When it comes to organised crime, the line between underground and overground is thin. Between power politics and box office cinema, and audience consensus, this is the sleazy synthesis
Karen Gabriel Delhi
Where there is money there is crime, and where there is big money, there are big crimes. This has become an unfortunate truism in today's India, which is witnessing a criminal plunder of public money and common resources in the name of national interest.
Today, it is possible for a central minister to laugh away, in Parliament and with impunity, the disappearance of thousands of crores of public money earmarked for the Commonwealth Games. This fiasco was preceded by the expose on the IPL scam and has been accompanied by continuous reports of massive and massively lucrative illegal mining and land grab by private corporations and individuals.
The public, quite rightly, apprehends that money will change hands and all of this will simply get hushed up.
Think about it. Barely a year ago, this same public was informed that India had the dubious distinction of holding the largest amount of unaccounted money in Swiss banks - a whopping $1,456 billion. This was almost four times more than the holdings of the next country, Russia, which had notched up the relatively meagre sum of $470 billion. After some bluster from the BJP and its allies in the NDA who 'demanded' that that money be 'returned' to India, the story died.
Just weeks back we learnt of the criminal complicity of the Congress high command in Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson's flight and its appalling consequences for the victims and survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy who were left to die slowly for 26 long years. We read reports of Cobalt 6 radiation courtesy Delhi University and the vice chancellor's shameful cover-up manoeuvres. Ramalinga Raju, disgraced ex-chairman of Satyam Computer Services Ltd, with able assistance from the CBI, looks all set to walk away from a Rs 14,000 crore financial fraud case.
Today, we, in the nation of the white-collar crime, await the passage of the Nuclear Liability Bill for which BJP's approval has no doubt been bought. Every time we stop at a traffic signal, we witness what the beggar mafia - made up of elements of the underworld, police, politicians and drug lords - has done to large sections of the urban poor. Little more has been done in all these instances besides publicly first stealing and then passing the buck.
To what do we owe this silence? How do we explain the inaction?
One clear explanation is that the ruling elite, which now includes the mainstream media, has arrived at a beneficial and self-protective consensus. It has become increasingly clear that the same politics and policies will persist irrespective of the colour of the party or alliance at the helm of affairs. It appears that we live in times in which the moral fault line is marked enough to become the hamartia of the global elite. It is indeed possible that we have made our peace with certain types of criminality which are now seen as an integral and inevitable part of the routine, natural phenomena of our everyday lives.
Madhur Bhansarkar's 2007 film , Traffic Signal, its serious limitations notwithstanding, at least 'visibilised' the ubiquitous beggar, and everyone suddenly stared through their tinted glasses. Just for a moment.
But why does the gaze falter? Why does it slide away? What has happened to our collective public memory?
Have the features of the corporatised mainstream electronic news media - fragments of 24/7 'reality' (10-second bytes), bits of viewers ('eyeballs'), and prejudiced opinions that pass for analyses - become the condition of our memories?
It is possible that now, most of us who once looked to the news media to provide us with full information and thought-provoking analyses, lack the time to first garner and then analyse information. It appears sometimes that we are in danger of losing the ability to transform bytes into thought. It appears that our collective imagination is being short-circuited by the blinding barrage of images, and we can no longer see the connections between these stories. Disconnected and, therefore, eminently forgettable fragments are all we are left with. Is this fragmented amnesiac existence the condition of our modernity?
Societies have always turned to art to remind them of what is true and beautiful, to break the mould, to provoke change or at least refuse the comfort zone. Art is the interpretive repository of all that has been and can be. It is a testimony to human vision and memory. It has been the great bastion of anti-establishmentarianism. But can we expect this of art that is driven by commercial imperatives and the logic of the market? Can we, in other words, expect the same of cinema, the most significant art form of the 20th century?
Especially since it is a very high-budget, high-risk affair with few fixed and legitimate sources of finance.
If we can, it is because even though cinema, like television, is an audio-visual mass medium and purveyor of the fast-moving, flickering image and the visual fragment, it still retains narrative at its heart. And narrative is driven by causality and not the 24/7 diktat; it is preoccupied with the 'how' and 'why' of things, and is not satisfied with just the 'what'.
However, apart from this commitment to elaboration, cinema has had much to say on issues of public morality and criminality. After all, it has dealt with the criminal nexus up close and personal for many decades now.
Two months down the line, as soon as he wraps Part 2 of Sarkar, Ram Gopal Varma (RGV), god of the 'Factory' of underworld film and architect of torments like Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag and Darling, will begin shooting yet another big-budget gangland film. This trilingual film (Hindi, Tamil and Telugu) is titled The Business Man and is projected to hit the cinemas by April 2011.
The gangland film, one RGV hobby horse, both reveals and explores cinema's established, troubled and intimate relation with Mumbai's mafia. Sanjay Dutt's arrest under TADA in 1993 publicly established the much-denied but well-known connection between the film world and the underworld. Even though the cinema industry's uneasy alliance with the underworld was weakened by the State after the 1993 blasts, it remained and gradually became increasingly exposed and visible.
