Mumbai Confidential: The Nexus Between The Film Industry And the Underworld
Mumbai Confidential: The Nexus Between The Film Industry And the Underworld

The Bharat Shah case, and that of Nadeem Saifi, has blown the lid off Mumbai’s worst kept secret. Manjula Sen meets the people involved, including the cops and lawyers.

Later this month, arguments will begin in Mumbai courts on two of the most high profile police cases in recent times. Nadeem, of Nadeem-Shravan fame, armed with a vindication from the UK courts, is hoping that the courts will clear his name in the Gulshan Kumar murder conspiracy case. And it could be bail time, after six months, for Bharat Shah. While these two men await their freedom, a determined group of men of the Mumbai police and two public prosecutors are going all out to make this a cautionary tale for the film industry for its links with the underworld. 




 August 12, 1997. Gulshan Kumar Dua, India’s most successful music producer, stepped out of his Mercedes and made his way to the tiny temple in a hutment colony in Andheri, a northern Mumbai suburb. As he folded his hands, two hitmen stepped out of the shadows and pumped 16 bullets into the portly music baron. Kumar ran, screaming for help, crawled and finally collapsed in an open urinal. The fruit juice vendor who went on to build the Super Cassettes and T-series labels was 42 when he died. Three weeks later, as flashbulbs popped and journalists jostled, the Mumbai Police Commissioner Ronnie Mendonca announced the case had been cracked open.  Witnesses, he said, “quite clearly indicated that Nadeem hired the Abu Salem gang’s services to eliminate Gulshan Kumar”.  Nadeem Akhtar Saifi was better known to Mumbai’s film industry as the eponymous first half of the music-making duo of Nadeem-Shravan. The announcement electrified Bollywood, but for the man accused the public accusation turned out to be a lifeline. One may never know why there was haste to call a press conference when the main suspect was holidaying in Britain and was expected to return to India soon. And as many expected, Nadeem never returned to face the charges. 


January 8, 2001. After a quick breakfast, 56-year-old Bharat ‘bhai’ Shah pocketed his silver Nokia cellphone, stepped out of his Walkeshwar mansion in South Mumbai, into his gleaming BMW, and directed the chauffeur to head for town. Barely 200 yards later, as he stopped at a traffic junction, Mumbai’s crime branch detectives drove alongside the car and asked for it to be stopped. The diamond merchant and film financier who had kept Mumbai’s film industry in clover with fundings of close to Rs 300 crore had some questions to answer about the financing of the just completed multi-starrer film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, being made by an obscure producer called Nazim Rizvi. The police had arrested Rizvi a month previously for his alleged ties with the Karachi-based mafia don Chhota Shakeel. Now the police was claiming they had incriminating tape recordings of the don talking to Shah as well. By the time Shah was escorted to the crime branch headquarters television crews had flashed the news of Bharat Shah’s arrest under the Maharashtra Control for Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), sending Bollywood into panic-stricken convulsions. The day marked the start of Shah’s long incarceration. At the time of going to press, Shah, had been refused bail six times.


Perhaps in no other city in the country does the average working citizen rub shoulders with members of the underworld and the glamour world almost simultaneously as in Mumbai. It’s a city that has gold in its eye, a knife between its teeth, energy in its feet and the unwavering instinct to mind its own business. It’s a city where the survival of the fittest, the loudest and the meekest are all assured. It is a city of possibilities for the honest and the hardworking, but it is also a city of opportunity for the hustler and the imaginative, a city where the vulgar and aesthetic co-exist. As Bollywood’s home, it is the country’s repository for glamour and illusion, of dreams unlimited. Mumbai and Bollywood feed off each other through the endless grist that the city’s teeming life provides the film industry’s story mills. Bollywood’s lavish productions mime reality with the earnestness of beauty queens talking of world peace to the clink of money.


As the commercial capital of India, Mumbai also has been home to the best organized underworld crime syndicates in the country. Names like Yusuf Patel, Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Samad Khan and Dawood Ibrahim are as much part of Mumbai folklore as are Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. In the good old days the two worlds met often in reel life when Bollywood producers and actors glamourised or demonised the dons depending on the script and story. So a real life collaboration was long overdue.


