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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Don of a new era

When director Mahesh Bhatt decided to make a film on Abu Salem’s life, the notorious gangster was livid. He promptly sued the director and Bhatt had to go on record saying that the film was not about Abu Salem at all and that the name of the movie Gangster was incidental.

Not all hoods are so touchy about films being made on their lives. Quite to the contrary, in fact. A fortnight ago, before he was booked under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, gangster-turned-MLA Arun Gawli gave the clap for a film based on his life. Directed by one Kiran Shah, the film, titled Gawli, shows a cowherd who comes to the city and drifts into crime. Gawli is said to be very happy about the movie. He always wanted to be immortalised on screen just as he has always dreamed of being a politician. Now that he is an MLA, he wants to be another Vardarajan Mudaliar, memorably played by Kamal Haasan in the Tamil film Nayakan and then by Vinod Khanna in its Hindi version, Dayavan.

Bollywood has always been fascinated by the mafia. In the Seventies, Amitabh Bachchan did a Haji Mastan in Deewar (remember the scenes in the Mumbai docks where Amitabh plays a coolie' Haji Mastan too started off as a porter in the Mumbai docks). But over the years, with the Mumbai mafia getting a taste and share of the Bollywood pie, they have become more directly involved in films that are made on them.

Even Daya Nayak, the cop who became famous, and later infamous, for bumping off members of Mumbai’s underworld, could not resist the charms of being idolised in cinemascope. He has often said in interviews that he wanted to be a film star. Two films, Ab Tak Chhappan by Ram Gopal Varma and Kaagar by N. Chandra elevate Daya Nayak to the status of a cult hero.

For the mafia who have been hobnobbing with Bollywood by either financing films or getting their overseas rights, it was a logical step for them to eventually get themselves portrayed as the subjects of films. Even Abu Salem, who went ballistic alleging that Mahesh Bhatt had made a film on his life, authorised his lawyer Ashok Sarogi’s wife to go ahead and film a story based on his life.

The trend is catching on in south India. Narayana Rai Muthappa Nettala, from Puttur in south Karnataka, was a bank clerk who got involved in underworld activities. He moved to Dubai in the 1990s, from where he operated. Rai was listed as a most wanted criminal and was deported in 2002 from the UAE by the CBI and the Interpol. He spent 23 months in jail in Parappana Agrahara in Bangalore. He was later acquitted of all charges and was set free in April 2004. Rai is now on the look out for a director who will make a movie on his life. The movie will probably be made in Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil.

Still, the phenomenon is not new. “Using a topical element to market your product is an old game for the media,” says Mahesh Bhatt. However, he denies that his film Gangster is based on Abu Salem’s story. “My movie was launched in September last year and Salem came to India only in November.”

For years Bollywood and the mafia have been living off each other. In Dharmatma, Premnath was portrayed as the matka king, Ratan Khatri, while his son, played by Feroze Khan in the movie, had shades of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. The movie was a hit and to date is considered one of the best mafia stories from the Bollywood stable. Then there was Ardh Satya, perhaps the only movie that showed Vardarajan Mudaliar in a negative light. The character of Rama Shetty is widely believed to be that of Vardarajan Mudaliar and the character of the cop, played by Om Puri, was based on Y.C. Pawar, the Mumbai policeman who proved to be Vardarajan Mudaliar’s nemesis.

In Satya, there were shades of mafia don Arun Gawli in Manoj Bajpai’s character and his band of Maharashtrian boys. Yesteryear don Ayub Lala was the hero in the Dharmendra-starrer Hathyaar. For some reason, Bollywood has always portrayed real life villains in a somewhat sympathetic light. The character of Sher Khan played by Pran in Zanjeer, for instance, was a take on Sixties gangster Karim Lala’s life.

That Bollywood and the mafia are often hand in glove when it comes to making these gangster movies is borne out by the example of Vaastav. Sponsored by mafia don Chhota Rajan’s brother Sadashiv Nikhalje, the story was based not on Chhota Rajan’s life but on the life of another gangster, Amar Naik. Amar Naik had a dalliance with the Shiv Sena and so does the protagonist, Sanjay Dutt, in the movie. The only difference is that Amar Naik was shot in a police encounter while the gangster in Vaastav is shot by his mother.

Anurag Kashyap, who wrote the script for two mafia movies, Satya and Black Friday, sums up our fascination with gangster movies, “The audience feels a sense of power while watching gangster movies. There are so many people out there who want to fight the system but do not dare to do so because there are boundaries that control us and we know that we cannot give in to our impulses. As for me, I have always been fascinated with crime. It gives me adrenaline. I would rather watch Omkara 20 times but you wouldn’t catch me watching Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna despite the fact that Kabhi Alvida will be a huge hit.”

Ram Gopal Varma, another director who can’t resist a good mafia story, made Company which was a thinly-veiled depiction of the alliance and the eventual face-off between Dawood Ibrahim (Ajay Devgan) and Chhota Rajan (Viveik Oberoi).

But in his rush to deliver a spate of gangster movies, has Varma lost his grip on the formula' Deepa Gehlot, movie critic, says, “Not all of Ram Gopal Varma’s mafia movies clicked with the audience. The movie D flopped. After a time, people are tired of watching the same old set of supporting cast.” Gehlot feels that big time film makers will not venture anywhere near a mafia movie for a while.

However, film trade analyst and critic Komal Nahta is of the view that mafia movies are here to stay. “There is no fatigue factor in mafia movies. Mahesh Bhatt’s Gangster did very well and even a movie like Ab Tak Chhappan did not fare badly. What brings the audience to the theatres to watch a mafia movie is the unknown factor. Social movies have predictability while mafia movies throw up surprises.”

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