It is a truth universally acknowledged that fact is stranger than fiction – especially in Mumbai, a city whose very building blocks involve speculation.

Yet, even the most imaginative filmmakers would be hard-pressed to dream up a plot in which a hubristic crime reporter colludes with a notorious gangster to have her colleague killed. The real-life case of Jigna Vora, who was arrested for purportedly supplying gangster Chhota Rajan crucial information that led to the murder of the journalist J Dey in 2011, beggars belief.

After a lengthy legal battle, Vora was exonerated in 2018. Her memoir Behind Bars in BycullaMy Days in Prison, concludes on a note of befuddlement: “As I look back at the case, I still wonder why J. Dey was really murdered. Perhaps that will for ever remain a mystery.”

The Netflix series inspired by Behind Bars in Byculla promises to solve this mystery. Scoop, directed by Hansal Mehta, places itself at the intersection of a powerful police force, a weakened underworld and the sensation-seeking media.

In addition to detailing the circumstances leading up to its protagonist’s travails, Scoop floats its own theory for Dey’s killing. The six-episode show begins as a measured chronicle of how a mad dash to be on the newspaper’s front page turns out to a race to the bottom. Scoop meanders towards the quicksand of dark conspiracy involving the police and Very Important People.

Prosenjit Chatterjee in Scoop (2023). Courtesy Matchbox Shots/Netflix.

Except for the gangsters Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan, the names of all characters mentioned in Vora’s book have been changed. As it turns out, Scoop’s understanding of newsroom dynamics is frequently fictional too.

Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul has created Scoop with Mehta, alongside writing the screenplay with Mirat Trivedi. The series is set in the same middle-class Gujarati milieu explored in Mehta’s acclaimed SonyLIV series Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story. Unlike Harshad Mehta, the crooked broker who knowingly bent the financial system for personal gain, Jagruti Pathak (Karishma Tanna) is a misguided innocent.

Jagruti is the star reporter at the Eastern Age newspaper edited by Imran (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). Jagruti has the brisk walk and fast-talking manner of a headline-hunter in a hurry.

Her eardrum is forever glued to her cellphone. She pursues leads even on vacation. In one striking shot, she gets a hot tip while clad in a nightie.

Among her chief sources is the flirtatious Joint Commissioner of Police Harshvardhan (Harman Baweja), modelled on the deceased officer Himanshu Roy. The politics within Harshvardhan’s crime fighting unit parallel the situation at Jagruti’s workplace.

Her brilliance dazzles her younger colleague Deepa (Inayat Sood), but burns others, particularly Pushkar (Tanmay Dhanania). Leena (Tannishtha Chatterjee), the hard-driving editor at a rival newspaper, blasts her staff for being trumped by Jagruti. Imran stands by his hard-working colleague. (Jigna Vora’s real-life mentor Hussain Zaidi is one of the show’s producers.)

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Karishma Tanna in Scoop (2023). Courtesy Matchbox Shots/Netflix.

Jagruti herself envies ace reporter Jaideb Sen (Prosenjit Chatterjee). The death of Dawood Ibrahim’s driver, followed by Sen’s killing, lead to a series of events that drag Jagruti into the dock and then into prison.

What price, ambition? Scoop’s straight-forward narrative approach to the breaking news business is dispassionate, sometimes thoughtful and sharp (especially in revealing how police sources manipulate reporters), but also pedantic and not always perceptive.

Can a media critique succeed when it misstates the ways in which newspapers are run and important editorial decisions are made? The antics of Jagruti’s colleagues, Leena’s questionable moves, and the portrayal of Eastern Age under Imran’s stewardship as a beacon of Truth and Rectitude results in a skewed picture.

Almost everybody but Jagruti and Imran is on the take or, at the very least, cynical. This crime-fighting pair is placed on a pedestal from where the show’s makers can throw out cliches about media ethics.

Where Jagruti is frequently distraught or self-accusatory – “It’s all rotten and I am a part of it”, she wails – Imran is cool-headed and brave, standing up to his bosses, the police and the government. He piously declares, “I could not dodge, bend, twist or manipulate the truth.”

Imran’s theory on Jaideb Sen’s death comes to dominate the story. In the process, the ordeal of a falsely accused single mother takes a backseat. Jagruti’s time in prison – movingly detailed by Jigna Vora – is jettisoned for a half-baked study of the venality of the Mumbai Police. The tragedy of Jaideb Sen, inspired by J Dey, barely merits mention.

Despite the ample emotion – mostly supplied by Jagruti and her family – Scoop often flatlines. It’s resuscitated by Jagruti’s defence lawyer Vashisht, played with scene-stealing precision by Jaimini Pathak.

Vashisht’s arguments are so compelling that even the filmmakers stop to gaze in admiration. The camera stuck on his face, with barely any reaction shots, Vashisht single-handedly destroys the spurious case against Jagruti.

With performances ranging from the competent to the comically earnest, Jaimini Pathak’s lawyer is sharp and concise, the real scoop in the cast. The show needed more such actors and sequences to elevate a same-old story about a highly irregular instance of malfeasance.

Scoop (2023).

Also read:

Arrested, acquitted: Jigna Vora recounts her trauma after being accused in journalist J Dey’s murder