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12 March 2001

Gangsters grab the limelight in Bollywood

Salil Tripathi on the dark side of India's film industry, where leading actors fail to live happily

By Salil Tripathi

Bharat Shah liked to live in style. When his daughter got married in Bombay in the late 1980s, India’s leading film financier hired the city’s cricket stadium, so that businessmen, politicians and film stars could all be invited to the make-believe Rajasthani palace he had put up on the pitch. Yet, in a reversal of fortune, just like some hair-raising twist in the plot of one of those Bollywood films he produced, today Shah lives in a far more humble abode – the city’s jail. And from that dingy cell, he has reportedly been telling the police force stories that could raise the lid on one of the worst-kept secrets of the world’s most prolific film industry: its financial links with the city’s underworld.

When Shah was arrested on 8 January, the film industry, in which at any given time he had some £30m invested, suspended shooting for a day and many multimillion-pound projects were put on hold. The stock market dropped 63 points, for Shah has invested in many media-related companies. And the diamonds business, India’s biggest export earner, was in a state of shock, as Shah’s wealth comes from diamond trading – Shah’s diamond exports in the past few years alone have been estimated at $1bn.

The central allegation against Shah is potentially devastating to his empire; if proven, it can keep him in jail for years under India’s tough anti-crime laws. He is accused of helping gangsters invest in Bollywood – a charge he denies. Bollywood’s fans are as passionate about movies as India’s cricket fans are about cricket: every schoolboy, it seems, can now recite the contents of a telephone conversation, secretly taped by the police, between Shah and a fugitive mobster now living in Karachi, as if they were Sachin Tendulkar’s batting statistics. Shah, however, denies that the voice is his, and his lawyers insist that he has no links with organised crime.

How did things come to such a pass? Why would an industry that sells fantasies to some of the poorest people in the world, with simple stories of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-the-girl-in-the-end-after-bashing-up-the-baddies, end up dependent on Bombay’s underworld?

To be sure, links between Tinseltown and the underworld are not a uniquely Indian phenomenon. The mob, at one time, was believed to influence Hollywood, and in the 1990s, leading Hong Kong stars, including Jackie Chan, publicly protested against the influence of the territory’s dreaded triads on their industry.

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In Bollywood, there is a quaint mutual fascination between the film industry and the underworld. Many films have told stories based on Robin Hood-like underworld characters, of goons with hearts of gold. The remarkable 1998 art-house film Satya (The Truth), for instance, a Pulp Fiction-like realist look at Bombay’s gangland, ended up filling the audience with a sneaking sympathy for the hard-hearted protagonists.

Suketu Mehta, a New York-based writer whose book on Bombay will be published next spring, says: “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.”

To understand the infiltration of Bollywood by the underworld, you have to look at the way films are financed in India. Until recently, the government did not recognise film-making as a legitimate industry, which meant banks and corporations were unwilling to finance the producers, even though many films were extremely profitable. The £14bn film industry releases 800 to 900 movies a year in many languages, but the Bollywood movies in Hindi – about 150 to 200 a year – generate the greatest revenues. India alone has 13,000 cinemas, with a daily audience of more than ten million. The films also form the staple diet of expatriate Indians, and in some cases local communities, in Europe, south-east Asia, the Middle East and the United States. As India barely taxes export revenues, investing in films can be a sound business proposition.

On the other hand, income tax rates were high in India until recently, which meant that almost everyone associated with the industry – from the stars and directors to the make-up artists, the cameramen, lyricists, musicians and even the spot-boys – was paid in cash; nobody reported real income to the tax authorities. Without legitimate lending, and with the need for a constant, high infusion of cash, the producers have had no choice but to turn to profitable, cash-generating businesses for new finance, particularly since the mid-1980s, when audiences got more sophisticated, and single stars (even Amitabh Bachchan) could not pull in the millions of viewers needed.