The big opportunity was provided in the form of economic liberalisation and globalisation of the late 1980s and ‘90s. The removal of import restrictions on gold and the lowering of customs duties hit at the heart of the underworld’s main source of income—smuggling of gold and electronic goods.


Some tried to diversify into Mumbai’s booming real estate market. Before long however the realisation dawned that it was too tough a business—big investments were called for over long periods of gestation, beyond which it was also subject to severe boom and bust cycles. A better and more secure money-making proposition was extortion, which the dons and their local henchmen got into quite successfully in the 1990s. A large portion of the extortion money came from the men of the film industry, many of whom were making huge profits from hit movies. Bollywood itself was a huge beneficiary of the globalisation process. After years of stagnation, Hindi film producers had discovered a huge new market in the form of the rapidly prospering NRI population which embraced Hindi films with a passion that was never displayed by their parents generation. Producers were making three and four times more money abroad than they were in India. As the underworld saw it, these were the kinds of profits they saw in the heyday of smuggling. Combine it with the unorganized nature of the industry and its dependence on cash transactions: the obvious question before the dons was, why not get into film financing and even production themselves.


Once it got a toe-hold, the underworld used its entire armoury of skills to muscle in. The dons leaned on producers to release the dates of their stars who were then available to work for the mob’s frontmen. And expectedly it turned out to be a two-way street. Sometimes, the producers themselves got the mafia to intervene on their behalf. Either way, the stars got their money, or most of it, the film was made, and no one suffered. The Gulshan Kumar case was a savage affirmation to the world at large that the nexus had been finally consummated. Till then there had been plenty of talk, and maybe a picture or two of stars and starlets cozying up to dons at Dubai parties. Gulshan Kumar’s killing established that the dons were in it for more than just glamour. The returns were as important. Apart from Nadeem, the list of accused in the trial which is expected to begin later this month includes Ramesh Taurani, chairman of Tips Cassettes, a well known figure in Bollywood and a close friend of many producers and directors. He has been charged with attempt and conspiracy to murder Kumar, who was his business competitor. Taurani, like Nadeem, says he is innocent, and was released on bail and presents himself in court on demand.



According to the charge-sheet filed by the police, the hitmen hired to kill Gulshan Kumar were part of the gang belonging to Abu Salem, the trusted lieutenant of don Dawood (D-Company) Ibrahim Kaskar. The plot was hatched in Dubai during a music function in June 1997 organized allegedly by Nadeem, and attended by many from the Hindi film industry. Taurani and Nadeem had handed over Rs 25 lakhs as contract money, it was alleged. The popular explanation in the industry was that they were handing over money under threat from gangsters.


If anyone thought that the Mumbai police’s swift action against Nadeem and Taurani was going to make the underworld back off, they were mistaken. The same year that Gulshan Kumar was killed, another producer, Mukesh Duggal was also murdered. He was alleged to have had links with the Chhota Rajan gang and was eliminated by the rival gang of Chhota Shakeel. Director Rajiv Rai, son of producer Gulshan Rai, one of the few to have complained to the police about demands from the mafia, escaped by the skin of his teeth some years ago when gunmen barged into his central Mumbai office and opened fire. A police bodyguard shot dead one of the assailants but a terrified Rajiv still moved out to London and Los Angeles. And the most high profile of all, the Abu Salem gang fired and injured the recently successful Rakesh Roshan as he drove from his office last year, apparently as a warning that the underworld’s demands were not to be taken lightly. He had refused to relinquish the overseas rights of his son Hrithik’s debut film Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, and took two bullets in return. The industry grapevine has it that Roshan finally bought his peace with the extortionists.


Others at the receiving end of attacks were film distributor Anil Thadani who was beaten up outside a cinema hall, and film processing centre Ad Labs owner Manmohan Shetty, who was brutally attacked. Though the film fraternity griped publicly about gangland threats no one seemed to notice anything amiss when the film Vaastav won a clutch of prizes at the Filmfare awards last year. Director Mahesh Manjrekar and hero Sunjay Dutt walked on to the stage along with the film’s producer, Deepak Nikhaljee, brother of Rajan Nikhaljee aka Chhota Rajan.


