By Manik Sharma Jan. 13, 2020
At a time when mob rule and goondaism seem rampant in the country, Jamtara, Netflix's latest Indian original, paints an effectual portrait of an India that we often look away from.
Between 2014 and 2017 in Jamtara, Jharkhand, the district police lodged over 80 cases against 300 locals for “phishing,” broadly categorised by the law as cyber crime. Though on one hand, India’s increased accessibility to cellular data is presumably enabling the previously unhinged, the incidents at Jamtara is a testament of the pitfalls of having technology, but not knowing what to do with it. Dramatised by Netflix through a 10-part series, Jamtara evokes the rottenness of the Indian hinterland – a place seemingly so far back in time, its greatest leap can only be dodging the script the future has written for it. At a time when unemployment is at its highest, the economy at sea, and India, predominantly young, Jamtara makes for an often painful, yet empirically accurate portrait of the way morality is dictated by purpose or lack thereof.
Directed by Soumendra Padhi, Jamtara revolves around the story of two brothers, Sunny (Sparsh Shrivastav) and Rocky (Anshuman Pushkar), with a host of sub-plots thrown in. Both run a phishing ring that also includes a couple of their close friends. Ragged and impolite, these boys are young, school dropouts without money or agency, other than the poisonous illustration of their own inner anger and disillusionment. Here toxicity and masculinity are as decorous as they are necessary for survival. In one troublingly hilarious scene, Sunny’s mother hysterically beats her drunk husband who is passed out on the porch of the house. In another, a boy tells a girl, “I have five-lakh rupees. Sex please”. Owing to the sincerity of the medium and perhaps its audience, someone or the other intervenes to break this ominous display of hooliganism, but one can only wonder what women regularly face in these unremarkable corners of India. To “man up”, regardless of gender, is perhaps both defiance and defence.
Though they are brothers, Sunny and Rocky don’t really get along. Both want money, but want different things from it. Overlooking this grisly domestic affair is local politician and glorified thug Brajesh Bhaan, played by the most recognisable face of the ensemble cast, Amit Sial. Bhaan instructs both brothers to work under him for a share of the spoils. Played with trademark tormenting passivity, Sial is in top form cussing his way through a stellar performance. The rest of the cast, made up largely of newcomers, hold up their end as well. After Bhaan’s offer, things go haywire between the brothers and in town in general. Juvenile criminals with money frantically wed, cheat, and thug their way to a life. Meanwhile, the local police, led by Dolly Sahu (Aksha Pardasany), the district’s new Superintendent of Police, is on the heels of Jamtara’s criminals, with a disconsolate local journalist thrown into the mix for good.
Jamtara makes for an often painful, yet empirically accurate portrait of the way morality is dictated by purpose or lack thereof.
Though premised around the crime of phishing, Jamtara spends little time on the technicalities of the crime. A fascinating story on its own, the show would have done well to at least educate in the basics of how any of it actually works. The massive role of e-wallets, for example, is undermined simply by expulsion. The show is instead focused on the pomp that can be extracted from a putrid milieu its characters find themselves in. Let’s just say it is more academic than it could have been journalistic and direct. It is more Mirzapur than it could have been Delhi Crime, Netflix’s other understated, yet absorbing true-crime drama. On its part, Jamtara’s landscapes are eerily beautiful and acidic, bright yet simmering with constant red unease. The cyanotype palette predominantly communicates a feeling of dread and hopelessness. Even large, expensive vehicles and lavish bungalows summon apprehensive views the average Indian holds of states like UP and Bihar.
The glaring flaw of Jamtara might be that it constantly feels as if it is stuck between two worlds, wanting to be Shakespearan and Anurag Kashyap-esque – in writing one, and imagining the other, it can often feel undercooked. But beneath its simplistic formatting, one can glean the subtext of things far profounder than most arresting aphorisms of Hindi cinema. In one hilarious scene, a technical expert tries to explain to local policemen what “phishing” is when it is revealed none of them even own a smartphone. In another, an editor lays down the law of the land to his junior. “Jo power mein hai, police, prashasan aur patrakar sab uska hota hai,” he says, without explicitly identifying the source of that power. At a time when mob rule and goondaism seem rampant in the country, this effectual portrait stands tall, despite its literary flaws. It can make for unpleasant viewing but so can confronting ugly truths about India.