IWMBuzz.com reviews Netflix’s Jamtara

Review of Netflix’s Jamtara: Evocative, provocative, but not persuasive enough

You may have come across Jamtara several years ago, while sipping your morning chai and browsing through the daily newspaper. Or, unimpressed with the weird-sounding name – a place called Jamtara, for heaven’s sake – you may have skipped the piece of news regarding Jamtara altogether.

But for the hundreds of people duped by the goings-on in Jamtara, and losing a few lakh rupees just like that, Jamtara spelt trouble with a capital T – no, make that capital J. For, Jamtara had gained infamy as the phishing capital of India – nearly 80% of online frauds originated in Jamtara. The crime was so widespread in Jamtara, that in almost every household, there were youngsters engaged in the unlawful trade (if it can be called that) of phishing. And just like that, the poverty-stricken, threadbare, godforsaken district in Jharkand had taken on a sheen of prosperity, with all the influx of illicit income.

Phishing, for those not in the know, is the practice of calling up gullible people, impersonating official-sounding bank authorities, gleaning sensitive information such as credit card usernames, passwords and OTPs from said gullibles, and then siphoning off cash within nanoseconds from the poor gullible soul’s bank account. Most often, people are lured into parting with sensitive credit card/bank account details by the promise of freebies such as a free car won in a lucky draw, or a free holiday in Goa, or the like.

In Netflix’s newest web series Jamtara, however, the fact that Jamtara was the unchallenged nucleus of phishing crimes in the country is just the means to an end – to spin an edgy, fascinating yarn of crime, its nasty retribution and its unsavoury ramifications.

Replace phishing in Jamtara with the drug trade of Goa or Punjab, or the ransom trade of Bihar, and it would make none the difference to the narrative. That is because at no point in the ten-episode show does Jamtara probe the deeper complexities of the phishing industry in that sleepy little district that didn’t even exist twenty years ago. It is not bothered about the hows (very critical) or the whats (likewise). It just skims the surface of the crime with ‘the deed’s done, now what?’ approach.

So whether it deals with arms trafficking in the Middle East, or drug trafficking in Mexico, or any trafficking in Timbuktu, it would have made zilch difference to the narrative. A bunch of greenhorns who discover the unbounded money-making potential of drugs smuggling/bootlegging/arms trafficking, and go on to create a lucrative enterprise out of it – done and dusted, many times over. We rest our case.

There’s nothing in Jamtara to really set the series apart from the other crime thrillers in the webscape, so to speak.

To get back to the story, Sunny (Sparsh Srivastav) and his cousin Rocky (Anshumaan Pushkar) are the leaders of a gang of semi-literate boys that has discovered the unbridled power of technology in earning easy money – via phishing. Sunny is the actual mastermind of the whole operation, while Rocky is high on borrowed machismo. Even as the gang savours the fruits of its ill-gotten gains from the criminal enterprise, outsiders begin intruding into their imagined utopia.

First out is fresh-faced, freshly graduated Superintendent of Police, Dolly Sahu (Aksha Pardasany). Alarmed by Jamtara’s name cropping up in every second cybercrime taking place in every corner of the country, she is sent to Jamtara to take charge and grab the culprits. She’s aided by the semi-corrupt local police inspector, Bishwa (Dibyendu Bhattacharya).

Next is the local newspaper owner, who wants a share of the sensational phishing story that’s making news all over the country, while they, the local newspaper, have nothing to show for it. He gets on his reporter Anas’ (Aasif Khan) case to procure a sensational story by tapping into his childhood friendship with the ‘phishing wala ladka log’, as he refers to Sunny and gang.

Gudiya (Monika Panwar) views Sunny and the money he’s making as her passport (literally) to a better life out of her hellhole of an existence, an existence where her mother values her drug-addled junkie brother more than a responsible daughter like her, only because he’s a boy.

She agrees to marry Sunny in exchange for 5 lakhs, which she plans to use to flee to Canada. In return, she gives him access to the students she teaches English-speaking to – English-speaking phishers will obviously sound more genuine.

But before all these, there’s local strongman-politico Brajesh Bhan (Amit Sial), who gets whiff of the big money the boys are earning, and craves a slice of the phishing-earnings pie. Rocky panders to ‘Bhaiyaji’s’ wishes, as Brajesh Bhan is addressed, to gain a step-up into politics. But Sunny wants none of it.

Then follow rifts, conspiracies, murders, cat-and-mouse chase sequences and what have you – all the common tropes of a crime thriller, presented in an uncommon manner. Coz, the presentation and staging of Jamtara is the sole bright spot in the otherwise nondescript horizon. The perpetually dusty landscape of the wretched place is what outright catches the eye. It appears as if the Delhi smog has found permanent residence in Jamtara – the images quite match.