Deepak Nikhaljee’s public felicitation is a visual moment that sticks in the gut of the strapping police officer who sits in his office in South Mumbai preparing for an “operation”. He checks his several cellphones, juggles the landline and sips the sweet tea brought in a tiny steel container. Whatever his vices, they do not include tobacco or alcohol, his family lives in another town and he lives to fight crime. His only wealth is the numerous cash rewards won for hauling in many a “most wanted, dead or alive”. “The film people talk about patriotism but they have no qualms about dealing with a mafia that is indulging in anti-national and criminal activities,” he says.


A happier recollection for this man with a mission is the ambush of Bharat Shah. Shah fell into the police dragnet only tangentially, at first, when the police were intercepting long distance telephone conversations of clapper-boy turned producer Nazim Rizvi with his alleged backer Chhota Shakeel (who he reportedly also swindled of Rs 75 lakhs!). Shah’s initials cropped up and the cops kept a close watch. Shah had handed out a whopping Rs 12 crores to finance Rizvi’s second film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke with ‘busy-but-available’ stars like Salman Khan, Rani Mukherjee and Preiti Zinta. Rizvi was arrested in December. The police were certain that Rizvi was Shakeel’s frontman and Shah was laundering money, which the financier denied. Shah’s calls were tapped and transcripts turned up conversations between the don and Shah.


“Bharat Shah was a VIP so we had to step carefully,” recalls the detective. Not just that, shortly after Rizvi was arrested, in a separate development, a UK court had given a stinging slap to the Mumbai police for mounting what it called a trumped-up case against Nadeem in the Gulshan Kumar case. Given Shah’s enormous financial clout and proximity to certain power centres, the police moved with tactical finesse in reeling him in for questioning. He had stalled repeated requests by the police to provide the film contract between Rizvi and him. This time, the police had casually asked him to drop the contract at the police station on his way to his office. Shah had a family event coming up and the cops were sure of him being in town on the day they planned to pick him up. When Shah drove out of his home on January 8, the cops turned up to escort him. This time the publicity ensured that Shah “could not pull strings quite so obviously” and he was sent to Thane Central Jail pending bail. 


“People say the big fish get away, we showed we were not scared,” says the cop who chooses anonymity. The investigation also had to be watertight to build a strong case. Oblivious to pending doom, just days before his arrest, Shah was full of an arrogant confidence. “They cannot touch me,” he is said to have told people in the nervous industry. “Shah became the main culprit thanks to his overconfidence,” says one of the investigating officers.


“For my men on the street, it’s war out there,” says another senior officer fighting the mafia. “Given the risks involved, there are few takers for gang-busting and mafia crackdown jobs, even among the police.” For the core group of the force that does volunteer, fuelled by a belief that time is running out before the MCOCA (which replaced the dreaded TADA) is watered down, their brief is simple: cut off the hands and the heads will wither. In other words, with their underlings gone, the dons would be drained. By his estimate, at least 50 per cent of the film industry is involved with the mafia. “Why waste money trying to extradite people like Nadeem?” he asks sharply. “If he does not want to come back and answer charges, let him stay away. Let him do whatever he wants somewhere else, not here.”


When the creaky lift is not available in the ancient Esplanade Manor in South Central Mumbai where he has his office, advocate Majeed Memon briskly tackles the 68 wooden steps to the second-floor, scorning his 56 years and grey visage. He, along with public prosecutors Ujwal Nikam and Rohini Salian, form the high profile lawyer triumvirate that complete the picture of the fight involving the Mumbai cops, the film industry and the underworld. A large mounted picture of Memon with actor Dilip Kumar brightens up the stark white wall in the reception that leads to his booklined, well-appointed room. Memon is a successful and articulate defense counsel and a human rights activist, with a particular distaste for the notorious TADA and its successor MCOCA. Be it Fardeen Khan’s lawyer who wants some advice or the deposed Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif who wanted Memon to hold a brief for him, Memon is a man who people want in their corner. He never allowed his surname to become a liability in the wake of the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, became the principal defense counsel in that case and fought many a battle for the underdog in a communally charged atmosphere. He is the spokes-person and vice-president of the city unit of the Samajwadi Party and also happens to be Nadeem Saifi’s lawyer.


