...Or, How The Hindi Film Industry Can Prove Fatal to Your Health

Imagine a loan at 50% interest. If you default on it, you lose not your house or your good credit record, but your kneecaps -- and that's if you're lucky. Welcome to the world of film finance, Bollywood ishtyle.

    In July 2001, the Reserve Bank of India issued a dry announcement filled with codicils and provisos. The sum of its message, however -- that banks would now begin to finance films -- set Bollywood abuzz with excitement. By long denying recognition to filmmaking as a bona fide industry, the government -- and therefore the banks -- had forced filmmakers to turn to underworld dons for financing, an arrangement that cost billions of rupees and, far too often, lives.

   The financial entanglement of Bollywood and the mafia dates back some thirty years to Haji Mastan, a crime lord whose passion for an aspiring starlet led him to produce films featuring his sweetheart. In his footsteps have followed a host of mobsters with a bloodthirsty appreciation for showbiz. The chief mafiosos operate from abroad -9- Nairobi, Karachi, New Jersey, Dubai; anywhere beyond the jurisdiction of Indian police. They relay orders via cell phone to their henchman in country. And by lending money to desperate filmmakers at exorbitant rates of return, they profit hugely, since their payback comes regardless of the film's performance at the box office. But the incentive isn't only financial; for the most part, these gangsters have a passion for the movies. According to the Hindustan Times, one of the main players, Abu Salem, even names his sons after his favorite on-screen heroes.

   This two-way attraction has engendered a weird relationship between the films and the real-life villains. Suketu Mehta, writer of 2000's critically acclaimed terrorist drama Mission Kashmir, explains, "There is a curious symbiosis between the underworld and the movies. The Hindi film-makers are fascinated by the lives of the gangsters, and draw upon them for material. The gangsters, from the shooter on the ground to the don-in-exile at the top, watch Hindi movies keenly, and model themselves - their dialogue, the way they carry themselves - on their screen equivalents." (The New Statesman, Mar 12 2001) Indeed, films like Satya portray mobsters with a curious blend of sympathy and revulsion that will feel familiar to fans of Hollywood director Martin Scorsese's work.

   Unlike Scorsese, though, a Bollywood director's attitude is shaped as much by fear as by artistic sentiment. Cineblitz reports in its March 2002 issue: "[Director] Ram Gopal Verma is in a dilemma... His 'underworld' film Company's climax is giving him sleepless nights. He apparently has the Dubai-based Dawood Ebrahim played by Ajay Devgan and Chhotta Rajan played by Vicky Oberoi. The kings of the underworld, both living, both still very powerful. They would make their displeasure felt if either one does not want to die in celluloid or otherwise... So Ramu is in a major quandary. He does not know how the film should come to a close... He has shot two climaxes: the first one has Ajay Devgan who plays Dawood Ebrahim being shot down while the second has Vicky Oberoi who's playing Chhotta Rajan's part being shot down. How he comes to a decision is going to be one very, very interesting development."

   Paranoia? We think not. When powerful personality Rakesh Roshan -- director of super-hit Kaho Na Pyaar Hai and father of actor Hrithik -- is shot outside his own office (see sidebar), then no one is safe. And while a wave of attacks on entertainment personalities has prompted the government to grant the industry recourse to bank loans, legitimate financing cannot protect the stars from flat-out blackmail.

   Manisha, Salman, Shahrukh, Aamir, Hrithik, Preity: the list of stars who have allegedly received the dreaded midnight phone call is too long to repeat. (Some say that this is the reason that so many stars always leave their mobiles on voice-mail.)  Many supposedly bow to mafia demands. The March 23, 2001 edition of The New Statesman claims that "Johnny Lever, a comedian, was taken to task by the authorities in mid-1980s for performing at a party organised in Dubai for a notorious fugitive gangland boss."  Overseas concerts are often denounced as fronts for the mafia to legitimize its cash flow -- and for stars to satisfy the underworld without bowing to a more difficult demand, i.e., starring in a film helmed by mafia cronies.

   It's clear that the ties between Bollywood figures and underworld criminals, while not always willingly fashioned, bind tightly. But sometimes the intimacy is truly shocking:

   Sanjay Dutt, famous actor and son of screen legend (and current politician) Sunil Dutt, became the focus of national attention when he was arrested on charges of dealing with the mafia following the Bombay communal riots of 1993. His ongoing trial -- in which he is charged with not only procuring an assault rifle from gangsters, but also with aiding and abetting the planting of a series of deadly bombs -- has received renewed media attention thanks to the release of a taped phone conversation allegedly featuring Sanjay ingratiating himself to mafia don Chhota Shakeel. (For more, see Sanjay's bio.) The tape has been introduced as evidence in a separate trial which, in part, charges film producer Bharat Shah with conspiring with underworld figures who plotted to murder actors Hrithik Roshan, Aamir Khan, and Shahrukh Khan.

