Hansal Mehta’s Netflix series Scoop is a rare and invaluable insight into Indian media which doesn’t pull any punches when dealing with the industry and its murky relationship with the underworld, police establishment and political bigwigs during the close of the first decade of the 21st century. The six-episode limited series employs a conspiracy narrative revolving around the protagonist Jagruti Pathak played by Karishma Tanna, a leading crime journalist for a prominent newspaper, and doubles as a socio-political commentary upon our times as well.
While the internal dynamics of the underworld have been often depicted in Indian movies, especially in the first decade of this century with occasional references to its nexus with the political world, this series takes a unique look into its troubled relationship with the media industry. Sourced from crime reporter Jigna Vora’s autobiographical book Behind Bars in Byculla: My Days in Prison, Scoop depicts her true story as one of the few crime journalists of her times who regularly broke explosive stories from the underworld active in Mumbai at the time with the Dawood-Chhota Rajan rivalry at its centre.
The show has two main narrative threads. The first describes the internal workings of the world of crime journalism in which key to success is to gather information from sources from both the underworld and the top police brass. Journalists who manage to maintain good rapport in both worlds are able to break exclusive stories. Pathak who was an expert in this, witnessed a speedy rise in the world of journalism. Her savvy, ruthlessness and tactics not only made her a successful and envied crime journalist but also overly confident in her own infallibility, a flaw which made her an unsuspecting target of a conspiracy as she was falsely implicated in the murder of a fellow crime journalist Jaideb Sen played by Prosenjit Chatterjee (based on the true story of the murder of Jyotirmay Dey).
This leads to the second narrative thread which delves into the world of undertrial prisoners, especially those who have been charged under draconian anti-terror laws which do not afford easy bail leading to prolonged incarceration without trial. Pathak’s high-profile status as a journalist and someone belonging to a privileged section of society becomes the key focus of this narrative as she finds herself completely hapless and helpless among convicts and undertrial prisoners in Byculla jail, an experience upon which Vora’s book is based.
The show tries to make some broader points through both these threads. Through the first thread the series makes some pointed observations about the way the media has been working for quite some time. As journalism evolved as an industry, the concern for ethics increasingly gave way to profit which in turn led to sensationalism. Getting the scoop became the most important thing and sources became an asset.
While presently information from sources mostly means deliberately leaked information from official “sources” which is carried by mainstream media channels and newspapers, in the late 2000s and early 2010s it still meant information accessed from various sources. But as the series portrays, this was no virtue per se. The entire conspiracy narrative revolves around the quid pro quo in which journalists engaged for getting information from unofficial sources like well-placed people in the underworld or confirming the same stories or getting tip-offs from official sources like the top brass of the police. Meanwhile, as the series shows, the police and the gangsters had their own nexus. The turning point of the story is Pathak becoming an unwitting patsy in the shady dealings between the two camps and getting falsely framed.
The series constantly comments upon the declining ethics of the journalism industry as investigative journalism rapidly gave way to sourced journalism, which in turn rapidly turned into reporting based on even rumours and unverified information, planted deliberately for manipulation of narrative as well as police investigation.
The second narrative thread based on the court trial and false incarceration is representative of a larger socio-political issue which has become even more familiar in the past decade i.e., the plight of the undertrial prisoners, especially those who have been charged under anti-terror or preventive detention laws which make getting bail almost impossible while prisoners languish in jail without trial for indefinite period of time. Through Pathak’s point of view, viewers are skillfully taken through stages of disbelief, anger, disappointment, dejection and sorrow when faced with the insurmountable odds stacked against oneself. The ordeal of prisoners who have to face inhuman living conditions, internal politics of prison and injustices at the hands of prison officials, is something which is scarcely depicted in Hindi cinema or OTT content anymore even though it is a torturous reality for so many people in the country.
Even though the series balances these two weighty narrative threads, it does not compromise with the plot which at its core remains a story about the false framing of a reporter. But in doing so it does not undeservedly symapthise with Pathak as someone who was merely an innocent bystander. Through Pathak’s own admissions it acknowledges the role played by journalists like herself in both sensationalising news and profiting from it and contributing to the current state of affairs.
The show is tightly scripted. Being a conspiracy narrative, it does carry a lot of plot details which can sometimes be hard to follow but if one keeps track of the larger story, the details can be made sense of eventually, if not completely retained. Karishma Tanna’s powerful performance in the lead role helps centre the story and its emotional nuances. Hansal Mehta’s penchant of telling lesser heard-of stories and contextualising them within larger socio-political concerns has provided yet another compelling watch. The show’s strength lies in its ability to tell a story with a strong narrative-anchor rather than addressing a few trending topics or picking up the currently fashionable tropes, as is the case with most cinematic content these days.