The first time I meet him, Memon can’t stop crowing about the judgement in December by the UK court, rejecting the Indian government’s plea to extradite Nadeem, and awarding his client even the cost of the litigation. He reads out from the two-bench judgement where Chief Justice C J Rose expressed his concern at the motive that led Mendonca and the then Home Minister (Gopinath Munde) “to make unsubstantiated statement(s) (of) ample evidence to prove Nadeem’s involvement at their press conferences.” This judgement was on appeal after a Bow Street magistrate had concluded that there was prima facie evidence against Nadeem and he should be extradited. Disagreeing vehemently, Justice Rose bluntly announced that there appeared to be “a preconceived desire to blame the applicant where no evidence existed”; those holding the illiterate key witness Ali Shaikh, “used improper pressure to obtain a statement (from him) to make good the allegations” and “unless he is more educated than anyone suggests, it could not be his own confession.” Ali Shaikh, the police had said in its statement, had named Nadeem.


If this is not damning enough, and here Memon pauses dramatically, before quoting further, “The cumulative effect of all these circumstances causes us to infer that the accusation of murder and conspiracy made against this applicant (Nadeem) is not made in good faith and in the interests of justice… It would not be fair and would be unjust to return the applicant because of the appearance of misbehaviour by the police in pursuing their inquiries and the significant risk that the activities surrounding that misbehaviour have so tainted the evidence as to render a fair trial impossible.” “London court ne bol diya hai that the evidence was trumped up and a witness coerced. Is se badi kya baat ho sakti hai?” Memon demands to know.


Special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam relishes taking on the big-time criminals


At our next appointment, Memon is readying for his 24th visit to the UK in connection with his composer-client’s case. Among other things, Clive Nichols, QC, who argued Nadeem’s case before the higher court in UK with his help, will sort out what is owed to Memon by way of costs granted by the court. What’s more, the House of Lords rejected the Union government’s move to appeal against the court’s judgement, driving in the final nail in the extradition attempt’s coffin.


“Secrecy is the hallmark of a good investigation,” Memon says animatedly. “Ask Ronnie why he made such a public announcement.”  It’s a question that begs an answer, and one that the Union Home Ministry is also asking. From behind his desk backed up against a window Memon brandishes a letter that he says he has got hold of from the Ministry, and is addressed to the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra.  It is dated April 3, 2001. The letter is with reference to “the ending of the extradition proceedings in an acquittal of Nadeem and the severe strictures against the police and Commissioner of police.” The Home Ministry views the matter “very seriously”, naturally, and wants to know “the cause of failure of the extradition case. The question of compensation when taken up by Mr. Nadeem in UK courts also should receive pointed attention of the state government.” The letter also names the three senior policemen involved with the case: Ronnie Mendonca, KL Prasad and Ranjit Sharma.


Memon gathers his breath and then announces to his audience, which by now has swelled to several well-heeled clients and another scribe, “We want a public apology from the government, action taken against the police officers (involved in the case) and an account of the public money spent by Parliament.” The Ministry of External Affairs processed the extradition appeal, he adds. “What was its contribution in examining the papers?”


Nadeem’s bail bond was terminated after the trial was over but Nadeem does not want to return to India, says Memon, unless the charges are dropped against him. “My client should be given a red carpet welcome by the state,” he insists. The Indian government cancelled Nadeem’s passport and now his lawyers are trying for documents that would enable him to travel and if necessary seek asylum. In the meanwhile, Memon says that director Mahesh Bhatt is trying to arrange for Memon’s meeting with Home Minister LK Advani and former Law Minister Ram Jethmalani to explain their standpoint.


In the tone and substance of their media interviews after their victory in the British courts, Nadeem and his lawyers have made it out to seem as if the verdict implies that he has been proved innocent of all the charges leveled on him by the Mumbai cops. The Mumbai cops obviously hold a different view. As far as they are concerned, all they have failed in is to get Nadeem extradited from the UK, which anyway is a difficult process for prosecutors anywhere in the world—good examples include the Spanish prosecutors’ failed attempt to get General Pinochet extradited, and the Mumbai cops’ earlier failure to get another underworld don, Iqbal Mirchi, extradited a few years ago. So Nadeem is not expected to get any respite from the Indian courts as yet. His case goes on trial on a daily basis from the 18th of this month. Among the 200 witnesses the prosecution has been talking about as being ready to summon include Anuradha Paudwal, Shravan Rathod, Kishan Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan, Boney Kapoor, Aditya Pancholi, Jackie Shroff, Vashu Bhagnani, Pooja Bhatt, Salman Khan, Habib Nadiadwala and Chunky Pandey.


