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Crime and punishment

Trust Haji Mastan to have done it with suitable pomp and show. When he was resurrected — 16 years after his death — India’s most famous smuggler was recalled in a befitting way. His comeback, marked among other things by a new film, was as colourful as his own life.

After a battle in court, Ekta Kapoor’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbai hit the screens on Friday. The film has kicked up a furore, with members of the Mastan family crying over the plot, loosely based on his life. Suddenly, sundry members — including his beautiful Madhubala-lookalike actress wife Sona, whom he married towards the fag end of his life, and his adopted son Sunder Shekhar, are recalling Mastan.

And they are not the only ones. The tabloid press has it that a new film, Businessman, is on Mastan, though producer Ram Gopal Varma’s blog says it’s about a new underworld don who’d studied earlier gangsters such as Mastan. Journalist Hussain Zaidi is writing a book called Dongri to Dubai on Dawood Ibrahim and the genesis of the Mumbai mafia, including Mastan. And Mumbai: Political Economy of Crime and Space written by Abdul Shaban, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Studies, Mumbai, while not mentioning Mastan, looks at the “processes” that go into the making of gangsters.

In an age when villains are bombers, Mastan emerges almost as an innocuous smuggler. But in his time, he was an all-powerful man who hobnobbed with the glitterati when he was not ruling the underworld. Mastan made his money from gold, silver and electronics. But unlike the man who displaced him as the king of the underworld — Dawood Ibrahim — it is believed that Mastan never sullied his own hands with blood. If there was need for violence, he outsourced it.

“Haji Mastan was more refined,” says Madhukar Zende, a former Mumbai police inspector who’d first arrested Mastan in the early Sixties for slapping a constable. Later in 1984, when criminals were being arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, Mastan was hiding in Sona’s house in Juhu. Zende went to arrest him, and was told by Sona she didn’t know Haji Mastan. Zende urged her to tell Mastan who had called. The next minute he was out of hiding. Years later Mastan’s driver told Zende that once Mastan asked him to duck into a by-lane when he spotted the cop on the road to Mahim. He didn’t want his driver to overtake Zende.

The driver, incidentally, was called Dawood. Kapoor’s film highlights a relationship with the other Dawood, describing him as Mastan’s protιgι. In reality, Dawood, who grew up watching his constable father Ibrahim Kaskar being given the short shrift by Mastan, hated him. Kaskar had helped Mastan out of many tight corners, but Dawood resented that Mastan — known for his generosity — made no effort to help Kaskar, who led a hand-to-mouth existence with his many children.

Dawood had his revenge when he gained power, and Mastan lost his. When Gujarati traders refused to pay hafta — or protection money — to Dawood saying that they would complain to Haji Mastan, Dawood would call Mastan to his office and make him wait outside. “Is this the man you were talking about,” he would ask the traders, pointing to Mastan pacing up and down the corridor outside his office. The traders paid up without a protest, and a furious Mastan complained to his journalist friend Khalil Zahid: “Dawood has reduced me to a puppet.”

But Mastan had his years under the sun too. Till the early Seventies, he was a millionaire many times over. It was said that when he went to mujras — where women sang and danced for money — he doled out currency notes to stoke a fire to boil water for his tea.

Mastan started seeing actress Sona, the heroine for his Shakeel Productions which made Muslim socials such as Khwaja Ki Diwani and Noor-e-Elahi, while he was married to Suprabhi, from whom he had three daughters. After Suprabhi died, he wed Sona in 1984.

By the late Eighties, after two decades of decadence, most of Mastan’s money was gone. The aura around him was still intact though. “Once we had gone together to Benaras and had to wait in a hotel,” recalls Zahid, editor of Akhbar-e-Alam, a now defunct Urdu paper. “Within minutes 3,000 people had thronged the hotel to catch a glimpse of Haji Mastan and to perhaps be a beneficiary of his largesse.”

Zahid recounts apocryphal stories about his lavish lifestyle. “Many Muslims thought that Haji Mastan lived in a house that had 365 doors and that each morning he came out of a new door to a brand new car waiting outside. It was said he used his car only once and then sold it to distribute the money to the poor.”

The reality was that Mastan drove a 15-year-old Fiat at the time. By the Eighties, save for a couple of properties across the city and some in London, he had squandered his money either by making movies — many of which bombed — or by living the life of a nabob.

Mastan had seen it all — abject poverty, untold wealth, and subsequent decadence. His father, Mastan Mirza, was a part of the teeming migrants who made Mumbai their home in the Forties and the Fifties. He came from Panankulam, a small hamlet 20 kilometres from Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu.

Mastan worked as a coolie in the Bombay docks from where Muslims left for Haj. At the docks he formed alliances with smugglers. It was Deewar — the hero of the film was loosely based on Mastan — that turned him into a legend. The myth grew when he was jailed during the Emergency. When he was released, he promised political activist Jai Prakash Narayan that he would give up smuggling.

His political foray was through a forum of Dalits and Muslims set up during the 1984 communal riots in Mumbai. Mastan became the president of the Dalit Muslim Suraksha Mahasangh.

In the earlier days, he was so unaccustomed to public speaking that he’d go up on stage and return to his seat after saying “Salam Alaikum.” Later, he refused to let go of the mike. Once, when actor Dilip Kumar advised him to allow some party associates to handle the show, he was furious. “He has gone crazy. He is asking me to remain on the sidelines and keep my mouth shut,” he complained bitterly to a friend.

Few knew that later, when Mastan was losing money, he started resolving disputes between rival groups. “Let’s say there is a widow who has given her house on rent and the tenant does not vacate. She would go to Haji sahab. And then my team and I ensured that the lady got justice,” says Sunder Shekhar, whom Mastan took under his wing when he was a young boy.

In 1994, when Mastan died at 68, he was a broken and bitter man. There were splits in the family. Sona stresses she has not got her share of property. It is believed that his property was mostly invested in other people’s names to evade tax raids. “I was his wife and all I am asking for is my rightful share,” she says.

Bollywood will continue with its legends. Life, however, can sometimes make men out of myths.

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