Business Standard

Unseen shades of financial fraud orchestrated from small-town India

Even as cybercrime comes under national spotlight, filmmakers remain myopic in their depiction


Debarghya Sanyal New Delhi
Given the OTT platforms’ newfound affinity with small-town narratives and crime, one would imagine that the topic of financial fraud emerging from such small towns would be a major draw for showrunners and directors in this space. But even as Home Minister Amit Shah identified small towns such as Mewat, Jamtara, Azamgarh, Ahmedabad, Alwar, Surat, Bharatpur, Chittoor, Dhubri, Goalpara, Bhiwani, Jamui, Nawada, Durgapur and Asansol as emerging hotspots of financial fraud in India, there seems to be a dearth of recent pop culture texts on this topic.

The notable exception is of course Jamtara, the Netflix TV series released in 2020, the first season of which focused on the titular town and the wide network of credit card and bank account scams that it births. The series is dominated by tight-angled, high-contrast shots, which present the small town of Jamtara in menacing light, full of obscure crannies, half-hidden reliefs, and predominantly darkened mise-en-scenes. Thus, the small town we see here is a complete antithesis of a series such as Panchayat, which maintains a sunny perspective despite pontificating about some of the daily issues faced in these areas.

Jamtara, however, is not merely a documentation of the tricks played by cunning scamsters on unsuspecting victims, but also a peek into the systemic failures of institutions and cultural philosophies that guide the youths of this area toward such financial fraud schemes.

Far from Panchayat’s idyllic Fakauli, where ground-level administrative institutions ultimately work out solutions to the town's problems, Jamtara's dark portrayal of the small town is more in sync with Shah’s words. The institutions are so inept at dealing with petty crimes that they ultimately and inevitably snowball into massive nationwide scams.

Most crucially, the series shies away from valorising the criminals as yet another in a long line of well-meaning rebels. Instead, while the entire town stares into an abyss of financial despair, these are the characters that fall.  

It is only in a rare few Indian films that writers and directors have managed to restrain from valorising such small-town crooks and their journey upward in the world of crime.

The recent Amazon Prime Video hit, Farzi, does not. By virtue of being the protagonist, and played by Shahid Kapoor, Sunny is a hero by default. He is sensitive, and vulnerable, but full of rebellious ire when being shunned by Mumbai’s upper-class milieu he so desperately wants to be a part of.  

In a crowd of flicks like Badmaash Company, Special 26, or Baazaar, which inevitably pit an underdog hero against the system and outside the law, one often misses the layered black comedy of Gharaonda (1977). Here, Amol Palekar’s tortured common man, Sudeep, is pushed to plot a financial fraud at the expense of his beloved Chhaya, goading her to marry an ailing and elderly businessman (played by Shreeram Lagoo) and later inherit his money once he passes away. The film makes it clear that Sudeep — a middle-class man from a small town trying to make it big in the big city — is not to be celebrated for the choices he makes, whatever the catalysts of his reaction.

What’s also missing from the pop culture depiction of financial fraud is the portrayal of a thriving scam economy in Kolkata and its surrounding suburbs, or in areas of North Bengal.

An inspector in Kolkata’s Kalighat police station, who did not wish to be named, told Business Standard that the rate of cybercrime cases, especially those committed over the phone, has more than doubled in the last 12 months. “Bengali movies have always been obsessed with sleuths and crime and mysteries, but stories seem to think that our biggest problem is murder or terror threats. The fact is we are struggling to control young cyber-scamsters operating from localities such as Murshidabad, New Town, Burdwan and Belgharia etc.”

A similar rise in cybercrime can also be witnessed in tier-3 urban centres of Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Kerala and Haryana.

Some series like Family Man or the Bengali sleuth series Eken Babu have touched upon these subjects.

Now, with the central government’s gaze set on these towns as well, writers and filmmakers might turn their focus on narratives around such networks of cyber and cellular crimes.

(With inputs from Sanika Sarode)
Cybercrime in numbers
  • 2 million cybercrime complaints registered on National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal since its launch in January 2020; 40,000 complaints have been converted into FIRs
  • Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS) implemented in 16,625 police stations across India
  • The CCTNS national database contains 289.8 million police records
  • More than 128.2 million service requests received, 123.5 million requests disposed of by the police across states
  • Cyber forensics training labs commissioned in 28 states/UTs
  • Formation of 7 joint cybercrime coordination teams for cybercrime hotspot areas (Mewat, Jamtara, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Visakhapatnam and Guwahati)
Source: Home Ministry

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First Published: Mar 31 2023 | 4:51 PM IST

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