Recently, I had the chance to meet several people in the Hindi film industry. This was around the time that the producer of Chori Chori Chupke Chupke was arrested for having underworld connections and various film personalities were being interrogated by the police.
No one I spoke to denied the involvement of the underworld in the film industry. But all of them clearly qualified that acceptance. "It’s easy for you journalists to write on the film industry-underworld nexus, but that’s because you haven’t received those phone calls," said a prominent filmstar. "When you get a call from a man who tells you exactly where you were at what time for the last three days, where exactly your wife and child are right now, what do you do? And you also know that people have been killed for not cooperating with these guys. So you listen to him. No one deals with the underworld happily, they do it out of fear, under duress."
But that’s about extortion calls. What about the underworld financing films? "No producer is happy taking money from the underworld," a young director told me. "I’ve not met a single producer who goes around saying, man, I got funds from the underworld, I’m feeling just too cool. They take that money because they are threatened into taking that dirty money." He then had an interesting take on producers who voluntarily look for crime money to finance their films. "They’ll never make good films," he said. "A man who compromises himself willingly right in the beginning will not be able to make good films."
Strange thought. But, leaving aside the matter of good films and bad films, I remember seeing a Hindi movie called Game some years ago, whose producer was arrested at the film’s premiere on a whole array of criminal charges, and all I remember about it is that, one, all male characters were criminals and spent three hours killing one another (I think only one guy survived finally, out of a dozen or so), and two, that every time the senior don was shown, they played the Godfather theme in the background. The message of the film was clear: "Crime does not pay." Early this year, Chhota Rajan’s brother, who claims he is no criminal, produced a film called Vaastav, starring Sunjay Dutt as a dimwit lower-middle-class boy who rises to the top of the crime heap and then meets his maker in the climax. Message: "Crime does not pay."
There is much food for psychological analysis here. Does the average Mumbai extortionist see himself as a tragic hero, bumping off people while secretly wiping his tears, raping women in a very existential way, pondering the absurdity of this universe and the reasons behind Camus’ statement that the only question in life is why a man should not commit suicide? The mind boggles.
The most honest take on the films-underworld issue, however, came from a star who’s also respected as an actor. "When these guys call me, I tell them if you want money, we can talk about it; if you want me to dance at your son’s birthday party, I’ll do it, there’s no harm in bending a little," he told me. "But I also tell them that what I live for is acting, that is the most important thing to me, the core of what I am. Please leave that to me, do not ask me to do roles I do not want to do, films I do not want to do. Do not violate that part of me."
Do the extortionists agree to this? Apparently they do. Which only lends credence to the theory that these guys see themselves as tragic romantic heroes, treading the path of evil in a soulful search for the highest form of martyrdom–the unsung variety. Maybe Dawood Ibrahim and his cronies weep themselves into a large puddle every night reading passages from Crime and Punishment or watching The Threepenny Opera. Those poor misunderstood chaps.
This article first appeared in the Intelligent Investor.