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Asia Monday, 7 January, 2002, 15:09 GMT
Cleaning up Bollywood
Ten million people in India go to the cinema each day

By Meriel Beattie

Even as a man who lives off high-speed action and relentless happy endings, Rakesh Roshan knows he's lucky to be alive. One afternoon last January, Roshan left the office of his film production company in a Bombay suburb and got into his car. What happened next could have been a take from one of his films.

"Two people came in front of me with revolvers in their hands and they started shooting", he says. "In those few seconds, I ducked four or five times and missed five bullets, but one bullet got me". It was only when Roshan staggered into a nearby police station to report the shooting that he noticed the blood oozing from his chest.

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If Roshan knows or suspects who the gunmen were, he's certainly not telling ."Well, I did get a call from somebody in the month of September. He called four or five times, but I avoided them", he says cautiously.

In any case, there's no need to say more. In the big glamour, big gossip film world of Bombay known as "Bollywood", everyone knows the score. Bombay's powerful underworld - which has long played sugar daddy to Bollywood's Big Names - has lately been turning very, very nasty. Stars, directors and producers live with the constant fear of threats, extortion and even murder.

It's a murky side to a glitzy business. Every day ten million people across India go to the cinema. What the fans want, and what they get in a staggering 900 productions a year, are gorgeous stars, spectacular song and dance routines, risqué costumes, and a few family values thrown in for good measure.

Bollywood heart-throb Hrithik Roshan (on left) was shocked to hear his film director father, Rakesh Roshan, had been shot
Annual turnover is around £500 million. But even so, Bollywood has always had cash-flow problems. Until very recently, the Indian government refused to give the film world the status of a proper "industry", making it impossible for producers to get bank loans. Instead, they had to turn elsewhere for finance and inevitably, as in the early days of Hollywood, some parts of the movie business attracted the investment of the city's burgeoning underworld. Now it seems to be payback time, with the mafia eager to control lucrative overseas distribution rights and to bully the top stars into acting in the productions they're backing.

Crackdown on sleaze

Their control is all pervasive and they have frightened everybody

Joint Commissioner of Police, D. Sivanandan
For many years, the Indian authorities left the film world and its mafia partners pretty well alone. But not any more. The Bombay police are engaged in a new crackdown on Bollywood sleaze, instigated by Joint Commissioner of Police, D. Sivanandan. As Chicago in the 1930s, India today has its household-name mafia dons including Chotta Shakeel and Dawood Ibrahim, both of whom operate from neighbouring rival Pakistan.

"Their control is all pervasive and they have frightened everybody," Sivanandan says. "From the drivers to the film boys, to the directors, the financiers, and the distributors, everything has been controlled by them to a greater extent. There was a need to crack it, open it, and show to everyone that Bollywood and the mafia are absolutely mixed up together."

Art mirroring life: the gun battles so common in Indian films have spilled over into real life
Sivanandan's biggest catch to date has been Bharat Shah, a fabulously wealthy diamond dealer who has financed numerous Bollywood films. The police say that they have evidence that Shah was involved with Chotta Shakeel. Shah denies the charges but has been in prison since January, awaiting trial.

The Shah case is being handled by chief prosecutor Rohini Saliann, who is about as far away from Bollywood's glitz as it's possible to go. Crop-haired and make-up free, she operates from a top security courtroom with metal grills on the windows. One of the main problems in dealing with organised crime, she explains, is winning the trust of potential witnesses. "It is very difficult to get evidence," she says. "If Bharat Shah is convicted, it will set an example which will be good."

Film stars fear witch hunt

Salman Khan was questioned by police but released with no charges
Even by Bollywood's scandal-hungry standards, the Shah case has caused an absolute sensation. Salman Khan and Preity Zinta, the stars of the latest film financed by Shah, Chori, Chori, Chupke Chupke, were also called in for questioning.

However, many Bollywood players protest that in a country where corruption is endemic, the film world is being singled out unfairly. "Everyone wants to pick on film stars," complains actress Raveena Tandon. "Maybe they think that just because we look beautiful, we don't work hard for our money. But that's not really true. I agree that okay, a clean-up should be done, but unnecessary harassment of stars is not called for."

Not surprisingly, there was considerable satisfaction in Bollywood in March, when the New Dehli government found itself embroiled in a major corruption scandal - and footage of a senior official receiving a thick wad of banknotes was shown on national television.

Bollywood film director, Mahesh Bhatt
One of those relishing the irony is filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. "I would say that unless the government has the sincerity to begin to demonstrate to the people that they are not going to turn the tide, everything is meaningless. They are just going to use the entertainment industry for a PR job, where they put rouge on their ugly face," he said.

"They get one guy and they crack him, and it's a fade out and the music soars. But that's the kind of lies we tell in the movies."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: the old mansions of Bombay that are falling into ruin, and re-inventing Asia's oldest stock market.

Aditya Shastri
on how big Bollywood is for India
Raveena Tandon
talks about what it's really like to work in the film business
to the film "Chori Chori Chupke Chupke"
See also:

28 Mar 01 | South Asia
09 Mar 01 | South Asia
22 Feb 01 | Entertainment
12 Feb 01 | South Asia
06 Feb 01 | Entertainment
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