As Memon flies out to UK to discuss his costs with the QC, a safari-suited spectacled man boards the Amritsar-Dadar Express at Jalgaon. Special Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam is Memon’s opponent on the Nadeem case—both in the extradition case that he lost and the forthcoming trial in Mumbai. Nikam lives in the small northern Maharashtra town of Jalgaon and shuttles to Mumbai to try the high profile cases on behalf of the government. His ‘Z’ category security makes him an object of admiration in the eyes of the local people, in particular the railway administration or the ticket collector. “They may not find a berth for an MLA but they always do for me. ‘You are fighting criminals and it’s our duty to help you,’ they tell me. The common man may not dare to speak out against criminals but they respect those who do,” Nikam explains in the lobby of the downtown hotel where he stays when in Mumbai.


Memon and he have been on the opposite sides of a case before. Nikam is the big-fish-in-a-small-town whose finest moment came when he filed the charge-sheet in the serial bomb blasts trial in Mumbai. He reels off the date: November 4, 1993. “It was the most important event in my life.” As over 150 journalists from all over the country descended to cover the trial and flashbulbs popped, “For a moment I thought I was a prime minister!” Nikam chuckles. Yet he would never trade the “free air” of distant Jalgaon, where his father, a barrister, raised him, for the glamour of Mumbai. Instead he contents himself with frequent forays to the state capital, encouraged by his wife and mother who see his work-enforced absence as a “sacrifice for the greater good.”


There are many who wonder why he wants to take the risk of taking on big time criminals. Nikam says he relishes the job of a public prosecutor. Nikam is of the opinion that “a radical change in the whole extradition law is needed to avoid the instance of a foreign court deciding a prima facie case against the criminal fugitive of another country.” Theorising about the Nadeem extradition debacle, he suggests that standards and tests in a prima facie case should have been applicable against “our laws, not their laws.” The UK court evaluated the evidence as if trying the case instead of deciding if the need for extradition existed. Speaking the formal language of legalese, Nikam says that by favouring Nadeem, the foreign court has “strangely” decided that Indian courts are not competent and unable to protect the interests of the accused. “Our human rights commissions, courts and activists are very keen to protect the rights of people,” says Nikam with only the mildest hint of sarcasm. “So there is no sound basis for the opinion of the foreign court.” Even a non-bailable warrant was issued against Nadeem when he was in the UK, to restrain him from leaving London for a country with which India did not have an extradition treaty, says Nikam.


Does he see this as a professional setback? “There are ups and downs. One goes on,” he says phlegmatically. “This case is not over, we still have the trial and there are 18 people arraigned before the court,” he says, unwilling to discuss the minutiae of the case. He obviously should be worried about the fact that the key eyewitness who had given the crucial evidence of having seen Ramesh Taurani and Nadeem hand over Rs 25 lakh to Abu Salem’s henchman with the words, “Bhai, Gulshan Kumar ka kaam jaldi khatam karo,” has turned hostile.


Life would have been so much easier for Bharat Shah had he, like Nadeem, been charged under the Indian Penal Code. In lay terms, the IPC provides for 14 days of police custody, judicial custody from the 15th day and the charge-sheet to be filed within 90 days. If the charge-sheet is not filed in 90 days, the accused gets bail by default. Under the MCOCA, police custody is extended to 30 days and the prosecution can take up to 180 days to look into evidence and file the charge-sheet. The first information report and remand application is shown to the judge but parts of it can be withheld from the defense during the interrogation period, which leaves the defense somewhat in the dark. Moreover, the burden is on the defense to prove the defendant is not guilty.


As special public prosecutor Rohini Salian walks into the MCOCA courtroom, she can feel a battery of eyes boring holes into her back. Some of those eyes belong to Shah’s family. “I can understand their feelings but I am just doing my job,” says Salian, a wiry haired woman with a puckish laugh and an obvious penchant for a good fight.


