Happy Tuesday! Time to finish off my posts on Crime and Film (first post here). And if I end up mysteriously disappearing, or randomly shot in a drive-by, you will know why! But it probably won’t happen. Although my new apartment is in the neighborhood of the American headquarters for D-Company….Oh well, it will probably be fine.
Non-Usual Disclaimer: Crime is not my area, nor is Indian history. So I can only speak in somewhat general terms, and I may be missing something important. Please add details or correct me if you know anything more!
I ended the last section by introducing the leading figures in Bombay organized crime post-WWII, Karim Lala and Hajji Mastan and Vardha Bhai. They each were into different areas of crime, Karim Lala was the first of them to arrive in Bombay, he founded the sort of social criminal options, gambling halls and illegal bars. Hajji Mastan was the only one to be raised in Bombay (although he was born in Tamil Nadu), and he was the one to be most integrated into Bombay society in general, especially the upperclass and film worlds, partly because of his personality and partly because he specialized in smuggling in the elite items that the wealthy desired. Vardha Bhai was the one to stay in closest touch with the lower classes, especially the fellow economic migrants from south India who were building massive illegal slum communities on the outskirts of the city.
You can’t just talk about crime in Bombay removed from the rest of Bombay. Or even the rest of India. Like I talked about in the last section, Bombay was the newest place in India, built by the Portuguese and the British, and attractive to migrants from all over India who had been displaced by colonialism and the various wars and other upheavals it caused. This whole process got accelerated during WWII, and then again post-Independence as various economic difficulties and rapid industrialization drove more and more people away from farming villages to the cities.
These social changes were equally beneficial for film and crime. New people in new places with disposable income that could be spent on film tickets, or in illegal liquor halls, or in gambling dens, or on smuggled goods. But there was another massive area of the law which benefited crime and film more than anything else, but in opposite ways.
Post-Independence, the Indian government started instituting draconian import-export laws in all areas. The goal was to encourage local industry by cutting out overseas competition. Which was laudable, the basic element of colonization was for raw goods to be taken out of the country, turned into manufactured products, and then sold back to the same people who farmed the raw products, but at inflated prices. By removing the possibility of foreign manufactured goods, the local economy could grow in a way it had never been able to before.
But these laws were a bit too stringent. And, even worse, for various reasons I won’t get into because I am not qualified, often the local industries that were given the official government stamp of approval and support just didn’t turn out very good products. And so those who could pay for it were desperate for overseas products. Bombay, with it’s massive port and unstable society was perfect for smuggling. And Hajji Mastan became the king of smuggling.
Here’s the interesting thing, one of the few local industries that these laws succeeded in building up, is the one the government least wanted to help. The Indian government has always had a difficult relationship with film. Censorship, economic restrictions, limiting the amount of film stock available for sale, dismissive speeches, using it as a constant political punching bag whenever a controversy is needed, if you have been following Indian entertainment news for any length of time, I am sure you have run across a story of last minute court cases, political groups kicking up a fuss, rumors of censorship, and so on. And maybe it’s because the government always had such an adversarial relationship with film, and never actually got involved in the running of the business, that film became one of the few local industries to actually benefit from these import restrictions. Indian film rapidly took over every audience market in India, and even overseas (I won’t get into all the figures here, but if you read my book, I go into detail as to how it spread internationally. Even more detail in my thesis. Indian film went as far as Greece and Belgium by the 1960s, and was dominating the Middle East).
But, where was the money coming from for all this? Considering all those government restrictions, which made it almost impossible to borrow funds from banks, and illegal to sell stocks, how could producers keep putting out movies? Well, the profits came partially thanks to the import restrictions, and so did the funding.
As Bombay crime exploded, the criminals needed a place to hide their profits. And film was right there. Desperate for funding, a little glamorous, and most of all, not regulated at all. You could put in money, and 6 months later, you could take out money. And no one ever really knew how much went in and how much came out.
