’s plenty more where that came from) — local, corrupt Minister Brajesh Bhan’s (Amit Sial) plans of expansion and newly appointed Jamtara Superintendent of Police Dolly Sahu’s (Aksha Pardasany) all-out war on the menace of phishing. The boys then navigate asserting control over their share in the profits while edging towards security in a state of splintering loyalty.
Shot with an anamorphic lens, yellow hues stretch taut with the saturation turned down, giving a mellowness to the gritty backdrop of the show. In the twilight softness of home interiors with smoke rising from kilns below hillocks, Bhan cuts into an apple over a chessboard and the glare of headlights wane stark against the silhouette of crook inspector on the mend Biswa Paathak (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) as he stands vigil for criminals on the highway. In Jamtara, the disturbing is almost beautiful, compelling another layer of absorption for viewers due to the stellar cinematography by Kaushal Shah (whose recent credits include the critically acclaimed film Cargo).
What Jamtara’s writers (Trishant Srivastava and Nishank Verma) do particularly well is deliver a sense of urgency through the motivations of the various parties. Whether it’s local newspaper Samay Ujaala’s need to expand its coverage and gain more eyes by writing about crime in the village, the pressure on Sahu to book the phishers before Jamtara makes headlines again or Bhan’s recruitment drive that pits Mondal against his cousin Rocky to eliminate the kingpin that begun it all. Each character is driven by a deadline over the densely tight plot of the series that doesn’t fail to use its characters and their stories to unveil the hows and whys of crimes in Jamtara, seamlessly using these arcs to set up the script for the impending endgame. The foreshadowing is brilliant too and we begin to see the seeds of war, planted by the players, stakeholders, opposers and observers, long before the characters find themselves in the midst of it.
While the main cast delivers remarkable performances (Shrivastav as Mondal, Sial as Bhan and Pardasany as Sahu are so well casted, that as actors they become the part), the supporting characters are nuanced and absolutely steal the show. Bhattacharya’s inspector Paathak provides both comic relief and a voice of reason with grit that keeps the department together, oscillating between the rough learnings of his tenure and supporting the revolutionary justice of young SP Sahu’s endeavor. Monika Panwar’s Gudiya breathes fire and her angsty small-town survival tactics imbue life into the topography of Jamtara where wanting out might be the only way out of crime, even if the way goes through it. Samay Ujala’s editor (Ravi Sah) and journalist (Aasif Khan) duo portray the common man’s conscience as well as the monopolization of the press by the powers that be in a way that’s realistic, with their exchanges (at one point, the editor exclaims, “Sahi galat, yeh mauke ke saath badalte rehta hai. Jo party power mein hai, police, prashasan aur patrakar sab uska hota hai” — What’s wrong and what’s right changes with opportunity. The party that’s in power reins over the police, administration and the press) making for commentary that’s not overdone but needed. KP and Gupta’s Munna and Baccha are oracles of laughter, with their Mahabharata references and rampages delving into the eye of the vulture, offering a twisted, underlying counter narrative to survival in Jamtara.
In a village where people bury their phones in fields after use, Jamtara takes hiding one’s skeletons in the closet quite literally and yet, the series expands on what could have been a black and white narrative. Jamtara, at its core, is about people and their ideologies, the clashes with their conscience and their penchant for the crooked with director Padhi taking a dip into the intersections of privilege, caste, gender and crime, to present a criminal drama that feels both reinvented and redeemable. Following a trope that most viewers are accustomed to, the writers end the series on a cliffhanger, but with a plot that’s driven by a ticking bomb on loop, Jamtara sets the pace for surprises, open endings and if viewers are lucky, another season. It’s time for Indian audiences to move on from the drama standard set by Sacred Games.