   Monica Bedi, the actress who starred opposite Sanjay Dutt in David Dhawan's Jodi No. 1 and also featured in recent release Pyar Ishq aur Mohabbat, recently was declared an outlaw by the Indian police. Authorities claimed that she was gangster Abu Salem's co-wife, and that, under the name 'Fauzia Begum', she had absconded with Salem and his other wife to parts unknown. (Sounds like a film plot itself!)

 In June 1997, Nadeem-Shravan -- the musical duo whose compositions include the soundtracks for Dhadkan and Haan Maine Bhi Pyaar Kiya -- played host at a magnificent gala at the Hotel Royal Empire. Among their guests were actors Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Jackie Shroff. Also present were Mohammad Ali Hussain Shaikh and Rauf Dawood Merchant, who, according to police, conspired there, at the behest of boss Abu Salem, to kill producer Gulshan Kumar. (Rediff, June 2001) Nadeem fled to Britain in 2001 to avoid questioning; Salman Khan was interrogated by police on the matter (though his name was cleared), and is actually a witness in another mob-related case pending against Bharat Shah, producer of Khan's film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke -- the making of which was temporarily stalled due to the financier's arrest for alleged underworld connections. (Yahoo News Service Jan. 25, 2001)

   Shah is a major producer, involved in big-name projects ranging from 2001's Lajja to the recent Cannes International Film Festival entry, Devdas. His arrest sent shockwaves through the industry and even caused a dip in the local stock exchange. Colleagues from his first enterprise -- the diamond trade -- joined the film world in a one day strike to express their belief in Shah's innocence. But perhaps producer Sawan Kumar's reaction best captures the underlying reasons for this show of solidarity: "...[O]ne should understand the problems producers face today. The government gave Bollywood an industry status, but it is only on paper. I have approached banks for finance but was turned down because the banks said they have not received clear guidelines. In such a situation producers become desperate. However," he cautiously adds, "that is no excuse for using underworld money for film production. Anybody can get a threat anytime. If I produce a hit film, everyone wants to share money." (Indian Express, Dec. 14, 2000)

Film Personalities Targeted by the Mafia

June 1997: Mukesh Duggal, producer, shot and killed in Bombay.

August 1997: Gulsham Kumar, producer of films including Aamir Khan-starrer Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, is shot dead outside a temple in Mumbai.

December 1997: Manmohan Shetty, producer, survives murder attempt.

Rajiv Rai: better safe (abroad) than sorry2000: Director Rajiv Rai (Pyaar Ishq aur Mohabbat) escapes a kidnapping/murder attempt. Relocates to London.

Nov. 2000: Ajit Dewani, cinema owner, survives an assassination attempt when the gunman's weapon jams.

Jan. 2001: Director Rakesh Roshan (Kaho Na Rakesh: miraculously survivedPyar Hai), father of Hrithik, survives an assaasination attempt outside his Mumbai office. "Roshan reportedly refused to sell the overseas rights of Kaho Na Pyaar Hai" to gangsters. (Asia Times, 7/28/01)

July 2001: After the murder of Manisha Koirala's secretary Ajit Dewani, Amrish Puri, actor, receives a call instructing him to fork over a million rupees or be killed. "The demand was made at least five times over phone at my office... I immediately informed the police. They have now provided me with an armed bodyguard," he tells The Asia Times (7/28/2001). Directors J.P. Dutta (Border), Subhash Ghai (Yaadein), and Ram Gopal Verma (Rangeela) are also targeted.

Producer Pahlaj Nihalani, directors Mahesh Bhatt and Karan Johar, actors Hrithik Roshan and Govinda are supplied police protection after receiving credible threats. "I have a gun with me at all times," Hrithik later admits to G Magazine.

Fall 2001Aamir: the next target?:Police announce the discovery of a plot to kill actor Aamir Khan and director Ashutosh Gowariker, who have spurned underworld extortion attempts following the success of Lagaan. "After the abortive plan came to light, Khan received half-a-dozen calls from the don, warning him that he would succeed the next time around." (Hindustan Times, Nov. 4, 2001)

(writing © copyright, 2001 - 2006)

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