(I mean, the same was true of Hollywood film, really any industry that wasn’t completely state run. But in most places, film became regulated and boring and corporate around about 1960, which is just when Indian film started to get seriously mobbed up)
Film and crime kind of grew up together and changed each other. From the crime side of things, the gangsters got used to the fancy life style. Hajji Mastan especially, he was almost a regular at film parties and had a string of actress girlfriends. Being involved in entertainment, having a movie star at your parties, launching your girlfriend in a film role, it was as much a requirement of the gangster lifestyle as a fancy car or a big house.
Film changed even more than that. There was never enough money, but in the earlier years, at least the little money there was, was steady. Bombay Talkies, for instance, was supported by money from Germany for the first few years, and then started to get some hit films and slowly built up an infrastructure, parceling out the profits from the last film to keep up the buildings and staff while they made the next film.
But post-war, and more and more as time went on, the money came and then went lightening fast. Much more money, but not reliable money. You were a small time film producer, some stranger showed up and handed you a suitcase of cash, you could use it to make a movie, giving cash payments to your stars, your cameramen, the studio where you rented the lot. But you had to use it for this film, and then make a profit and turn around and hand that suitcase of cash back to the mysterious man. You couldn’t exactly use it as a down payment on new offices for your production house, or to hire 5 new permanent staff members, it was all sort of suitcase by suitcase.
(Money gathered from a recent tax raid at a production house)
And heck, even if you could use that suitcase however you wanted, who is going to take a cash payment? Can you pay your secretary in cash the total amount she would make every week for the next 3 years? What about your landlord for the office space? They don’t want one huge payment, they want payments on the regular.
And so film entered into that same shadow economy where crime lived. Everyone, from film stars down, learned to live without contracts or checks or bank accounts. It was all huge cash payments, “gifts” like new cars, and handshake agreements. This is the sort of “etiquette” of the industry that has lasted through to today. The worst thing you can do is to break your given word. Families have split, lifelong friendships have ended, because of a dispute which in America would have been handled by contract lawyers. Farah Khan and Shahrukh, Honey Irani and the Chopras, Sunny Deol and Yash Chopra, they all feel like they were lied to, a promise was broken, and that is unforgivable in this business. Oh, and pretty much every film star and producer has cash and “gifts” hidden throughout their mansions. They wouldn’t even think of putting it in the bank.
(Honey Irani and Yash Chopra. She divorces one of their closest friends, no problem. She feels she did not get enough credit on a film, and the families haven’t spoken in over 20 years)
And they also learned to live with the kind of, how should I say this, posturing that you might find in criminals. You need that if you can’t count on the police or the law to defend you, you need to convince people you can defend yourself. You need to be able to solve disputes with bluff and intimidation. You need to not be afraid of bullies. I’m not saying that the movie stars can do the kind of action scenes they do onscreen, shooting off guns and beating up bad guys. And producers and writers can’t either. But they have all had conversations as they went about their business with the men who do live that life. It’s not something that is talked about openly, but it’s there under the surface. For one thing, every once in awhile there will be an interview or a public appearance where that little snap of “don’t mess with me, I won’t back down” that the film people have had to develop to deal with the scarier elements of the industry, leaks through to their public life. And it very occasionally it will be mentioned in memoirs or more personal writing, not in a casual interview, but saved for a place where it could have a proper context. Shahrukh told Anupama Chopra for her authorized biography about the time when he was getting phone calls every day from the mob and learned to just talk to them and try to keep it calm and reasonable and not give up a point or show his fear. Karan in his memoir talked about when his life was threatened before Kuch Kuch Hota Hai came out and Shahrukh helped him to get over the fear.
Karan and Shahrukh are extreme examples, because that’s what was happening in the 90s, and only in the 90s. The rest of the time, it was more about not being afraid of a man with a gun in your office, not so much about that man actually shooting you. In the 60s-70s, the criminals/movie moneymen were so friendly with the producers, that they ended up finding their way into the movies. Hajji Mastan most of all, because he was the most friendly. His classy white suit wearing gentlemen gangster character showed up in Deewar most notably, and dozens of other films as well. Hajji’s “appearances” on film showed not just that the industry was fond of him and saw him as a bit of a hero, but that they weren’t ashamed of him, weren’t afraid to acknowledge with a bit of a wink that they were perhaps a bit more intimately familiar with the criminal class of the city than they should have been.
