Mumbai and Its Complicated Relationship With the Underworld

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Mumbai and Its Complicated Relationship With the Underworld

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Twenty-seven years ago in September 1992, Shashilal K Nair’s Angaar, a mafia drama speculated to be based on the life of Karim Lala, the leader of the “Pathan gang” that operated from the crime-infested Muslim ghettos of Dongri and Nagpada, released in the theatres. By the advent of the ’90s, filmmakers being fascinated by the cult of real-life ganglords and modelling the characters in their films on them, was routine affair. But Angaar, starring Jackie Shroff, Nana Patekar, and Dimple Kapadia was followed by an unfortunate coincidence. 

There’s a sequence in Angaar where gangsters plant bombs in the city. Six months later, a similar situation unfolded across Mumbai when a series of 12 bomb explosions took place in the course of a single day on March 1993. It was a day that not only altered the course of Mumbai. For instance, until the blasts, the Mumbai underworld was said to have been secular, a status that changed after the blasts. Soon, gangs became communalised, and so did pockets in the city.   

If in the ’90s, the Mumbai underworld came above ground and fostered a complicated, yet codependent, relationship with the city, then in the late ’70s, it was just beginning to take shape. According to Julio Ribeiro, the retired Police Commissioner, this was the time when ganglords “used to be afraid of the police” and would never come in front of the inspector. In a conversation with Mumbai Mirror, Ribeiro takes a pragmatic walk down memory lane, describing the situation as a “three-legged stool,” which involved the criminal, the politician, and the police. 

In this episode of the #MumbaiMirrored video series, retired police commissioner and civil servant Julio Ribeiro discusses the evolution of the relationship between the police, the notorious mafia, and the city’s journey from Bombay to Mumbai.

Video courtesy Mumbai Mirror

This fascinating period of Mumbai’s history has been well-documented – in books and movies. A gang warfare that began with Haji Mastan’s rivalry with Yusuf Patel is now part of the city’s lore. Films of this period replicated the angst on the small screen by taking inspiration from the lives of real-life gangsters. In Deewar (1975), Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay was borrowed from Haji Mastan and Pran’s Sher Khan in Zanjeer (1973) had traces of Karim Lala. And the world these gangsters occupied – marked by dance bars, jetties, and smuggled gold biscuits – provided a backdrop to our films. At that point, the underworld felt as if it was a part of the very fabric of Mumbai. In his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, author Suketu Mehta succinctly echoes this thought, “In Bombay, the underworld is an overworld; it is somehow suspended above this world and can come down and strike any time it chooses.”

Yet it was in the ’80s, that both Mumbai and the underworld became impossibly intertwined. Gangsters diversified from gold smuggling to include land grab rackets. This was the decade that saw the rise of Dawood Ibrahim and gave birth to a more flamboyant Mumbai. Ibrahim ushered in a period in Bollywood where gangsters, taken in by the glamour that the industry promised, started becoming directly involved with films. 

Either they married starlets or kept them as mistresses, and financed films. Rumours of Mandakini’s alleged affair with Dawood were rife back in the day. A report from the time suggests as much, “When Dawood Ibrahim entered the scene in the mid-1980s… financing films became less romance, more serious business.” It was in this backdrop that Ardha Satya (1983), a gangster film that “epitomised a cop’s frustration with the growing nexus with politicians and criminals” released. More importantly, this film painted a different shade of Mumbai’s underworld, one that featured gang bosses who were engrossed in the city at a fundamental level. 

When my uncle, a mild-mannered man, came to Bombay from Kolkata for his first job as an accountant back in 1985, he put himself up in a rundown hostel bang opposite the Nagpada police station. In his five months in the city, he lived in close quarters with people who belonged to different gangs and blended in as if it was no big deal. During his meals at Sarvi, a restaurant frequented by the underworld, he claims to have shared a table and conversation with gang members of the Company on a daily basis. His assessment of them was surprising to me: jovial men who could surprise you with their humour and humility when you least expected it. 

One particular conversation that he keeps going back to, involves a heated discussion with one of Ibrahim’s right hand-men who insisted that the ganglords, despite their criminal records, were not terrorists. It’s fascinating that even Ribeiro, responsible for leading many criminal encounters, subscribes to this thought, “You see the underworld, they bribe you. They don’t kill you. They will respect you; they will get you with money,” he admits to Mumbai Mirror

Today, Mumbai has evolved. Gang wars are no longer part of the city’s lexicon. Yet, every few years there comes a film that offers a throwback to the days of guns and goondas. The influence of the underworld on the city we know today is best summed up by Manjula Ramakrishnan, a historian and journalist, who suggests looking at the intricate maze of mafia gangs as the subtext to the ethos of the city: malfunctioning but rebellious.

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