Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Ileana D'Cruz, Nikita Dutta, Sumit Vats, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ram Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla
Director: Kookie Gulati
Rating: 1.5 (out of 5)
Granted that comparisons are odious but The Big Bull, with Abhishek Bachchan impersonating someone akin to Harshad Mehta without ever threatening to put Pratik Gandhi in the shade, simply isn't in the league of the excellently scripted, proficiently acted Scam 1992. Loosely based on the life and times of the controversial stockbroker, is unable to shrug off the shadow of the web show.
If the series was a deep, discursive dive into the ways of the Indian banking system and the Bombay Stock Exchange, this stodgy, meandering tw0-and-a-half-hour film, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, is a perfunctory swim on the surface of the early 1990s securities scam that shook the nation. By the end of it, the audience is none the wiser about the dynamics of the market that Harshad Mehta made the most of while the going was good.
The strangest thing about The Big Bull, co-written and directed by Kookie Gulati, is that a great deal appears to be unfolding on the screen, sometimes at a pace that could at a stretch be classified as breakneck, but none of it sets off any ripples of emotion or excitement. This is a stuffy, facile biopic that baulks at calling itself one. It moves forward and backward - the storyline spans from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, the period that saw the rise and rise of Harshad Mehta - like a sputtering engine in need of an overhaul.
The Harshad Mehta saga was essentially about ambition, greed, market manipulation, political chicanery, banking industry malfeasance and the birth of the post-liberalization get-rich-quick-at-any-cost culture that has been the bane of India ever since. Neither the banks nor the nation's economic practices have been able to shrug off the bad habits picked up during that frenzied phase.
The complexities and the far-reaching effects of that era is way beyond the ambit of The Big Bull although stray scenes in the film do have the protagonist articulate his desire to lift himself out of his drab middle-class existence and become India's first-ever billionaire. The film depicts the titular stockbroker's career in the context of the premise that India was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1980s and that if a big bull hadn't appeared on the scene the nation would have gone into a tailspin of catastrophic proportions.
Late in the film, after the story has been wrapped up, the narrator spins another cock-and-bull yarn that is even less acceptable. She would have us believe that in the first 40 years after Independence India's development was naa ke barabar (next to nothing). That was a crime, she insists, trying to justify an individual's 'crime' of manipulating loopholes in the banking system to line his own pockets while enthusing the middle class to gamble on the stock market.
Dramatic liberty is one thing, fanciful fabrication is quite another. This fictionalized retelling of the Harshad Mehta story is more mythology than inspired-by-true-events drama. It places the nub of the tale against the backdrop of an assertion by the narrator that before the advent of the big bull it wasn't just the country that was poor, its thinking, too, was poor (desh toh gareeb thha hi shaayad uski soch bhi gareeb thhi), negating in one casual sweep anything that a nation coming out of 200 years of foreign rule had achieved in the first few decades of freedom.
It is only in the fitness of things that the makers make it a point to declare in a pre-credits disclaimer that they aren't interested in what transpired in real life around the time the 'hero' was on his infamous bull run on Dalal Street armed with funds acquired via fraudulent bank receipts.
For good measure, the characters are given fictional names although the situations that the film re-enacts are all drawn from the newspaper headlines of the time. The scattershot blend of fact and fiction is anything but salutary. At no point does the laboured dramatization come remotely close to being either convincing or engaging.
Abhishek Bachchan leads a cast that cannot hold a candle to the one that was assembled for the web series that landed in our midst last year and blew us away with its sharp-eyed lucidity. In the absence of genuine atmosphere in The Big Bull, the actors struggle. The rudimentary writing that they have to make their way around achieves more obfuscation than illumination.
Nothing acquires meaningful tangibility in The Big Bull - not the bourse, not the banks, not the firm that Hemant Shah (modelled on Harshad Mehta) runs with his brother Viren (Sohum Shah), not the Mehta home, not the city of Bombay, and certainly not the newspaper office where the journalist who blew the lid on the scam - she is named Meera Rao (Ileana D'Cruz) - works.
The business journalist is the film's sutradhar in a set-up that has her facing a roomful of media personnel nearly three decades after her reportage brought the stockbroker crashing down to earth. There is much talk of flying high and touching the sky. Hemant tells his would-be wife Priya (Nikita Dutta) and others why there is percentage in always looking skywards. His well-wishers, including his brother, advise caution.
The conflict that the pulls and pressures on him should have created remains strangely inchoate because the way the central character is fleshed out - he is too cocky and beyond weighing the pros and cons of his overreach - leaves little room for psychological exploration. On one occasion, Hemant Shah admits that kahaani kirdaar se nahi haalat se paida hota hai (a story is born from situations, not from characters). Nothing is born from either the situations or the characters in this film because the alchemy between them is a non-starter.
It is, therefore, pointless to blame the actors for failing to make amends for what The Big Bull lacks. The film's problems are rooted in the screenplay (written by the director and Arjun Dhawan), the stilted dialogues (credited to Ritesh Shah) and the arbitrary character arcs. The focus is so lopsidedly on the lead actor that none of the people around him - be it his mother (Supriya Pathak), the bank officials that he deals with or the chief of the stock exchange regulatory body (the man is called Mannu Malpani and is played by Saurabh Shukla) - is allowed a make their presence felt.
Saurabh Shukla, however, needs only a couple of scenes to rise above the uninspired writing and leave an impression. Mahesh Manjrekar has even less footage - a single scene and a handful of lines as a trade union leader. You remember his fleeting appearance more than anything else in the film. If that doesn't tell you how hollow The Big Bull is, nothing will. It is a big baffling blob of a movie.