Photo Credit: Netflix
“Except the guys who were conning, the rest were actually pretty open and available to us, including the police,” National Award-winning director Soumendra Padhi tells Gadgets 360. “Jamtara police and the cyber police, they actually took us to these villages. I think without them, we wouldn't have been able to [do much].”
Padhi is talking about Jamtara — the next Netflix original series from India, out Friday — which is set in the dark underbelly of the eponymous Jharkhand village. Inspired by real-life stories, it follows a bunch of teenagers whose get-rich-quick schemes, involving phishing over the phone, attract the attention of everyone around them.
Jamtara's infamy has earned it the nickname of India's phishing capital, and naturally, led to copycats across the country who are attracted by the prospects: easy money, unlimited targets, and a law that's still catching up. But Padhi & Co. didn't bother looking outside Jamtara, because it's the epicentre, around 80 percent by some estimates.
The Oriya native, whose only previous directorial credit is the little known 2016 biopic Budhia Singh: Born to Run, notes they did quietly and sneakily try to get stories out of the local con artists. But most of their research came from the police's records, thanks to the ones who had been apprehended. And then there were the anecdotes.
“Those policemen would tell us, ‘Look how heavy our [police duty] belts are, we can't properly run with these. You can't catch 15-year-old kids when you've got this belt and these shoes on', they would say pointing to their shoes. It made us laugh, but it was real. That belt is actually — it's suffocating, that's how heavy it is.”
Though it owes its existence to the Jharkhand village, Jamtara hasn't been shot in Jamtara though. It was recreated in the Maharashtra city of Nashik, a little over three hours away from Bollywood's hub in Mumbai. Padhi says the production designers exactly matched the topography, ensuring it felt as close to real.
The Netflix series' actors too had to similarly adapt to their characters and the local dialect. Like the director, most of them — including the leads Sparsh Shrivastava (Shake It Up), Anshumaan Pushkar (Kapow), and Monika Panwar (Super 30) — have few credits to the name, save for Amit Sial (Inside Edge).
Pushkar, who is from Bihar himself and plays one of the conmen Rocky, notes all of them took part in a workshop before the shoot, which is why Jamtara viewers will hear more or less the same dialect across the board. The accent leans more toward accessibility rather than accuracy though, Pushkar tells Gadgets 360, to make it easier for audiences.
Sial, who is from Uttar Pradesh and plays powerful local politician Brajesh Bhan, concurs: “I tried consciously not to delve too deep into the dialect because a lot of things will be then missed out by the audiences and they will not be able to understand.”
Both for Sial and Panwar, who plays English teacher Gudiya Singh who slowly worms her way into the phishing business, the joy was in playing a character that was very unlike them in real life. Sial adds: “It like opens up a box inside you and you get to [have] your own catharsis. Get rid of all the villainy inside.”
Panwar says Gudiya's lack of emotional intelligence was completely foreign to her. That said, the Jamtara actors did also find qualities to relate with. For both Pushkar and Panwar, it was their character's ambitious nature. While for Sial, well, it's better in his own words.
“He's a charmer. And I would like to believe I'm a charmer,” Sial says with a laugh. “And secondly he's sensitive. I'm also sensitive. But the context of it obviously changed. His sensitivity is more egoistic.”
Making a show about the antics of small-town folk is walking a tight rope, given it's easy to play into stereotypes. Some scenes in Jamtara end up on the wrong side of that fence, poking fun at the character's lack of decency, etiquette, and social intelligence. Audiences might end up laughing at the characters, rather than with them, but the cast and crew don't think so.
“I think you'd be laughing more at the situation,” Sial claims, before Padhi adds: “They are not shown as dumb. They are shown as clever [and] intelligent, so you might end up admiring them. Because it's not easy to — they're conning judges, lawyers, doctors, whom you tend to think of as more intelligent, the so-called educated guys in the cities.”
While we'll be taking a proper look at Jamtara's writing in our review, what does stand out at first glance is the Netflix series' look — the yellow hue and the anamorphic lenses. Padhi says that was down to his very restless and very innovative cinematographer Kaushal Shah, whose credits include the indie sci-fi film Cargo that premiered at the 2019 Mumbai Film Festival.
“We tested lot of cameras, I think we were also hoping to [shoot on film],” Padhi adds. “We did do a bit of 16mm. We finally ended up with anamorphic, [RED] Helium. “And the whole thing comes alive during the grade. That distinct grain, where you cannot see it, but you can see enough. The quality of negative, that mysticism is there, that adds to the story that we wanted to tell.”
Jamtara wasn't always going to be on Netflix. Produced by Viacom18's digital label Tipping Point, it was originally commissioned for its own platform, Voot. But Netflix swooped in as they were shooting the climax, Padhi says. How did Netflix change things? He cites the usual aphorisms about its global reach: millions of members across hundreds of countries.
“A local story became a global story,” Padi then adds. “Something all of the world will be able to relate because conning is something that happens everywhere.”
With all 10 half-hour episodes out Friday, there will no doubt be questions about the future. Padhi says they aren't thinking about a second season right now, but rather the response to the first. The creative team will have more clarity, though he does note that “the scope is immense. And the crime, it's no more local, it's also global. It can take new shapes and forms for sure. ”