Culture

Review: Netflix's 'Jamtara' Is a Refreshing Portrayal of Small-Town India

The writing is easily the best part of the series. It sounds authentic, remains true to the people and the place, and feels original.

Sunny (Sparsh Shrivastav), a 17-year-old boy, needs precisely three things to earn Rs 2.5 lakh: a cellphone, a different identity and a few minutes. A resident of Jamtara, a small town in Jharkhand, Sunny, posing as a bank employee, calls all kinds of people across the country: shopkeepers, housewives, corporate executives. He promises them reward points, trips to Goa or a new car, in exchange of their credit card and CVV numbers. The recipients almost always agree readily, as one part of the country, stagnant and feral, swallows the other, upwardly mobile and genteel.

Jamtara, a new Netflix ten-part series, starts from the point where that phone call ends, taking us deep into the lives of people like Sunny. They con with the mastery of veterans and yet, not even adults themselves, rely on someone else for something as basic as withdrawing money from the bank.

Sunny has four more friends in the phishing business – Ponto (Sarfaraz Ali Mirza); Shahbaaz (Kartavya Kabra); Munna (Rohit Kp); and Rocky (Anshuman Pushkar), his cousin – who, at the moment, live from one phone call to another. Lasting ambition in Jamtara is an afterthought – a stale, resigned business – like waiting for a train that you know will not arrive on time.

The phishing business is both challenged and sustained by three sets of characters: the recently posted superintendent of police, Dolly Sahu (Aksha Pardasany); Sunny’s bride and accomplice, Gudiya (Monika Panwar), who, disinterested in marriage and her husband, wants to earn enough so that she can immigrate to Canada; and the local city legislator and strongman, Brajesh (Amit Sial), who bullies Rocky and his friends to come under his aegis – in lieu of giving them protection, he’ll pocket 50% of their income. Rocky, who has political ambitions, agrees; Sunny, who keeps bickering with his cousin, doesn’t.

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The phishing gang, which soon splits into two – Rocky and others, led by Brajesh; and Sunny and Gudiya – used to initially hang out with a local reporter, Anas (Aasif Khan), who is often castigated by his editor for not getting good stories. This circle is closed by two adolescents, Bachha (Harshid Gupta) and Bachhu (Aatm Prakash Mishra), who are at once several things: Shakespearian Witches, the harbingers of prophecies; the Sanjays of this Mahabharata, far-sighted in the land of blind; and the Jokers of Jharkhand, boys who like to see the world burn.

The people of Jamtara are enclosed in this quadrangle of politics, police, media and judiciary. The show does an impressive job of locating their desires, where, in a coaching centre, the ambitions range from getting a BPO gig to clearing the UPSC exam. The main intent is, of course, to run away – presumably to any gentrified land far, far away, where English is spoken with colonial suaveness, where malls glitters even in the dying evening light, and where brain-dead robots – wearing a shirt and a tie – type predetermined instructions on hard-hearted machines. In a country where citizens have become consumers, the Jamtara boys want to reach the other side and become the very people they’re conning.

Located merely 75 km from Dhanbad, which formed the setting of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, Jamtara, just by virtue of its geography, offers similar struggles for its characters. But what’s compelling and impressive about Jamtara is how refreshing the show feels: in story, in performances, in dialogues.

Jamtara avoids the easy, recognisable tropes that come naturally to a piece like this. The makers, for instance, cast fresh faces (there’s no Pankaj Mishra, no Manoj Bajpai, no Nawaazuddin Sidiqui, not even Sanjay Mishra, actors synonymous with Hindi heartland dramas). ‘Alternate Bollywood’ – mainly interested in stories about small-town India – has its own ecosystem, a pull that must have been tough to resist for a crew as young as this, but they did, resulting in a series with fresh acting vocabulary.

The performances are consistently compelling: each actor brings to their part unique mannerisms and tics, a singular way of being, intriguing us further. The ensemble is impressive, but Panwar in particular – as a cold, scheming young woman in a testosterone-charged terrain, single-minded in her pursuit to win financial and personal freedom – is an absolute revelation.

The writing by Trishant Srivastava and Nishank Verma is easily the best part of the series. It sounds authentic, remains true to the people and the place, and feels original. The dialogues are sharp, clever and frequently funny as well, peppered with unique Bihari lingo: “baurana (going nuts)”, “phailna (being stubborn)” and that linguistic delight “garda (dirt)”, a word that can be used both as a noun and as a complimentary adjective). It’s also tongue-in-cheek political at times – out of nowhere, you hear phrases such as “chai pe charcha”, “dosti bane rahe”; a politician with a tonsured head, while getting conned over the phone, says he wants to buy a “56-inch” LCD TV.

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Besides several narrative pleasures, Jamtara is impressive for its dogged portrayal of a world that has shrunk unto itself, resulting in a closed, terrifying nexus of depravity: the reporter who will keep mum because he knows the crooks, the crooks who are subservient to the politicians, the politicians who keep a leash on the cops, and the cops rendered so inconsequential that the entire town becomes corrupt. If it takes a village to raise a child, then, in Jamtara, it takes a child to destroy a village.

One of the biggest strengths of the series is that it specifies the stakes quite early for all sets of characters, and hence keeps its audience hooked. Yet, the series sporadically falters, ultimately getting stranded between good and memorable. That is so because despite the impressive macro detailing (sketching how one section of society subjugates the other), the makers don’t apply the same rigour to the micro, its characters.

Jamtara’s major dramatic impetus, for instance, arises from a longstanding sibling rivalry between Sunny and Rocky. But there’s scarcely any effort here to tease out its components – we’re simply expected to accept it. That is also true for the relationships among other characters, which give many feature films and series a poignant depth. Extrapolating that, Jamtara is similarly sheepish to dissect the individual mindscapes of its protagonists as well – except, to a large extent, Gudiya.

This aspect of the show, though, does begin to improve from the sixth episode onwards, where we see glimpses of bond between Sunny and Gudiya, revealing crucial facets about them as individuals and as a couple. The show needed more of these, often, early and throughout.

But besides a few slip-ups, Jamtara remains a significant achievement, for it brings to the fore an oft-ignored Indian reality: the stories of boys, with seas in their hearts and worlds in their heads, imprisoned in their homelands. They are foolish enough to dare a con, upsetting plans in far-flung corners of the country, but too scared to follow their own dreams, like a bird on the ledge of a tall building, equating jumping to suicide.