(Hajji and his son happily hanging out with Sunil Dutt)
And then it all changed. Dawood Ibrahim is why it changed. Hajji and Karim and Vardha Bhai, they were all criminals and violent men when violence was required. But they weren’t, well, sociopaths! And Dawood kind of is. He loves to take photographs of himself, to see himself as a hero, as a rebel. He liked to play with guns and wear sunglasses and buy expensive imported cars.
I’m not a crime historian, but even if I was, I couldn’t tell you much about Dawood’s criminal empire. Because when Dawood came to power, suddenly just whispering about what he did could get you shot. Or, even more scary, invited to his place for a personal interview. There are some basic outlines of his life available. He grew up in Bombay, son of a crooked cop. He lived in the Muslim area, Hajji’s “territory”. When he was a young man, he starts a little gang with his friends called “D-Company” (“D” for Dawood, and for Dongra, the neighborhood he was from). Hajji was arrested and went to jail in the late 70s (where he became more religious, and was released a few years later to marry his girlfriend and live a peaceful charitable life for the rest of his days). With Hajji gone, there was a power vacuum that Dawood filled. It wasn’t just Hajji, Vardha Bhai had gone home to the south, and Karim Lala was getting older and older. Bombay needed new, young, talent.
Dawood took control swiftly, and it was vicious control. He started to specialize a bit in assassinations, kidnapping, and racketeering. Before, criminals didn’t tend to bother people who didn’t bother them. If you cheated them, sure, you’d get beaten up or shot or otherwise punished, that was just business. But D-Company was different, you could have done nothing wrong at all, just bought a new car, or otherwise started rumors that you had come into money. And suddenly you would get a phone call from someone who knew the school schedule of your children and told you that if you didn’t want them harmed, you had to pay up.
In the 90s, D-Company’s focus shifted to film. Suddenly it was movie producers getting those phone calls. Where before, criminals were a nice place to get some investment money, now you didn’t have a choice about it. You weren’t even working for yourself any more, Dawood set up shadow producers, funded and run by connected men. They would call up directors, writers, stars, and tell them “you HAVE to make this film”. Sure, the money was good, the money was great, more than the industry had ever had before. But the freedom was gone.
There was a lot of other stuff happening in the 90s as well. Firstly, most importantly, the 1993 riots. Followed by the bomb blasts. Crime in Bombay had a slightly religious/communal slant all along. But only a teeny-tiny one. Like film, it was a new industry where old prejudices hadn’t built up yet. So struggling religious minority members were more able to get jobs in crime/film than in other businesses. But usually the gangs as a whole were pretty secular. Sure, Hajji ran his business out of the Muslim area, but that was more a matter of it being his neighborhood than anything else. The same way Vardha Bhai worked mostly with southern immigrants. And within the gang, Muslim and Hindu and Christian and everything else all worked together for a common goal.
Until 1993. The city erupted in riots, part of a national movement of religious division. The Muslim areas, and the poorer areas, were hit the hardest. In response, Dawood decided to become political. He had a grand plan, his connections through out the city were given guns and told to hide them and wait for the right moment, and then pull them out and use them to fight a guerilla war to take back the city. This isn’t just like the foot soldiers of the mob who had guns already, this is truly everybody. Random store owners, newspaper men, lawyers, anyone who had taken a bride or given assistance in the past. Including movie stars, this is what Sanjay Dutt was arrested for, being one of those men with guns.
The remarkable thing is that it didn’t come off! The bombs went off, clearly the signal that was supposed to incite this armed rebellion. And no one really did anything. They just left the guns sitting there, buried in their backyard. Of course, no one ever really wanted to do anything necessarily. They probably didn’t even want the guns. But they were too scared to say no, so they took them and hid them and tried to forget about them.
