Ironical as it may sound and much to one’s disbelief, the underworld still has a strong hold over Bollywood. Which, here in this case, does not mean the whole of Indian cinema, but merely those films produced in Mumbai (once Bombay, hence Bollywood) and in the Hindi language.
Of the 1,300 or so movies made annually in India and in several languages, about 250 pop out of the cans in Mumbai, also called Maya Nagari or Magic City — where thousands of men and women had been arriving since the 1920s to fulfil their dreams of becoming producers or directors or actors. Most failed, but those who made it had to live a hard life.
One of the biggest impediments to a smooth and peaceful professional existence has been the underworld don, whose fascination for all things cinema has often been a cause for anxiety.
About two decades ago, dons like Ibrahim Dawood and Chhota Shakeel had a firm grip over Mumbai’s movie mandarins.
The gangsters liberally funded film production, but in turn demanded and got their pound of flesh. Which could be their choice of heroines or stories or scripts. And, reportedly the actresses were expected to return favours, which were sexual. Producers and directors were sometimes coerced into changing plot lines.
Of course, all this cut both ways. Stars friendly with dons could easily corner plum parts in movies, and producers or directors could do nothing about it — also because they were financially indebted to the underworld.
Some Bollywood men were even seen and photographed with gangsters like Abu Salem (now in an Indian jail) and Ibrahim Dawood (the most wanted man in India responsible for some heinous terror strikes) in places like Dubai.
According to a telling newspaper report in The Hindu, “Actors, producers and distributors not only pay obeisance to the ‘bhais’ (dons) at offshore locations such as Dubai but also help them establish a toehold in the movie business by collaborating with production houses directly funded by fugitive gangster Chhota Shakeel.
“Indian agencies listened in on several conversations between Chhota Shakeel, a leading organiser of Bollywood events in the United Arab Emirates, and other underworld operatives that showed that arrangements were under way in full swing to welcome a Bollywood superstar at the popular Meydan Hotel in Nad Al Sheba in Dubai from May 27 to 30.
“The fugitive don booked a double-room in the hotel for Dawood Ibrahim’s son, Moin and daughter-in-law, who were keen on a photo-op with the star. One intercept reveals an aide telling Shakeel in Dubai that he and others were with one Karim Bhai and the film star had gone out. The aide assures Shakeel that he will take Dawood’s son and daughter-in-law to the star.
“After a few minutes, Shakeel calls the aide to ask him to give his reference to the Bollywood event organiser, and that “children” must be arranged a good photo-op. The meeting concluded the same day as planned by Shakeel”.
This fair weather could also turn foul, and there were cases of extortion, and rich actors/actresses/producers had to cough up money. Or do films that men of the underworld commanded.
In 1997, Gulshan Kumar — known as Mumbai’s Cassette King, who ruled over his large empire of T-Series Music — was shot dead outside a busy Hindu temple in broad daylight. The murder was said to have been the handiwork of two music directors, Nadeem and Shravan. But the hand of the underworld was suspected in this ghastly killing.
That same year, producer Mukesh Duggal was also shot dead, highlighting further the mafia-movie nexus. In 1997, producer Manmohan Shetty narrowly escaped being gunned down.
Last year, don Ravi Pujari threatened to murder Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt and his family.
Those arrested on suspicion turned out to be men who had earlier fired shots outside the Mumbai house of two producer brothers, Karim Morani and Ali Morani. Pujari had been demanding from them the overseas rights of superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s film, Happy New Year. The Moranis’ refusal had led to the shoot-out.
The brothers were not alone. Many Bollywood personalities — including Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Jackie Shroff, Sridevi, Monica Bedi, Mandakini and Preity Zinta — had been threatened by the underworld in the past.
A key reason for this Bollywood-underground link is money. Though institutional funding is now available for films, this is still not easy to come by. A decade ago, such support was just not there, and the illegal wealth that was with gangsters and which was made through nefarious real-estate deals came in handy for financing movies. The Bollywood-underworld nexus was just waiting to happen.
A Wikileaks cable issued in 2011 by the US Consulate in Mumbai elaborated this connection.
“The industry also welcomed funds from gangsters…looking for ways to launder their ill-gotten gains, known in India as ’black money,’ ” said the cable.
With big bad money still in the Bollywood bag, the photo-op that The Hindu spoke about appears like the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Asia Times Editorial