Hail the huckster 

This week sees the release of the highly anticipated web series Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story. The Sony LIV series traces the rise of Abdul Karim Telgi, the fake stamp scam mastermind who died of AIDS-related ailments in 2017. While a book is already out on the subject (Bhaswar Mukherjee’s The Counterfeiter: Abdul Karim Telgi and the Stamp Scam – Most Fascinating True Crime Story), the Sony LIV show is based on an upcoming English translation of Sanjay Singh’s Telgi – A Reporter’s Diary.

If scamming is one of the world’s oldest professions, then there is no count of films or shows about con artists either. We can’t get enough of these men and women who draw wool over our wide-open eyes, willing us to part with our hard-earned money so that they may buy private jets or islands or whatever it is they do with their ill-begotten lucre.

In India, fictionalised explorations of scams have particular resonance, since they reveal a great deal about the corruption that exists across government departments. We turn to such shows as Scam 2003 and its predecessor, Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story (about stock trader Harshad Mehta), to confirm what we have suspected all along: the system is rotten at the core, and all it needs is a few smart and conscience-free people to find their way in.

Not all rackets are cynical, and not all schemers are immoral. There can be righteous cons such as the Jewish forger who, after initially being forced to help his Nazi captors flood the United Kingdom with fake notes, began creating false documents to help other Jews flee the horrors of the Holocaust. The 2007 film Counterfeiters explores this necessary crime. 

Like bank robbers who repeatedly tell us, “Don’t worry, the theft is covered by insurance”, charismatic hucksters line up suckers who are ripe for takedown. The chasm between the economic classes around the world similarly makes it hard to be overly bothered when the wealthy become victims. Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite (2019) expertly plays on schadenfreude, reasoning that an ultra-rich family targeted by a poor family deserves everything that comes its way. 

We might claim to despise confidence tricksters, but we cannot help marvel at their brilliance or chutzpah, just like we might feel pangs of regret when the game is finally up. This typically human predicament is brilliantly explored by one of the greatest films ever on the subject.

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