Sets became more expensive and the song sequences and car chases had to be shot abroad. Multi-star blockbusters had to be made in order to draw the millions to the cinema halls week after week. Result: film-makers turned to restaurateurs, hoteliers, construction firms and jewellers – all cash-rich businesses – for the resources to make the films.

Meanwhile, many stars and directors took on more work than they could handle and began turning up on set hours after the scenes were prepared. The underworld, which needed to legitimise some of its inflows, saw this as its golden opportunity: it won a guarantee that the stars would behave – in return for its investment.

Investment in Bollywood gave the underworld a sense of power – gangsters could make or break stars; they could call stars at whim to perform at the birthday parties of their wives, girlfriends or children. 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.

Once the underworld started to finance the films, it began to like calling the shots. Privately, many stars admitted receiving threatening phone calls from Pakistan or Dubai, in which an abusive gangster would tell the star to take a particular role or not to act in a particular film.

The stakes were raised: as Bollywood became the most profitable film industry in the world, some gangsters demanded a share. The Dubai-Karachi-Bombay trafficking of bootlegged films and soundtracks nets the underworld Rs400bn (about £6bn) each year, according to Taran Adarsh, an industry observer in Bombay. With such potential profits, it was inevitable that blood would flow: last year saw the attempted assassination of a top producer, Rakesh Roshan (he is also the father of Hrithik Roshan, Bollywood’s current idol).

In 1997, a particularly bloody year, the film producer Mukesh Duggal was shot dead in Bombay, allegedly because he had borrowed money from Chhota Rajan, a gangland boss, and had earned the ire of another gang, run by Chhota Shakeel. The same year, the director Rajiv Rai survived a murder attempt. The most spectacular killing that year was of Gulshan Kumar, who ran one of the world’s largest audio-cassette manufacturing companies under his T-Series brand. Earlier this month, Abdul Daud Rauf Merchant, a hired gun, confessed in police custody that he received Rs100,000 (almost £1,500) as the first instalment for the Gulshan Kumar murder.

Bharat Shah wasn’t the only one arrested in January. Nazim Rizvi, who was producing Chori, Chori, Chupke, Chupke (Stealing, Stealing, Quietly, Quietly), funded by Shah, was accused of working with Chhota Shakeel to get the film made faster and cheaper for a share of the profits. Shakeel has denied that he financed the film. But the Bombay Police’s tape-recording reveals a conversation between Shakeel and Shah that apparently confirms a deeper business relationship between the two.

Police authorities are hoping that Shah will co-operate and confirm their suspicion that Bollywood’s leading lights are not just victims of extortion but, in some cases, associates of the underworld. Bombay’s joint police commissioner, D Sivanandan, said at a news conference in Bombay: “Our fear is that the whole film industry will be taken over by the gangsters . . . it is a very important medium through which the minds of the people can be shaped.”

The case of Shah’s alleged involvement with this murky world is most peculiar, for if proven, it would unmask Shah as a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona. The film financier has donated millions of rupees to charities in India, and is a leading member of the chaste vegetarian Jain community, which places an ultra-Gandhian emphasis on non-violence. (Jains are not only vegetarians, they don’t eat onions, garlic or potatoes, believing that uprooting tuberous vegetables upsets nature’s rhythms and kills micro-organisms.)

If this were a Bollywood film, at this point the heroine would burst into the open courtroom with some tell-tale evidence that would exonerate Shah, and the judge would rule against the baddies. The hero would return home, breaking into a cheerful song, and everyone would live happily ever after.

But the reality is far more mundane than that.

Now that the government has cleared the hurdles in front of corporate and bank lending, the industry could get its act together. But banks do not like to compete for business with gun-toting gangsters. If the Shah arrest leads to cathartic soul-searching and Bollywood sets its house in order, its producers could consider raising capital on the Indian and international stock markets. Those markets demand transparency, regular reporting and discipline – all of which would compel the film-makers to shift from their parallel economy to the real one, and the industry could move from the underworld to the real world.

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