The stars and the dons

Print edition : August 17, 2002

The Sanjay Dutt-Chhota Shakeel tapes strengthen the theory that the actor has maintained close links with the mafia gang charged with playing a key role in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts. At a broader level, they point to the question whether Bollywood at large has organic links with the underworld.

Chhota Shakeel: If you people help a little, all the filth surrounding the industry will be cleared up. Harish Sugandh: That would be great fun. If the filth was cleared, it would be fantastic. There's just too much filth about. Shakeel: Don't worry, it will all get cleaned up. Listen, brother, listen to me. All this has happened because of you people. When some fellow shows up you people say, OK, let's give five instead of ten; let's give five instead of two; that's how a link develops. Sugandh: Correct, correct. Shakeel: A thread is spun, understand? Sugandh: If the filth in the industry is cleared, by God, life will be so fantastic!

- as translated from the Sanjay Dutt-Chhota Shakeel tapes, November 11, 2000.

HINDI pop film is not known for a well-developed sense of irony. But if the four Bollywood luminaries who spoke to mafia baron Shakeel Ahmad Babu from a Nashik hotel room were attempting to script black comedy, they could not have done better.

The 31-minute real-life farce that has hogged front-page space recently excels anything its authors ever manufactured on celluloid. Shakeel, charged with having played a key role in the killing of 273 people in the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993 and with committing dozens of other murders, promises to end his rival Abu Salem Ansari's influence in Bollywood. "The breath of the tyrant is hot," he dramatically tells producer Harish Sugandh, "but it will end with a single gasp." Director Sanjay Gupta is offered advice on editing issues, while Mahesh Manjrekar discusses plans for a "realistic" film on Shakeel's life. All the while, Sanjay Dutt, who sheepishly confesses to being "two drinks down", unsteadily chips in with lewd commentary on a friend's affair with a leading dance director and mawkish demands to speak to the mafia boss' wife and children.

Sanjay Dutt coming out of a court in Mumbai on August 8.-RAJESH NIRGUDE/ AP

And all this transpires the evening before the four headed to Shirdi to offer worship at the temple of a venerated religious figure!

For all the entertainment, it is not hard to understand why the Mumbai Police chose not to act on the basis of the telephone intercepts. Contrary to the fulminations of Shiv Sena politicians, there is no real evidence on the tape of criminal wrongdoing. While it might have been unethical for the four to hold discussions with Shakeel, the mere fact that such a discussion took place is not in itself a crime. Dutt, who begins the conversation with a request for Shakeel to send him a "chip", comes closest to breaking the law. The chip, Mumbai Police officials believe, was in fact an internationally valid card for a mobile phone, which Shakeel was to have sent from Dubai. The card would have enabled Dutt to have spoken to Shakeel without actually being in possession of a phone line which could have been traced back to him. No such card has, however, been found: and the mere intent to receive a gift is by no means an offence. At worst, all four are guilty of not reporting to the police their conversation with a proclaimed offender.

While there is no actual criminal activity discussed in the tape, there is plenty of evidence of friendship, even intimacy. Dutt, for example, asks Shakeel for a rust-coloured leather wallet, similar to one that the mafia boss had gifted a common friend. In return, he tells Shakeel, he has purchased a T-shirt, of the kind he is especially fond of wearing. All of this could have serious consequences for Dutt in his serial bombing-related criminal trial for possession of an assault rifle. Among the key pieces of evidence gathered by the Central Bureau of Investigation was a record of a call having been made from his home to Anees Ibrahim, the brother of Shakeel's boss then, Dawood Ibrahim. The record was admitted as evidence in July 2000 after a prolonged legal battle over its legitimacy. The new tapes, should the CBI choose to introduce them as evidence, strengthen the proposition that Dutt had a close relationship with the Dawood cartel.

Chhota Shakeel-

ALL of this raises the obvious question: is Dutt just the proverbial rotten apple, or does Bollywood in fact have organic links with the mafia? The Sanjay-Shakeel tape provides interesting insights into this long-running debate. Shakeel is at pains to distance himself from Abu Salem's methods and activities, and questions Sugandh at length on extortion demands made by his rival. "I understand you're businessmen," he tells the producer, "and we have nothing to gain from frightening you. We don't go around shooting people. We're not like other people." After Dutt describes threat calls made in Shakeel's name to actress Preity Zinta, the mafia boss almost explodes. "She's working with me," he responds, "I've paid her, so why would I extort money from her? Find out whose numbers she was given and tell me." Similar calls, Shakeel is told, had been made to top producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, information which receives an identical answer. "You find out what numbers he has been given," Shakeel says, "so I can see who is doing this."

The Mumbai Police have long believed that Shakeel played a key role in financing several major Hindi films, notably through diamond merchant and film financier Bharat Shah. Shah, along with director-producer Nasim Rizvi, his assistant Abdul Rahim Allah Baksh and Dubai-based diamond dealer Mohammad Shamsuddin, is now being tried for alleged participation in Shakeel's Bollywood enterprise. Prosecutors claim that Shakeel funnelled funds through Shah, who was arrested in January 2001, for at least one major Rizvi-produced film, Chori Chori, Chupke Chupke (Stealthily, Silently). But the operation, prosecutors allege, did not just stop with money laundering. The group is charged with having conspired to eliminate film stars Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, as well as Roshan's father Rakesh Roshan, if the three failed to cooperate with the mafia's film projects. In January 2000, nine months before threats from Shakeel started coming in, Rakesh Roshan suffered serious injuries after hit-men from the rival Ali Budesh group targeted him for similar extortion-related reasons.

