Just saying, if I end up getting threatened/killed for writing this, it’s on all your heads! But I probably won’t, right? It’s not like Dawood is in exile in Karachi reading English language film blogs. (if he is, “Hi Dawood! You should turn yourself in to the authorities because you are a terrible person who deserves to be punished!”) (also, this is one of those posts that is very similar to my book. If you like it, you might want to buy the book)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: This is sort of my area and sort of not. Not only am I not a crime reporter, even crime reporters don’t really talk about these people, so I can’t easily do research. So I will do my best, but feel free to jump in and add on.
I’m talking about Hindi film here, which means Bombay. Bombay is a port city, and a city of immigrants, which allows for a particular kind of crime society to flourish. In many ways, for the same reasons that it allowed for the film community to thrive.
Bombay started as a mid-sized settlement, not the largest in the region. The traditional center of power in Maharashtra, and largest settlement, was Pune. Which is still an important center today, with a large number of educational centers, a military center, and a whole variety of industries. Plus museums, ancient monuments, etc. etc.
(Pune! very old, also where Osho is, which is a whole other post)
Bombay is not that kind of a city. It’s a very young city. Yes, there was always a settlement there, but it wasn’t a central or important one, just a place where some fisherman lived, and there were the usual farmers and artisans and so on to support the settlement. At this point, Bombay didn’t even look the way it does now, it was a series of islands, mostly populated by fisherman. With some temples and ancient structures and so on, but not really a massive centrally important location.
Bombay was close to Maharashtra, but thanks to it’s island location, also had strong ties to the Gujurat region with their long history of sailing. In 1534, Bombay became one of the first areas to fall under foreign rule when Gujurat, which happened to possess the islands at the moment, made a treaty with the Portuguese in a bid for protection from the Mughal Empire and gave them away.
(this is how the Portuguese saw India at the time. Notice the vast unexplored and unknown areas. And the little islands where Bombay is now)
After that, there is about 200 years of various European powers fighting over the islands, marriage treaties and invasions and so on. They were/are a natural port, which is of course super valuable, but more importantly, they were already up for grabs. Simpler to fight over these islands, already belonging to a European power, than trying to squeeze a new port location out of one of the strong Indian empires of the time.
In the 1780s, the British were firmly in charge, and had big plans. They looked at it as a bit of a fixer-upper. Great location, the price was right (free, through a marriage contract between royals), but without all the features they wanted. So they dug in and changed it. Massive public works engineering project, and after 50 years, it changed from a chain of 7 islands, into one massive island with a tiny land bridge over to the main land.
I give this background so you can get a sense of how unique Bombay is in India. It’s a city that layers an ancient fishing settlement underneath a Portuguese trading/missionary settlement, underneath a massive construction project and sudden growth of capitalism with the British.
The British built the city and set the tone, but they were not the ones who peopled it. All of India provided the people. India is such an old culture and civilization, that most cities (like Pune, for instance) have established structures and professions and places where you are supposed to live and so on and so forth. Bombay breaks that pattern. Heck, starting with the Portuguese as the first homeless migrants! There was no where else for them to settle in India, so they picked an empty piece of land and started in there. And as their shipping and trading and churches and all grew up, slowly migrants started to arrive to work for them and people this new city, at first from the nearby regions (Maharashtra primarily), then from farther afield (Gujurat) and finally, by the time the British were digging up the ground and spending a 100,000 rupees, workers were pouring in from all over India.
India at the time wasn’t officially connected into one country the way it is now, but that doesn’t mean you can just lift Bombay out of the rest of Indian history. The Portuguese first moved in during the height of the Mughal Empire, and were not able to make many changes either to Bombay or to Indian society in general. By the 1700s, when the British took over the islands, the Mughal Empire was beginning its collapse. Which is a bit of a chicken and an egg situation, was it collapsing because of the increased British presence, or was the increased British presence possible because it was collapsing?