Salian moved from Mangalore to Mumbai about a decade ago. At some point she found she was well-suited for the competitive life of a public prosecutor who wants to sink her teeth into juicy cases. Re-elected Secretary of the Sessions Court Bar Association recently, she says her hero is her mother who taught her to keep things simple: if you do something, do it well. Otherwise don’t do it at all. She thinks the Shah case is promising. “There have been times when I have told the police that their case would not hold up in court. But this is a very tough case, the police have taken care of everything.”


The material presented to the court includes taped telephone conversations of Chhota Shakeel, Nazim Rizvi and other witnesses; a confession of Rizvi implicating Shah (“which alone would be enough to nail him, there is so much evidence”, says a source), and another co-accused; corroborations of intercepted conversations that talk of extortion and intimidation; statements of people who were intimidated into working in certain films and mentioned in the conversations; and corroborating evidence and printouts of dates and times of intercepted calls to show  the material was not “manufactured”. Repeated association with gangs meant one was a partner, not merely an abettor, says a legal expert. Some of the taped calls were between Shakeel and Shah, and initially Shah’s defense argued that the tapes had been manipulated. Barely a month after his arrest, his lawyers admitted that Shah had spoken to Shakeel, but only as a “mediator” for some filmmakers.


“One can only mediate if you can prevail upon him and the conversations and the style—‘Gandu, natak kam karo,’ said to a ‘victim’—shows that Shah was not negotiating on behalf of the film fraternity but for vested interests,” a police source says. Shah was accused as a “member of the syndicate” and bail rejected. Of the hundreds of calls intercepted only 12-13 are being used in evidence. In one of the calls, Shah asks Rizvi to arrange a chat with Shakeel. The two meet in Regent Hotel to place the call that was intercepted and proved to be a crucial clue. “At one point I said the courts should hear what the underworld is doing. Some of the conversations are so explosive!” Salian says with a shake of her head. The charge-sheet was filed in March. And Salian’s problems are no less severe than that of Nikam. Rizvi, whose statements proved crucial for the public prosecutor in the early days, has since retracted his confession. 


In a film industry that gorges on clichés, one seems terrifyingly apt. How the mighty are fallen. Shah had committed over Rs 100 crore to 11 films when he was arrested. He was among the most sought after men in the film industry, the subject of articles in gossip magazines as well as serious business magazines. He was known to have been close to many powerful politicians. But none of this could save him from the arrest and the humiliation that followed. Twenty-one days after his arrest, Shah’s lawyers were petitioning court for a bed and blankets for their client who was plagued by mosquitoes and bed bugs. Judge A P Bhangale permitted a bed but ruled, “a blanket may be risky.”  


Though the diamond industry observed a one-day bandh to protest his arrest, the film industry, contrary to expectations, turned its back on him. When his Antwerp based brother Vijay tried to get the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association to issue a press release in his favour soon after the arrest, there were only two producers willing to append their signatures. The rest either refused, or simply did not turn up at the meeting. Such was Shah’s hold over the film industry that of late, many had come to hate the kind of power he was wielding, and hence were in no mood to support or back him.


Vijay Shah must have wondered at the irony of it all. The elder of the two brothers, he was the first to have dabbled in films in the 1980s, producing a string of flops, before younger brother Bharat told him to handle the family business of diamonds. “I said we will make money where we had lost it,” Bharat Shah had said in an interview to Man’s World last year. Which he did, successfully, switching from producing to financing (“financiers never lose money”) and going great guns till he landed in jail.


The industry, stuck between the rock of Shah’s ire and the hard place of the state’s wrath, has resorted to playing a waiting game.


It is a silence that Shravankumar Rathod, Nadeem’s partner, knows only too well. Once the police named Nadeem as the prime suspect in the Gulshan Kumar murder, he and his family were completely shunned by the entire film industry. “We hoped they would contact us, but they did not. We went without work for three years. It was like an exile,” he says. Instead, Shravan spent several days being grilled at the police station. “They would ask strange questions in a strange manner. I felt odd, it had never happened to me before.”


Nadeem called him from UK after Mendonca’s press conference. Shravan says the news shocked and saddened him.


