|Feb 7, 2000|
Panic in Bollywood
With an attempt on producer Rakesh Roshan's life, and 35 film bigwigs given police protection, the underworld threat again looms over tinsel town
By Sheela Raval
It could well have happened this way: Rakesh Roshan, the 50-year-old actor turned producer-director, is hosting a party at Mumbai's Fire and Ice restaurant for the release of his film Kaho Naa ... Pyaar Hai. The restaurant, located in sedate Prabhadevi, is a favourite haunt of the film crowd. Everyone, including the host, is comfortable in the ambience. Until a stranger walks into the room, sidles up to Roshan and whispers that he has a message from Bhai.
Bhai, whose emissary stands in front of him, is, in this context, Abu Salem -- the Bahrain-based extortionist who has for the past three years kept his radar open on every successful Bollywood film and stalked its producer. And now here was the emissary. As the man melts into the night as silently as he had come, the producer-director sweats even though the air conditioners are running on high. On his drive back he tells son Hrithik, who made his debut as an actor in the film, to be careful and always travel with a chauffeur.
How real this scenario could have been was evident on January 22, when Roshan's life was saved by sheer luck and his driver's pluck. As he left his suburban office, Filmcraft, in the evening in his green Honda Accord, two youngsters in jeans and dark shirts came from behind and began shooting. Roshan, who ducked behind his left arm, was hit by one bullet which tore through his arm muscles, slammed into his chest its tip missing the heart by barely a millimetre. However, Aatish, Roshan's driver, sped away from behind the shattered windscreen to the Santa Cruz police station, from where the producer-director was taken to the nearby Nanavati Hospital.
The bullet extracted after an hour-long operation, Roshan is now convalescing. But is he safe? Or, for that matter is any of the 35 film personalities (including Roshan) who have from time to time sought protection from the Mumbai Police feeling safe?
Certainly not. Over the past two months, the rings on the mobile phones of the film world's glitterati are being increasingly followed by sudden roadside attacks or pistol shots. In the recent past, the violent message from the underworld first came when unknown attackers beat up distributor Anil Thadani outside the Gaiety-Galaxy cinema complex at Bandra. Then there was an attempt on the life of Ad Labs owner Manmohan Shetty. The attack on Roshan is an episode in the same serial. All these people have got the cash registers jingling in their enterprises. Two years ago, when the Kaho Naa ... Pyaar Hai project was announced, Salem's voice first came on Roshan's mobile phone with a demand for Rs 5 crore. The last call was believed to have come two months ago, by which time the demand had become more flexible. Roshan could either pay up or sign away the overseas distribution rights to a designated distributor. The reason: Roshan's film had reported phenomenal success in each territory.
The attack on Roshan has caused such panic in the industry that several producers have temporarily shelved their projects while others have preferred to keep their business on a low key. Producer-director Subhash Ghai recently cancelled the inaugural party -- an integral part of the show business rituals -- of his new film Yaadein, starring Hrithik of all persons. The fear of the "mobile ring" has compelled many to keep changing their numbers. Says Pahlaj Nihalani, president of the All India Motion Pictures and TV Producers' Association: "Those whose films do well at the box office are receiving threats regularly. Some talk about them and some do not. It will eventually force us to shift out of Mumbai." At their offices, secretaries are under strict instructions not to pass on any call without verifying the caller's identity.
Yet the underworld manages to get its quarry on line. Behind the calls there is invariably the chilling presence of Salem, a flunkey of the Karachi-based don, Dawood Ibrahim, who came into prominence by executing the 1992 Mumbai blasts. Salem fled to the Gulf after that, but as a reward for his talent as an arsonist the don gave him the nod to milk Mumbai through his network of operatives. Salem's first big offshore hit was the murder of T-Series owner Gulshan Kumar in August 1997 following his refusal to pay "protection money". The pall of fear has never quite lifted since then.
Now it has acquired a new dimension with the ransom being demanded not just in cash but the surrender of overseas rights of films. This shift began with the success of Ghai's Khalnayak and Suraj Barjatiya's Hum Aapke Hain Koun, which grossed an estimated Rs 5 crore and Rs 20 crore from theatres abroad. In the past few years, the overseas theatre revenues of the Bollywood films have become even more alluring than domestic rights, with every film that has any of the three Khans -- Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir -- fetching between Rs 5 crore and Rs 8 crore. The Salem gang quickly sniffed an opportunity for income that could be clean yet big. It began asking for the foreign rights.
The modus operandi is that as soon as any big banner launches a film, the producer receives a call from either Salem directly or distributors who have links with him, asking if he'd agree to part with the film's rights abroad. No is not the answer expected in this game. The producer will then be ordered to sign it off at a price set by the caller. Those who refuse will have to go through the grill that Roshan is experiencing. He presumably said no to the offer. Police say that instead of lodging a complaint, Roshan started checking out with the cellular service for the origin of the threatening calls.
In a way, however, the plight of the film personalities is at least partly of their own making. Many of them had in the past sought favours from the underworld -- producers seeking finance and actors and actresses seeking patronage in exchange of behaving like the Gulf mafiosi's valet or moll. Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal says that the present situation has resulted from the film personalities' "special relationship" with the underworld. "They make a hue and cry about the collapsing law and order when someone gets hurt and yet fail to pay nominal service charges to protect their lives. I think some serious introspection is required," he adds.
He was alluding to the fact that since the Gulshan Kumar murder, some 35 film personalities have requested and been provided security by the protection unit of Mumbai Police's crime branch (see box). The general sentiment in the industry is that the onus of protecting them is on the Government, which in turn expects them to share part of the financial burden. According to the police, Bollywood bigwigs are unwilling to pay even the nominal Rs 555 for 24 hours per policeman. While stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Lata Mangeshkar are provided free security, most others have to pay. Of course, it's not quite to their liking and 18 of them including, Shah Rukh Khan and Yash Chopra, have not paid their dues.
In fact, Roshan, when provided sten-gun wielding constables by the protection unit following a threat perception, asked for their withdrawal because he had to pay. The police say he didn't inform them either when he received another threat from the Salem gang two months ago. Says D. Shivanandhan, joint police commissioner, crime: "Either individually or collectively they should take the decision to approach the police whenever they get threatening calls to avert future disasters."
A recent report prepared by the state's Home Department says it was Bollywood insiders who kept the underworld informed about the industry's wealth. Says Vilas Dongra, an assistant commissioner of police in Mumbai: "In many cases, the man who helped the underworld in plotting extortions yesterday has become its victim today." Gang leader Chhota Rajan too claims that several top film personalities have close links with Salem.
While film personalities in the past had hobnobbed with the underworld -- and paid a hefty price -- their real problem now lies in the secretive manner in which they handle their accounts. The declarations of income for tax purposes often have little to do with real earnings. It makes the showbiz bigwigs easy prey to extortion. Which is the reason why they often cop it sweet when the telephone rings. The filmdom, whose claim to fame is often built on rubbishing the police on the celluloid, are now clamouring for police protection. A tragic farce!