A new Sony LIV web series follows stamp paper counterfeiter Abdul Karim Telgi on the jaunty road to ill-begotten wealth. Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story introduces us to one the most amiable charlatans around. His eyes twinkle as easily as aphorisms tumble from his tongue. He tops up bribes with warm smiles. Even a terrible communal riot is not a big deal for this tireless deal-maker.

It was a bit difficult to move around during the 1992-’93 violence in Mumbai, Telgi shrugs. His calling card is his insouciance. There’s a whiff of satire to the early episodes of Telgi coolly hammering away at already weakened institutions by identifying greedy police officials, government employees and politicians. It’s almost a game, until it isn’t.

Scam 2003 comes after Sony LIV’s Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story, a similarly-themed chronicle of a man too much in a hurry to earn an honest living. Both shows are as much about the vaulting ambition, boundless amorality and bottomless chutzpah of their protagonists as they are about the corroded institutions designed to protect the public from fraud.

The new series has been adapted by Kiran Yadnopavit, Kedar Patankar and Karan Vyas from news reports and Sanjay Singh’s non-fiction book Telgi – A Reporter’s Diary. Hansal Mehta, who directed Scam 1992, serves here as the showrunner, with Tushar Hiranandani as director. Gagan Dev Riar winningly plays the forger who died from AIDS-related complications in 2017.

The show skims over Telgi’s hardscrabble background in a small town in Karnataka. Much of the action takes place in Mumbai, where Telgi hones his craft, and Nashik, where Telgi reaches peak efficiency.

Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story (2023). Courtesy Applause Entertainment/Studio Next/Sony LIV.

Telgi arrives in Mumbai fully formed, speaking near-perfect English and bursting with ease-of-doing-business ideas. I am the country’s future, he says glibly. He believes it too. From supplying fake immigration documents to Gulf-bound workers, he moves smoothly into counterfeiting. He initially teams up with Kaushal (Hemang Vyas), and marries Nafisa (Sana Amin Shaikh). But as his horizons widen, they get more crowded too.

If Telgi is rolling in wealth, there’s no sign of it in the series, which looks as tawdry as his tactics. Plainly filmed and narrated, the show holds interest largely because of Riar’s astutely judged performance as well as the larger cultural fascination with hucksters.

The series goes over an overly familiar arc of developments. With only five of the scheduled 10 episodes released, the scale of Telgi’s operations, which were said to have been massive in real life, is only just coming into view. Unlike the fake painting that is so accurate it’s easily mistaken for the real one, this portrait of Telgi is still taking shape, at least on the strength of what is available.

The context within which to understand Telgi’s ascent is not yet clear. The previous show about Harshad Mehta set the stock trader’s rise against an economy that had begun to embrace free market practices.

In order to explain Telgi’s modus operandi, the makers surround him with hard-working but dim-witted characters. This allows Telgi to explain to them – and us – how he pulled off his feats. The approach also allows for a deeper exploration of Telgi’s understanding of human psychology.

Not everyone is easily persuaded. One of the most absorbing tracks revolves around a government printing press manager who refuses to bend to Telgi. Marathi actor Bharat Jadhav plays another government employee, who accept Telgi’s blandishments with the good grace of a child eating her greens.

The line of grubby-handed collaborators soon stretches around the block. One almost feels sorry for Telgi as the palms get itchier, the quantum of graft increases, and a change in government only means another set of leaders to fatten. His easygoing charm acquires layers of menace, which Riar portrays effortlessly.

The actors playing secondary characters include Nandu Madhav, Talat Aziz, Sameer Dharmadhikari, Bharat Dabholkar and Kiran Karmarkar. Telgi terms himself a lone wolf heading a hungry pack. At the end of five episodes, the pack leader remains the biggest draw.

Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story (2023).