Dispatch from Mumbai: Of gangsters, terrorists, and film stars

28 Dec

In a country mad about movies, Mumbai represents all the dreams and nightmares of a subcontinent awakening.  Bombay, as anyone from there still calls it, is both New York and Los Angeles with banks, ports, movies, music, beaches, and the stock exchange all in one place.  It also boasts a slum of potters, Dharavi (“the biggest slum in Asia”), with a GDP of half a billion dollars and the biggest film industry (Hindi and regional languages) in the world.    


The dark side to the Bollywood Dream

            Slumdog Millionaire showed the world the staggering inequalities of an ascendant city (“Dickensesque” says every uncreative critic swooning over the new London) and the low-level dons of begging extortion.  But the real underworld celebrates with a panache that wannabe schmucks like Gotti only dreamed of: with movie stars, government ministers, and musicians. 

            The biggest stars of Indian crime?  Chotta Rajan’s gang and Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company run Bollywood finance by underwriting Hindi films with their black money.  In an industry that loses money on nine out of eleven films, the gangsters are eager to launder (and usually lose) the money they have too much of.  In return, they get to produce movies and make or break stars.  The Muslim gangs, living in exile in Karachi, Pakistan and Dubai, also get visits from the celebrities they finance at big birthday bashes and anniversaries.  They even get to sleep with the B-level female celebrities while back in India they run celebrity look-a-like prostitution rings.  Said one, “Without organized crime’s money, Bollywood would vanish overnight.”

            The mutually fascinated businesses, crime and moviemaking, also intersect with a third racket: terrorism.  No celebrity represents this better than Sanjay Dutt, son of actor Sunil Dutt (now a politician) and the Muslim actress Nargis.  Fascinated by guns and crime, Sanjay Dutt fell in with the wrong crowd as a child.  After the religious riots after the Babri Masjid’s destruction in Ayodhya in 1992, hundreds of Muslims were murdered in Bombay while the police sat and watched.   Sanjay sided with his Muslim half in the conflict.  He helped D-Company unload a car from Karachi loaded with guns and explosives.  These were then used in the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts which were (until this year) the worst terrorist attacks on Bombay.   The bomb blasts targeted hotels and the stock exchange.  Hundreds died.  Sanjay served two years in prison for participating in the conspiracy but has yet to go on trial in India’s chronically and criminally slow courts. Of course, the government got him out on bail in 2000 with the assistance of his mafia and film industry connections so he could make the hit movie Mission Kashmir.  A movie about terrorism in Kashmir, ironically. 


The story today

            Sure, but what does this have to do with the terrorist attacks last month?  It seems that the Pakistani intelligence agency (the ISI) recently instructed mafia don Dawood Ibrahim to scale back plans for his birthday celebration in Karachi to tone down his visibility.  D-Company and Pakistani intelligence are probably both involved in the terrorist attacks.  D-Company participated in the bomb blasts in the early nineties while the ISI has a long history of colluding with Islamic militants, probably bombing the Indian embassy in Afghanistan themselves this year.    

Politics, crime, terrorism, and moviemaking are all part of the same hydra in this town.  Will the latest attacks lead to a final push to end to the beast?  Given the inherent criminality of the Indian political classes, I’m afraid to expect much.     


Links – If you want to know anything about Bombay, read Maximum City by Suketu Mehta.  Half my post is from that book.

Asia Sentinel – “Pakistan’s ISI”

NPR – Interview with author of Maximum City

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