Besides the Mughal Empire, other powerful states in South Asia were also collapsing. Through the combined pressure of the Mughals and the Europeans. One of the first to fall entirely was the Maharashtra kingdoms, after the battle of Peshwa in 1817, almost the whole of Maharashtra/the Deccan region fell to the British. And suddenly that small string of fishing villages where they were all settled in already became the head of their Deccan empire. Instead of Pune, or one of the other older and more centrally located cities. As the weight of power swung more and more towards Bombay, the older regions became unbalanced and their citizens started flowing towards the new opportunities available in Bombay. Not just Maharashtra by this point, the early 1800s, but most South Asia had similar upheavals, colonial powers taking over and the older power structures falling apart, and citizens fleeing to make a new life as the old one crumbled.
Bombay just kept growing and growing and growing. The American Civil War gave it a big burst, as suddenly cotton trade was India based, with shipping coming through Bombay, instead of America based. And as the British dominated more and more of India, while Delhi was their political base, Bombay became their merchant capital, train lines were built up with Bombay as a hub, all the wealth (and people) of India feeding into this one location before being sent out into the world.
But it was WWII that really changed things, as it did for most places in the world (thus the term “World War”). Suddenly Bombay became one of the few ports in Asia still under Ally control. And suddenly the stream of migrants from elsewhere in Asia became a flood. Helen, for instance, the greatest Item Dancer in the history of film, lived in Burma as a child. When her stepfather (a French army officer) was killed and the city was taken by the Axis, she and her mother and baby brother walked from Burma/Myanmar to Bombay. Her brother died along the way. Helen was just one of many migrants suddenly filling the city.
(Helen in her first song on screen, picking up on the wave of immigrants from central Asia to Bombay)
This was the first mass wave, another one came in the 1960s/70s when the rural economy began to fail and the manufacturing market grew and grew. And then another in the 80s/90s when the liberalization of the market massively expanded all urban centers in India. And with every wave came more and more people who just didn’t fit into the established and legal structures of the city.
You can see it with the slums, people who literally don’t fit into the spaces the city has for them. And this is not really their fault. The city moves too slowly to accommodate them, there are no legal options for where they can live, and they can’t go home because there must have been a desperate need which drove them to Bombay in the first place (drought in their village, local factory shut down, etc. etc.). And so with no other option available, they have created something new, squeezing it in and exiting below and along side the “real” city. And eventually growing so full and vibrant that the “real” city couldn’t actually survive without them.
(This is not a slum. This is, like, a suburb)
And this brings me to crime! And movies. Both Bombay industries grew rapidly in the post-WWII/post-Independence era. They were new, there were no established barriers to entry, and the people flooding into the city gravitated towards working in them. And were served by them. Just as the old Parsi theater system couldn’t possibly entertain all these new thousands upon thousands of people arriving, and so film flourished, so did the black market provide illegal goods to the thousands upon thousands of people who were not calculated for in the rationing and city planning.
In terms of specifics for criminal history of the city, well, there aren’t that many specifics because SCARY MEN WITH GUNS WILL KILL YOU IF YOU WRITE ABOUT IT. But I can give a little. As the city expanded and expanded and expanded through out the 50s and 60s, the biggest illegal market became smuggling. India, in the immediately post-Independence era, had incredibly restrictive import-export laws. So don’t think drug smuggling, think like “foreign made transistor radios” smuggling.
And also don’t think like “smuggling of illegal products that are killing the economy” but more “smuggling of illegal products that are creating a shadow economy which supports the real economy”. Smuggling was the basis for a lot of it, but as the smuggling and crime industry grew, it turned into not just a shadow economy, but a whole shadow city. The workers in the crime industry lived in houses in the slums that weren’t officially there, bought food from the stores that weren’t officially there, got married in temples that weren’t there, went to schools that didn’t exist, borrowed money from banks that didn’t exist, and finally even the criminal court system was run by the shadow organization. And many of these places were better run and more officiant than the “real” options. If you had, say, a contract dispute with your business partner, you could hire a lawyer and spend decades waiting to get before a judge. Or you could go to your local Don, both present your case, accept his judgement, and give him 10% as his fee. This was particularly attractive when your contract dispute was over something like the new houses you are building in an area that doesn’t officially have any houses.