“The UK court’s verdict will convince everyone of his innocence,” he says pointedly.  Unlike his mercurial partner who makes the headlines frequently, Shravan describes himself as a “thanda, quieter person.” Yet, when it comes to music, they are two bodies with one mind. “Our tuning is through the language of signs, telepathy. When in Mumbai, I would think, and Nadeem would voice it, and vice versa,” he says, gold flashing at his neck and wrist. They have not met since trouble broke. Shravan’s passport was taken by the crime branch and returned only after it expired. That is why, he says, he has not been able to go to London even once in these three-odd years. “Now it is renewed and I will go and see him.”


Shravan and Nadeem decided they would compose film music together on the day they first met in 1972. A year later, they cut their first disc for a Bhojpuri film. “We struggled for 17 years to make the kind of music we wanted.” In 1989, Aashiqui which was produced by Gulshan Kumar became a blockbuster, driven mainly by the music which swamped the charts. Nadeem-Shravan had arrived. The partnership went on to compose for 125 films including hits such as Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin, Hum Hai Rahi Pyaar Ke, Raja Hindustani and Pardes. 


But typical of the manner in which the industry works, Nadeem and Shravan are back in the reckoning. Producers are quite happy with the UK court’s verdict and are not waiting for the Mumbai courts to declare Nadeem innocent. They have started queuing up once again to have music composed by the duo. First to make the move were producers Aruna Irani and Kuku Kohli, in April 2000. Shravan took permission from the Commissioner of Police who apparently told him that everyone had a right to work. Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt followed with Kasoor. According to some cops and filmland gossip, competition between Anuradha Paudwal and Alka Yagnik was the trigger that led to the fall-out between Nadeem and Gulshan Kumar. Paudwal, who was particularly admired by Gulshan Kumar, it was rumoured, was dubbing Yagnik’s songs, and Nadeem had taken up cudgels for the latter. With one protagonist dead, and the other absconding, whatever the original quarrel, if any, became history that day. Paudwal recently sang for Nadeem-Shravan—after a hiatus of four years.


Elaborating on how the duo compose their music over long distance telephone lines these days, Shravan says what has come handy is the fact that for over 25 years they have built up a bank of 10,000-12,000 songs that have been digitised and can be used as tunes at very short notice for any new film. Songs for an entire film can be recorded in a day. The producers who are now flocking back to the duo go to London, sit with Nadeem and finalise the numbers and return to Shravan who records them in Mumbai with constant consultations over the phone. Dhadkan marked a triumphant comeback last year. “Those who changed towards Nadeem-Shravan now understand the importance of Nadeem-Shravan’s music,” Shravan gloats. But the Mumbai cops are appalled that the industry is flocking back to the duo and not waiting for the trial to be completed. “How can the film industry employ someone like him who has been charged with murder?” asks one detective.


Mahesh Bhatt has the answers. This director has taken upon himself to stand up and be counted as the de facto defender of both Bharat Shah and Nadeem. Where angels fear to tread, Bhatt rushes in. “They call me a crackpot,” he says, sitting in his mezzanine floor office in the western Mumbai suburb of Juhu, which has some striking frames of Bhatt with his philosopher-guide UG Krishnamurthy. “All because I believe a person is innocent till proven guilty. Just look at the Nadeem judgement of the UK courts, it accused the state of ganging up against a person.”


Bhatt of course does not need the courts to declare that Bharat Shah is innocent. “I don’t believe that he is part of an international crime syndicate. I took a stand based on my assessment of this man. Others yielded to pressure. Yes, he may have bartered with the underworld to save his own life; nothing more. When he was arrested, I asked him if he was involved with the underworld. Bharatbhai looked me in the eye and said, ‘I am an honest man. I tried to help someone and was trapped,’” Bhatt narrates. “He is a victim just as Ramesh Taurani is, he was coughing up the extortion money and the police said that was money paid to murder Gulshan Kumar.”