In March and August of 1997, director Mukesh Duggal and T-series music mogul Gulshan Kumar were murdered. An attempt was made to kill producer-director Rajiv Rai in July 1997, and producer Manmohan Shetty in December 1997. In 2000, filmmaker Rakesh Roshan was shot at for refusing overseas distribution rights for Hrithik Roshan's first film, Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai.
According to Mumbai Police's Crime Branch files, Roshan admitted that after the attack on him, he paid Rs 10 crore to Abu Salem in lieu of the overseas distribution rights and to ensure that the film would be allowed a clean run in the US. Further disclosures of extortion and pressure by stars, and the tap on Karachi-based underworld don Chhota Shakeel's mobile phone in 2000 to confirm these allegations, led to the Mumbai police offering protection to about 35 film personalities and some uncanny arrests - famously, those of producer Nasim Rizvi and key financier Bharat Shah in December 2000.
The arrest of Bharat Shah - multi-millionaire, diamond merchant and producer-financier of Hindi cinema - for his connections with the underworld, revealed that it was not just underworld black money, but large-scale black money from respectable businesses that was being pumped into the industry. It shook the imagination of the underworld. Shah, a respectable Jain businessman, known for his massive diamond trade, saatvik vegetarianism and charitable donations, turned out to be a conduit between the two apparently disconnected worlds.
Soon enough, it became clear that cinematic representations in the vigilante film and the gangland film were spot on: all worlds intersect when it comes to crime.
Quite naturally, then, Subhash Ghai, exasperated by the abiding naivety on this matter, advised the Hindu reporter who was interviewing him, to investigate the nexus between the police and the underworld, politicians and the underworld, and the police and the politicians. Producer Nitin Keni was similarly exasperated in a 2002 interview.
Neither Ghai nor Keni was posturing. There is little confusion in their mind; Bombay cinema has been negotiating the off-screen presence of the underworld off and on screen for decades now. From the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, as the cosmology of Nehruvian socialism crumbled, the underworld expanded its operations, within and outside the world of film production.
Deewar was followed by a host of Bachchan-dominated, multi-generic gangland-ish films: Mr Natwarlal, Don, Hum and, still later, Sarkar (with others in between). Along with many others, like Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Dayavan, Parinda, Khalnayak, Satya, Company, Maqbool, these films together came to fictionalise and define the nature of criminality, systemic injustice and the world of crime, for the public imagination.
They focused on the violence of this criminal world, its links with politics and politicians, the personal and psychological lives of its protagonists, and on the romanticised codes of (masculine) honour that under-grid even this sleazy world. The explicit portrayal of links between the underworld and the world of politics and politicians instituted the corrupt politician, bureaucrat and police official in the public imagination.
The audience, however, interestingly enough, despite its own routine experience of this criminal nexus, appeared to view this as 'fiction', as far removed from the truth as from their own worlds. The spectacularisation of violence and incidents central to such films gets boosted by the spectacularisation inherent in a giant 70mm screen, enthralling filter technicolor and Dolby surround sound. So even while the medium with the greatest claim to verisimilitude, narrativised its very own experience of the criminal nexus between 'black' and 'white' worlds, and that too in 70mm, we did not really see. Or, more accurately, we missed the logic, and so, we failed to connect the dots.
Perhaps that is the risk all fictional and cinematic narratives run. After all, apart from causality, they also provide characters, plot, action, which imbue narratives with an aura both of fictionality and of the real at the same time. So there is always room to shelter the escapist in us all.
This is why the news media must refuse the nexus and do its job, and this is why RGV said that The Business Man will not be a flamboyant spectacle but a "realistic gritty dark film". As a film that aims to reveal the links between the underworld, entrepreneurship, politics and international organisations like CIA, it promises to change the imagination of the underworld and, consequently, of criminality itself, in very important ways.
Whether it will or not remains to be seen. But if it does, it may be a film that will deconstruct the crafty and false spatialisation of the worlds into the dirty 'under-' and clean 'over-' ground ones, when they have been and are, in fact, continuous. White-collar crime has always needed the black market, the babu has always needed the bhai. In view of the corporate loot that is underway, RGV's film is aptly titled The Business Man. Ten years back, the Bharat Shah case threw this intimate link between the underworld, the world of business and the State machinery in our face.
Recently, economist Arun Kumar of JNU, author of The Black Economy in India, drew our attention to the links between black money and legitimate businesses. He said that the black economy in India could be worth as much as $500 billion (which is about 50 per cent of the GDP), and that 80 per cent of this is generated by legal businesses. More than 10 years ago, Pavan Verma, in The Great Indian Middle Class, also put the size of the black economy at 50 per cent of the GDP.
The size of the black economy is an index of the extent of white-collar crime in the country.Let's not be blind to the movement of money from Parliament, the gigantic treasure troves of our millionaire politicians, MPs and their super-rich dynasties, and the corporate houses to Swiss banks via the underworld. Let us open our eyes and connect the dots. Then, perhaps, this cinema will become both real and a revelation.
The writer is Associate Professor of English at St Stephen's College, University of Delhi, and author of 'Melodrama And The Nation: Sexual Economies Of Bombay Cinema 1970-2000' (Women Unlimited)