It is a truth acknowledged in India that most men of a certain age cannot resist the sweet voice of a young woman on the phone — it doesn’t matter that they don’t know her, surely they can spare a few minutes should she want them to. And she does, for she comes with good news: they are the lucky ones, the chosen ones, whom their bank has selected for a new car, or an all-expenses paid trip to Goa, or a brand-new HD TV. All they have to do is share their ATM card number, the expiry date and the three-digit number at the back of their card. Sitting in Jamtara, a town located not more than 75 km away from Dhanbad, Sunny (Sparsh Shrivastav) has successfully impersonated a woman over the phone and hangs up. He now focuses his attention on his second smartphone, into which he has entered his victim’s bank details. Soon, the transfer will take place. Another day, another fool is willingly parted from his money.
It’s been a few weeks since Jamtara: Sabka Number Aayega, a 10-part series premiered on Netflix, and positive reviews are steadily streaming in, praising its tight script by Trishant Srivastava and Nishank Verma, natural performances by its talented ensemble cast, (especially Shrivastav, Anshuman Pushkar, Monika Panwar and Amit Sial), and for steering a little east of the Hindi heartland, a region that is now synonymous with gun-toting casteist thugs, profanity-laced conversations and spurts of violent crimes. Five years since he first read about Jamtara, the show’s director, Soumendra Padhi, is pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the world to the phishing capital of India.
“In 2015, there was an article in The Indian Express about the phishing scam in the town; the writers travelled there and began their research,” he says. The next year, Padhi would release his debut feature film, Budhia Singh: Born to Run, about the child prodigy and long-distance track athlete, which won the National Award for best children’s film. In the meantime, the number of phishing crimes coming out of Jamtara grew in leaps and bounds. “What drew me to this particular crime, as a concept, is that I feel it is a great equaliser. Most people there have not studied after class six. All they do is procure mobile phones and it’s like a family business, they’re all into conning. The whole village is such a beautiful and dreamy place, with such greenery, clean air and ponds. I felt as though I had entered a mysterious world, because I could never have written or imagined those characters,” he says.
Based on real criminals and real police officers (the show’s Dolly Sahu is based on SP Jaya Roy), Jamtara also explores class and caste politics through the prism of phishing, a reasonably low-tech cybercrime, which offers high risk and high rewards in equal measure. “I cannot judge them. I read an interview between the police and one of the scammers in which he was asked, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ and he said, ‘At least I’m not murdering anybody.’ The people there live in villages, but they are complex, enigmatic, they have dreams and ambitions, and they will keep you guessing till the very end,” says Panwar, who plays Gudiya, a young woman who marries the wily money-maker Sunny, even though he is from a lower caste, to fuel her plan to leave Jamtara and immigrate to Canada. Her co-star Srivastav personally knows such a cybercriminal. “My friend was one; he’d opened a BPO and he was conning Americans. I don’t know his script, but he made Rs 900 in a minute,” he says, with grudging admiration.
Barring Sial, the cast members auditioned for the show several times. “Somehow the producers knew that I come cheap,” jokes Sial, who plays Brajesh Bhan, a local politician who offers the scammers protection from the police for a hefty cut of their spoils. “What I liked most about the story is that phishing is essentially a psychological game; these criminals don’t discriminate, they will target anybody they can. And think about it, instead of high-net criminals who steal money and send it to foreign bank accounts, all the money these people make stays in the country. Everybody knows Las Vegas, and nobody asks how did that city come up. We’re presenting Jamtara, and putting it on the global map. Maybe this will lead to development, who knows,” he says, and laughs.
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