Bhatt does not deny the mafia is “entrenched” in the film industry. He is going by that “most powerful and dependable way of communication”, the grapevine. But it’s a mistake to presuppose that the underworld is restricted to the glamour world, he says. “I am not saying don’t clean up the film industry, just don’t be arbitrary and badger one individual.  In these impatient times, which are being manufactured by the hour, keep the individual innocent till proven guilty. Even an undertrial like Jayalalitha has all her rights.” In different circumstances he would have had Nadeem come back and fight for his rights but with the “way the system is, I don’t think he should.” Bhatt claims he is constantly asked why he stands up for “anti-national elements”. “These phrases are very dubiously used. Is it all you can do to break the mirror that exposes your hideous face? Are we capable of any introspection? People are intimidated but they should remember the state is you, the individual,” he says philosophically.  


Efforts by Shah’s brother to mobilize support died a premature death because, says Bhatt, the film industry succumbs quietly to bullying of any kind, mafia or state. “It is the nature of their business. And they don’t think the state can protect them. I can’t say anything about the industry’s ‘cowardice’ except that it endangers the whole system. The film industry is spineless. But frankly, when has the industry ever, ever, taken a stand? Shah is still under the delusion that the industry will do something for him but he has lost his sheen. When I met him last, he was no longer the man I knew. He even thinks his lawyers are milking him.”


Sunjay Dutt, he says, was the only industry person to visit an accused, Hanif Kadawala, in hospital without bothering what people thought. “That’s because he knows what it is like to be isolated.” Bhatt confesses that his own outspokenness does make him feel vulnerable. “It’s not an easy street to walk on when you are not part of a herd.”


Special public prosecutor Rohini Salian


While the film industry wrestles with its demons, a section of the Mumbai police have their own agenda. They fear that vested interests and human rights organizations will succeed in some years in the efforts to dilute the MCOCA. Police sources say that a three-member Constitutional Bench is looking into the Sunjay Dutt TADA case. If the law is amended then 50 per cent of the accused will get off scot-free, says a detective. Human rights activists have already reviled MCOCA for putting the onus on the accused to prove their innocence. They are also targeting sections in the law that makes bail difficult and prevent the defense from seeing the complete list of witnesses and a copy of the FIR at the pre-trial stage. Also, prima facie material is shown only to the judge at a certain stage of the trial. Investigating agencies say this protects witnesses from being identified and intimidated. If the MCOCA is amended, then bail will be given easily and witnesses will be eliminated, they argue. 


Some of the policemen are not even prepared to wait for MCOCA to take its course. They seem to have decided that ‘encounter’ type killing is the only way to get rid of the underworld. “In a city of one crore people, how many gangsters can you lock up?” demands a neatly turned out senior officer. “Arrests, according to me, don’t work.” He reels out figures. 1998—three shootouts per day/100 a year; ‘99—48 shootouts; 2000—26. Encounter deaths rose for the corresponding years—48 in 1998, 83 in 1999, 75 in 2000 and about 30 up to May this year. Hitmen for the dons rise as ganglords and then carve out separate empires as dons. Encounter deaths of shooters have led to local recruitment by the mafia slowing down. Now they are trying to hire unemployed youth from UP and MP, says a detective who has a Pandora’s box of gossip about criminal links in high places. For the first time in many years, say people in the know, the Mumbai underworld is on the run. “Our biggest headaches are our seniors,” says one ranking officer. “They demand results but simultaneously say, ‘these encounter deaths are not good.’ The fact is not many even in the force want to take up detection. They can’t replace us for who will take our place in the firing line?”


He has more sympathy for the film industry. “Everyone just wants to make money and work. They don’t want to take a panga with gangsters and waste time. They try to settle issues with the Bhais. Only when they reach a dead end do they come to us.” But even without their help, the police finds its own ways to get information. Page 3 society columns and Shobha De’s books are an unusual source for gleaning information and atmosphere for some of these detectives.


June will be a crucial month for both Nadeem and Shah. Trials on a daily basis will begin for one, and bail may finally be in sight for the other. Whether the trials and tribulations of these two high profile men would become a cautionary tale for the rest of the Mumbai film industry, it remains to be seen. And looking at it from the point of view of the Mumbai police, the jury would be out on whether they would be able to make the charges stick after having created so much of hype around it. And of course the spotlight will also be switched on to see how far they succeed in the battle against the all pervading influence of the underworld.




This article was first published in the June 2001 issue


Image courtesy: Kevin D’Souza/Indian Express and Harsh Man Rai

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