Dutt's name had figured in the investigation fairly early on, and transcripts of the November 11 telephone conversation, if not the actual tape recording, has been in circulation for over a year. The Mumbai Police had questioned Dutt, along with several other film stars, in the weeks after Rizvi's December 2000 arrest. In March 2001, the Enforcement Directorate called in Dutt for further questioning, although the precise status of that investigation is still not known. It seems probable that the questioning of Dutt had something to do with Chori Chori, Chupke Chupke, since certain cheques made out in his name were discovered in Rizvi's office. Police officials say that those cheques represented part payment for a subsequent project. It is generally known that only a relatively small portion of acting professionals' fees is paid through legal means, the bulk of it changes hands in cash. Part of those cash payments could have been made through the hawala route, or directly handed over through Shakeel's contacts abroad. Interestingly, the Sanjay-Shakeel tape contains references to a contact in London, although the actor is rapidly silenced by the mafia boss, who tells him not to discuss this particular issue "in front of these people".

Several similar tapes, Mumbai Police sources told Frontline, had been gathered in the course of the Bharat Shah case investigation, involving over two dozen major actors, producers and directors. Most of the conversations, the sources said, have as little specific information as the Sanjay-Shakeel tape, and do not actually disclose specific wrongdoing. Indeed, heated media discourse on the tape provoked the designated judge under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, A.P. Bhangale, to bar the media from broadcasting or publishing the complete transcripts. Judge Bhangale also asked the media to observe restraint in its coverage of the issue, and to make an effort to understand the actual nature of evidence by interviewing counsel. The order has been largely observed in the breach - full transcripts of the tape are widely available on the Internet - but the fact is that the feeding frenzy provoked by the disclosure of the tapes do sections of the media little credit.

IF Dutt is being vilified for a crime he has not committed, the reasons are not hard to find. Most ordinary people in Mumbai are understandably incensed by the fact that the city's most visibly affluent and important section of society continues to consort with the underworld with evident impunity. That, in turn, has been latched on to by the Hindu Right, which has sought to link Dutt's behaviour to the fact that his mother, Nargis Dutt, was a Muslim and his father, Sunil Dutt, is a well-known secular figure in the Congress(I). Even a well-known magazine took recourse to psychobabble to explain what is described as Sanjay Dutt's "soft spot for Muslims", ignoring the fact that in the instance in question he was on his way to Shirdi in the company of three Hindus. Whatever might be the truth about why the actor maintains a close relationship with the Shakeel mafia, the reason is probably not dissimilar to why others do so. Dutt, as in the case of the sacked Judge J.W. Singh - who was acquitted on August 6 because the phone intercepts that were used as evidence against him had been obtained illegally - or Bharat Shah, or dozens of builders, industrialists and politicians, found that it paid to maintain such a relationship.

Some people in Mumbai, particularly those close to Dutt, believe that the tapes were wilfully leaked to discredit his father who recently launched a major initiative for communal peace. Journalists covering the beat reject the proposition, with some credibility because the source of the full tape is widely known to those handling the story. Although journalists obviously cannot name their sources, the individual concerned appears to have no real reason to malign the Dutt family. More important, Dutt's role in the Shah affair, and his conversations with Shakeel, have appeared sporadically in the Mumbai press, both English and Marathi, for over a year. The only reason the affair created a media furore this time around is that the actual audio-tape became available, and was rapidly circulated among several television channels. That the Shiv Sena, which has launched an energetic campaign in the Maharashtra Assembly on the issue, now seeks to discredit Dutt on the basis of the tape is, however, clear.

Meanwhile, the must serious case against Dutt, related to the serial bombings, is also starting to degenerate into a media-driven farce - this time aided by those in his own camp. On August 5, counsel for Dutt, Farhana Shah, named actress Parveen Babi as the author of three complaints to designated Terrorist and Disruptive (Prevention) Activities Act Judge P.D. Kode, claiming to have "irrefutable evidence" against Dutt. In her complaints Babi said that a welter of domestic and international intelligence agencies, political parties and the Roman Catholic Church were conspiring to protect Dutt by making her "extremely ill through certain sophisticated and secret radio-frequent (sic.) chemicals". The actress, who has in the past blamed even Amitabh Bachchan of attempting to "murder" her, has failed to appear to depose at successive hearings. While her complaints seem frivolous, Shah's decision to name an anonymous complainant protected by TADA's provisions seems not only dubious, but, given the circumstances, tasteless.

All that the Sanjay-Shakeel tapes really show, then, is just how pervasive the influence of the mafia was in Mumbai's film industry. You still have little idea of whether such influence persists despite the spate of high-profile arrests that have followed the enactment of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, most notably that of Bharat Shah himself. Perhaps it does, for no notable Bollywood figure has called upon the industry to sever its linkages with the Karachi-based mafia once and for all. The sad fact is that Bollywood, like most of Mumbai's other industries, needs the mafia. In the casino culture that passes for capitalism in Mumbai, contracts are either non-existent or unenforceable; funds are easier to raise from the underworld than from banks; taxes are nuisance that can easily be avoided. The mafia steps in as a source of law and order enforcement, one that is more effective and often cheaper than the legitimate channels available. More often than not, most participants are happy. Until the cost of breaking the law becomes higher than the fees charged by Shakeel or Abu Salem, nothing is likely to change here.

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