Backing up a bit for general Indian history, it can be hard for someone from a different culture to understand just how vast the problems were/are with the “official” options. In America, our courts are terribly corrupt, thousands of innocent people are kept in jails, police kill unarmed kids walking down the street, etc. etc. But if you need to get a cell phone, you go to a cell phone store, and walk out 20 minutes later with a phone that works and will continue working indefinitely. When you move into an apartment, you turn on the taps, and the water comes out, and you drink it. Heck, when you move into an apartment, you sign a lease and get a key and then a year later you renew the lease and stay or don’t and move out. And that’s all there is to it.
I don’t know enough to really have an opinion as to why all of those things listed above just aren’t that easy in India, but I know it is the case. And because it is the case, it is just sort of commonly accepted that you will need to periodically turn to an extra-legal option to get some basic requirement accomplished. And this is more the case in large cities, where the slowness of anything getting done has been accumulating and causing exponentially larger problems for decades, than in other areas.
(I love these Hema Malini ads, but expensive complicated water purification systems for your home kitchen are just not something you need in other countries)
And so, for decades, the gangs of Bombay were sort of generally accepted and understood and even appreciated by the common citizens. Maybe, in the abstract, you disapproved of crime. But you would also need an electric typewriter that works, which means you have to knowingly break import laws, and it is available to you because of the vast smuggling system which serves the city.
There were three major gangsters in this era, Hajji Mastan, Karim Lala, and Varadarajan Mudaliar (Vardha Bhai). They each represented a different disenfranchised community in the rapidly expanding city. Karim Lala was the oldest and arrived first, from what is now Afghanistan. He started as a dockworker, got into smuggling, illegal bars, and gambling dens. And laid the foundation for a criminal system in the city. If you wanted to have some harmless fun on a Saturday night, Karim Lala was the one supplying it. And if you were a young and hungry recent arrival to the city, Karim Lala is the one who would hire you to deal cards or pour drinks.
(Pran in Zanjeer is playing Karim Lala)
Post-war, two more figures entered. Hajji Mastan was a Tamilian who arrived in the city as a small boy and watched his father struggle to make a living. He began smuggling as a child, working on the docks, and slowly rose to become the king of smuggling in Bombay. Hajji was less interested in the sort of structural crime than Karim, more into the ephemeral products. He smuggled stuff in and sold it quickly, no storefront bars for him. And eventually he also got into film, another industry where he could put in his money and get a quick profit.
(Ajay Devgan in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaii is Hajji Mastan)
Vardha Bhai was also from the south. But unlike Hajji, he came to Bombay as an adult, his primary original identity remained with his southern community, not the floating urban identity of a Bombaiker. Vardha was part of a massive wave of immigrants from the south driven north by economic desperation. And he stayed tied to that wave of immigrants, he was the one who was most likely to decide a local neighborhood dispute, buy a fleet of ambulances, and do other general good works and protective works.
(Kamal Haasan in Nayagan is Vardha Bhai)
All three of these gangsters were seen as kind of “gentlemen gangsters”. Sure, they did crimes and killed their rivals sometimes, but they were mostly businessman and leaders in their communities. Plus, this was the 1970s, the government itself was getting a bit gangsterish with Indira Gandhi suspending elections and jailing her rivals. These gangsters were not so much a separate shadow part of Bombay society, they were Bombay society. It was the legal part that was in the shadow of them.
And yay! That’s over 2000 words! It means I get to come back on Tuesday and talk about what happened after the 1970s. And a little more detail about how film weaves into all this.