The armed rebellion might not have come off, but the bombs alone were pretty bad, killing 257 people throughout the city in a series of 12 explosions. I feel obligated to point out that the bombs killed 257 people, the riots they were following had killed approximately a thousand people. 1993 was not a good year for the city of Bombay all around.
The bombs were the beginning of the end for the D-Company. It set off an attack from the inside and the outside. Inside the gang, Dawood’s chief lieutenant, Chota Rajan, a Hindu, turned against him after this. Maybe it was a principled stand against extremist violence, maybe he just didn’t like the way Dawood treated him, who knows. But the end result was a gang war the likes of which Bombay, heck, all of India had never seen before! If things were bad before, with the random threats and voices on the phone, now it got really bad, with massive shoot outs happening all over town in broad daylight. This had been coming for a while, Dawood was brutal at putting down his rivals, but once it turned into a split within D-Company itself, it got really bad.
(I love this song. Also, it shows you the gangster lifestyle at this point. And it’s from a movie about a police/criminal shootout in 1991, a side-effect of a D-Company gang ware, in which 4500 rounds were into a posh luxury high rise in the suburbs. Crime wasn’t just about the inner city and the slums any more)
The bombings, and now these huge public acts of violence through out the city, inspired the police to go after Dawood hard. I don’t want to say that the police had been ignoring crime for the past 10 years, but it’s always a matter of priorities, right? They were trying to rescue kidnapped children and deal with drive by shootings. Actually working their way up the chain and trying to take down the kingpin wasn’t such a priority. Until now.
Dawood is still free, and still runs his criminal empire. Pretty much everyone knows he is in a mansion in Karachi, the only people denying it are the Pakistani security forces. And he keeps his hand in with Indian pop culture, for instance the IPL scandal a few years back where it turned out Dawood was paying off certain teams to lose. He also is connected to pretty much everything bad that has happened in the past few years, providing partial funding for everything from 9/11 to 26/11. Chotta Rajan was finally tracked down and brought back to Bombay just last year. Tiger Menon, who helped coordinate the bombings, is still free. His brother, Yakub, was just executed 2 years ago, Salman got in trouble for commenting on it.
What all this did for film was to FINALLY give it industrial status! Film was just one small front of the gang war Bombay was struggling with, but it was still a front of the war. Everyone knew the film industry was mobbed up and it was beginning to be a bit embarrassing. Especially after Gulshan Kumar, founder of T-Series, was murdered and Rakesh Roshan was shot in a drive-by, both supposedly because they had refused to follow the dictates of the mob in how they handled their artists. No one was willing to testify, of course. Except for Preity Zinta, who came out and gave testimony about the pressure that had been put on her to participate in a promotional tour. It wasn’t her testimony that made the difference, or Dawood leaving the country (plenty of other local gangsters remained, willing to fund the films and terrorize artists). It was that the Indian government FINALLY granted film industry status in 1999. Meaning that studios could now get legal loans from banks and stock sales and international investments, no need to get cash suitcases from mysterious men.
(Gulshan’s son is now producing a biopic starring Akshay. That’s Akshay and Gulshan himself back in the day on the other side. And the fact that this film is actually getting made is a sign that the grip of the mob is loosening, those things everyone was too afraid to talk about are coming out into the open)
I don’t want to say that crime and film are no longer involved. You still hear of random drive-by shootings of “promoters” or other film industry hangers-on. There is still that expectation of cash payments and handshake agreements, no contracts or paychecks. And there is still that little bit of posturing required. But you don’t see it as much in the new generation. I can’t exactly see Ranveer Kapoor facing down a phone call from a mobster, or partying with paid killers. And I can’t see UTV/Disney being okay with finances kept all in heads and run with little cash stashes hidden under the bed. But it’s a slow change, the older smaller houses which still make up 75% of the industry still run on a cash basis, with handshake deals and trust built up over lifetimes of knowing each other.