The locations of Jamtara have been chosen with utmost care. The village looks like that nameless place you would sight, were you to look out of the window of your train that unfailingly stalled in the back of beyond (good ol’ Indian Railways) each time you made that mandatory summer visit to ‘Nani ghar’. Kaushal Shah’s painstakingly-detailed cinematography certainly makes Jamtara look like it is set in the back of beyond.

Every episode begins with an early morning shot of the cobbled pathways of the sleepy little village, where nothing stirs, save for a lone malnourished cur. And then the episode unfolds, languidly at first, before it picks up astonishing pace all of a sudden. The imagery, shot-taking and cinematography are brilliant, and the standout elements of the series.

The dialect is another thing that fascinates. Even though we’ve heard similar, a million times before, in all the rural heartland series and shows that are a dime a dozen nowadays, in Jamtara, it sounds different. And the reason for that is the other brilliant aspect of the show – the casting. Not a single one of that bunch of ‘phishing boys’ – or girls, for that matter – comes across as a city-bred millennial simply acting out a role. Each seems like he’s a son of the soil, born, bred and lived in Jamtara forever.

So, when these characters say things like, “Bahura gaye ho ka”, and “Jyada phailne ka jaroorat nahi hai”, you believe; believe that they are a bunch of rustic Jamtara youngsters. And you watch; fascinated with the milieu plucked out of nowhere. Even the cuss words seem right at place amidst the goings-on, and not something added for effect.

There’s a whole gamut of underlying issues that the narrative plays tag with. The age old caste-over-class battle is tackled head-on in Jamtara. Here, class rules. Even as Gudiya’s mother tries to create a ruckus over Gudiya marrying Sunny – of a caste much lower than theirs – she shuts her up with the ringing words, “Jiske paas paisa hai, wahi Thakur, wahi Brahman”.

The unholy police-politician nexus is a given in any crime caper set in the Indian hinterland. The same holds true here too. That Jamtara is based on true, highly-documented happenings, is another shocking factor of the series – barely literate juveniles, 16-17 years of age, cheating highly educated urban professionals of lakhs, while lounging in the shaded fields of a small village – it quite literally stuns you into silence. The few scenes of the phishing incidents woven into the narrative show doctors and lawyers being swindled into giving away their confidential information – it’s a riot, really.

The acting of the relatively unknown cast members is a revelation. Sparsh Srivastav’s Sunny reminds one of Ayushmann Khurrana’s Dream Girl act when he impersonates call centre girls to make his swindling calls. His is the prized turn of the lot. Monika Panwar’s portrayal of Gudiya is superb too. Strong women with a mind and voice of their own always fascinate.

Amit Sial brings his unique brand of evil to the mix, as does Dibyendu Bhattacharya. We found the SP Dolly Sahu character quite underwhelming and insipid – an exemplar of lazy writing – though Aksha Pardasany tries her best to infuse it with gravitas.

Soumendra Padhi has helmed Jamtara with a deft hand and exquisite restraint. The National Award-winning director is in his element. Writer Trishant Srivastava has done a good job in weaving an interesting yarn around true incidents otherwise found – and dismissed – in a small column of the newspaper.

And now for the pièce de résistance of Jamtara’s narrative – the honour must go to a pair of hangers-on called Munna and Bachha, played superbly by actors Rohit KP and Harshit Gupta. This perennially drunk, creepy duo is like the hyenas of The Lion King – immoral and opportunistic; waiting, watching, hoping for the rift between Sunny and Rocky to implode; and then moving in for the kill. They instigate, when instigation is required; slink into the background, when things go wrong; only to emerge, when the time is right.

One advises the other to be like the character of Sanjay in the Mahabharata. When the Battle of Kurukshetra was done with, only Sanjay made it alive from the mess. Jamtara ends on a breathtaking cliffhanger, and hopefully, this duo will have a larger role to play in Season 2, if there is one.

That said, Jamtara is definitely one of the better shows to emerge from the bowels of Netflix’s content studio – evocative, provocative, though we dare say – not persuasive enough. The narrative waddles like a headless chicken in the first seven out of ten episodes, compelling one to give up watching. Then out of the blue, may be tired of its own waddling ways, it picks up pace and direction, gripping the viewer, and compelling one to wait for the next season.

Nevertheless, Jamtara does merit a dekho, if only for its fabulous presentation, if not for the storyline. The story could have definitely done with some of the effort that clearly has gone into the presentation.

In the meanwhile, 3/5 is our rating for Jamtara.

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