Any topic that can seize the attention of the audience is rare these days. We used to make aspirational stories where there were clearly defined roles for the hero and the villain. Then came the relatable phase of storytelling, where mundane stories were being told with such care that the audience could see their daily struggles in them. The new miniseries Hustlers wants to combine the two approaches to storytelling. It’s a story about an ordinary boy who hustles his way to the top, hence the name. It’s an aspirational story, as everyone connects to a ‘hero’ figure who fights his way through and succeeds in whatever endeavor he aspires to. But keeping in with the trends, Hustlers tries to keep it relatable, giving us characters that are so well known to the Indian middle class.
We have the insanely authoritarian dad who compares his two kids and always appreciates the one who is more academically gifted. He is like a stock character, and Anurag Arora plays it the only way it could have been played. Then we have the maverick son, who wants to prove his worth to his father, which is why he takes admission into the engineering college his elder brother went to. The sweet mother stands behind him like a true champion, and there is a love interest as well who shows up in college. The cliched portrayal could have been avoided, for the crux of the story wasn’t that Sanjay Sharma, our maverick son, had to fight his father for permission, but that he had to carve his own identity by facing the challenges that the startup culture had to offer.
Sanjay, played by Vishal Vashishtha, isn’t a unique character. Now it was up to the writers to give him uniqueness, and his environment could have been one in which that risk could have been taken. The show rests too much on the peppy approach to storytelling, hoping that the audience might overlook the done-to-death middle-class milieu. The series gives the stock characters absolutely no time to break away from the cage they’re in. The father is always angry with Sanjay, as if he has no other emotions in him. The mother is always sweet and kind, while the brother is a smug topper.
When Sanjay goes to college, we get a feeling of deja vu as the scenes feel copied from films like “3 Idiots” and “Chhichhore.” Even the little novelty of Sanjay’s character in how he deals with the obstacles in his way feels forced and dull at times. There is a weird feeling I get hearing the Gujarati accents in the series. Sanjay’s roommate Baka hails from Gujarat, and his backstory about his desires came off as more creepy than relatable, perhaps because the character wasn’t even introduced properly.
That’s the other thing about the series. It feels rushed at all times. It’s as if it knows that if it stops to talk genuinely about the issues at hand, then the whole charade will start to feel meaningless. The performances try to match this pace, and the writing is not at all in sync with the spell the filmmaking is trying to cast. The dialogue, which had to be witty and fast-paced, comes across as wannabe and tiresome. There was a choice to differentiate between the past and the present by changing the aspect ratio, and it gave the second episode some depth, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the weak dialogue. Samir Kochhar shows us Mihir Jain, the venture capitalist, who offers Sanjay the chance to live his entrepreneurial dream. Kocchar tries his best to portray the role, resting on his usual style. It’s a familiar role, that of a powerful man, and he has done a lot of those. He is underutilized though, as he becomes the antagonist for a brief moment, and then his role fizzles out and the Sanjay success story takes the front seat.
There are some well-known songs used in the series, which gave the film an even more typical Bollywood feel. The theme music is quite catchy but is on the verge of being exhausting. As a viewer who has seen shows like Pitchers, Hustlers feels like a watered-down version of it. The show had the chance to stand out, but it took a predictable route. There are only a few moments that truly surprise me. The narrative gets too bland at one point and feels like it is deliberately taking you down an even more irritating path, but it pulls back, genuinely surprising us. These moments are the saving grace for an otherwise bland series. It began as a vibrant one, but the cliche choices for the characters and the flow of the story don’t let it fly high for long.
Hustlers gets its philosophy right. It wants to show us a seemingly normal person making tough decisions to become a ‘hustler,’ and that’s exactly the transformation it wanted to emphasize. But it doesn’t have an authentic approach to graphing that transformation. The paint-by-numbers approach can only get you so far. The darkest moments for Sanjay aren’t portrayed as such, and he breezes through all of them. The greatest trial is when he loses everything, and the comparison with Manoj eats at his core. That was portrayed quite melodramatically, before the show moved on to Sanjay’s other challenges regarding his start-up. Then suddenly he becomes a person who makes all the right decisions, like a mastermind, just whizzing by the competition, knowing the nitty-gritties of the startup culture. Where did he learn all this? Instinct? Ok. Instinct is very hard to film, though. There have to be a series of shots that compose that instinct cinematically, and here there are practically none. That just leaves us with the description of the story, not a cinematic rendition of it. Making a good film, good or bad, is hard, which is why it is painful to see that Hustlers does everything to look great but misses the opportunity to create an aspirational and relatable character. It’s entertaining because it rushes through Sanjay’s story with some sentimentality, but for those who are looking for a more detailed character study, this is not it.