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Bollywood’s affair with the Indian mafia

By on March 23, 2021 0

Famous Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt was released from prison last week after serving a five-year sentence for possession of illicit weapons supplied to him by the architects of the deadly 1993 Mumbai terror attacks. His release marks the end of a high-profile case that highlights the close and ongoing connection between India’s famed film industry and its infamous mafia.

The connection between Bollywood and Indian organized crime is as old as India itself: Mumbai’s first mobster, Haji Mastan, produced films featuring his mistress to promote his budding film career. The film industry’s intimate relationship with India’s underworld is considered one of the country’s worst-kept secrets whose origins can be traced to government regulation that made the film industry ineligible for legitimate forms of funding. Film producers, directors and actors have been forced to find other sources of income to make their films, often from suspicious sources with close ties to criminal organizations.

While the law was amended in 2000 to allow the film industry to benefit from bank credit, the influence of the underworld within Indian cinema was already deep-rooted and pervasive. In many cases, filmmakers and celebrities have been coerced into accepting underworld funding, whether they like it or not. Prominent Indian director Mahesh Bhatt once observed that “there is hardly anyone in the film industry who has not…been contacted by the mafia”.

In 2011, a WikiLeaks cable released by the State Department further underscored the close ties between India’s multi-billion dollar film industry and the underworld.

“The industry has also welcomed funds from gangsters and politicians, seeking ways to launder their ill-gotten gains, known in India as ‘dark money,’ the cable noted. “After the government added the film industry to the list of legitimate industries, the corporatization of Bollywood – and the entertainment industry at large – has begun.”

Apart from financing films and money laundering, pirating, counterfeiting and distributing films have also become lucrative businesses for the Indian underworld.

The intimate relationship between the Indian mafia and the film industry appears to be symbiotic on the surface. Indian movie stars openly display their links to organized crime, and Bollywood A-list celebrities regularly attend lavish and high-profile mafia parties around the world. At the same time, however, these ties proved deadly for the most notable members of the industry. While India’s most powerful underworld bosses like Dawood Ibrahim and Abu Salem will celebrate with Bollywood’s most distinguished members one day, they will extort them the next.

Extorting the elite of Bollywood cinema is one of the most profitable activities for the underworld. Organized crime groups ruthlessly target and even kill some of the industry’s most prominent directors, producers and even movie stars who refuse to pay the exorbitant extortions.

In January 2001, acclaimed Indian director Rakesh Roshan narrowly escaped an assassination attempt outside his office in Mumbai after refusing to sell the overseas rights to his latest film, Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai, to one of India’s leading criminal organizations. The contract killing was allegedly ordered by an Indian underworld figure based in Dubai, funded with money laundered through Abu Dhabi, planned in Pakistan and ultimately executed in India.

Roshan’s son, Hrithik Roshan, as well as legendary director Karan Johar, who directed some of Bollywood’s most famous blockbusters, including Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Khabhie Gham and Kal Ho Naa Hoalso received police protection after receiving death threats from the Indian mafia.

With a few minor exceptions, there has been virtually no legal response to the infiltration of organized crime into the Indian film industry. While low-level gangsters are sometimes charged with a single count of extortion, racketeering, or intimidation, prosecutions rarely target high-level criminal figures or go beyond these superficial charges, particularly in light of the ubiquity of Indian organized crime in Bollywood. In 2001, Nazim Rizvi, producer of Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, and his assistant were sentenced to six years in prison for working with the underworld to extort members of the film industry. While authorities have pointed to the lawsuits as evidence of the government’s determination to target Bollywood’s connection to the underworld, Rizvi and other industry insiders have dismissed the lawsuit as politically motivated.

Dutt was cleared of allegations that he was an accomplice to the March 1993 Mumbai terror attack orchestrated by Dawood Ibrahim that left 257 people dead after a series of bombings ripped through the city. He was, however, convicted of unlawful possession of firearms which he claimed to have obtained for self-defence. Released from prison last week, he asked reporters not to label him a terrorist, adding: “There is no easy walk to freedom, my friend.