Kookie Gulati’s The Big Bull faces two major disadvantages. The first is that Harshad Mehta, the stock broker who inspired the movie, has already served as the subject of a detailed web series. The second is that the multi-crore securities scam engineered by Mehta in the early 1990s, though by no means negligible, has been followed by other, more sensational frauds.
The SonyLIV series Scam 1992 used real names while dramatising actual incidents. The Big Bull invents a new identity for its anti-hero, Hemant Shah, but closely follows the milestones and obstacles in the short but sensational life of India’s most famous stock market manipulator. From Shah’s modest beginnings to his meteoric rise on the Bombay bourse, the media attention to his runs-in with the law enforcement agencies, The Big Bull goes methodically and unimaginatively down the list.
The 155-minute Hindi movie, which is being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar, stars Abhishek Bachchan as the stock trader who wants to get very rich very quick. Hemant and his brother Viren (Sohum Shah) quickly graduate from being sub-brokers to independent traders, filling their coffers while surreptitiously emptying out the accounts of the country’s leading banks.
Financial journalist Meera (Ileana D’Cruz) is among the few who are sceptical about this trajectory. Hemant’s brother Viren is shown as a reluctant partner in crime, as he unsuccessfully tries to curb Hemant’s instincts.
The Indian middle class that benefits from Hemant’s hot tips and risk-taking behaviour cheers him on, as do the businessmen who profit from his bull run. The screenplay, by Kookie Gulati and Arjun Dhawan, is similarly admiring of Hemant’s efforts to bilk the banking system and exploit its loopholes. The sympathy-for-the-devil chronicle finds a convenient villain to blame for Hemant’s excesses – the Congress party, which was in power during Harshad Mehta’s rampage. From the prime minister downwards, the movie suggests, Hemant has powerful backers for his crimes.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with The Big Bull, but there is nothing terribly new about it either. The movie has few fresh insights to offer into the workings of the stock market and the Indian economy in the 1990s, nor does it compensate by creating compelling arcs for its characters.
The flattering – and flattening – chronicle includes romantic interludes with Hemant’s sweetheart and future wife Priya (Nikita Dutta). Moments are designed to make it appear that Hemant isn’t actually breaking the law but is doing everybody a big favour by taking necessary short-cuts.
The dialogue, by Ritesh Shah, frequently alludes to ascent and descent. Between scaling unimaginable heights (per Hemant) to crash-landing (per a rival bear trader), the movie exhausts the ways in which to say the same thing over and over again.
The aphorism-addicted Hemant has at least one good line. Meera described me as a bubble, but I thought I was an earthquake, he grumbles on one occasion.
Abhishek Bachchan’s commendably restrained performance isn’t enough to lift a one-note character. By way of shading, Hemant is given a range of ways to express his warped derring-do: ingratiating smiles in the early days, smirks and sneers when the going is good, and grimaces and scowls when the castle finally crumbles.
And then there are the comic-book chortles. As Hemant savours yet another victory, he breaks out evil giggles, like a villain from a 1970s movie. The Big Bull strains to ensure that the poor little rich scamster has the last laugh.