Back in 2016 popular actor of Bollywood, Sanjay Dutt was released from prison after serving five-year jail sentence for possessing illegal weapons supplied to him by the architects of the deadly 1993 Mumbai terror attacks. This had proved how a nexus between Indian film industry and the mafias have been established. Mafias have been investing millions of dollars in Indian film industry, starting from Bollywood to Tamil, Telegu, Bhojpuri, Punjabi and even Kolkata movies.
According to an article in the Forbes magazine, the link between Bollywood and Indian organized crime is as old as India itself: Mumbai’s original mafia don, Haji Mastan, produced films starring his mistress to promote her fledgling cinematic career. The film industry’s intimate relationship with the Indian underworld is considered one of the country’s worst kept secrets whose origins can be traced to a government regulation that rendered the cinema industry ineligible for legitimate forms of financing. Film producers, directors and actors were forced to find alternate revenue streams to make their movies, often from suspicious sources with strong links to criminal organizations.
While the law was amended in 2000 to allow the film industry to qualify for bank credit, the underworld’s influence within Indian cinema had already become deeply entrenched and pervasive. In many instances, filmmakers and celebrities were forced to accept underworld financing whether they wanted to or not. Eminent Indian film director Mahesh Bhatt once observed that “there’s hardly anybody in the film industry who has…not been contacted by the mafia”.
In 2011, a WikiLeaks cable issued by the State Department further underscored the close ties between India’s multibillion film industry and the underworld.
“The industry also welcomed funds from gangsters and politicians, looking for ways to launder their ill-gotten gains, known in India as ’black money,’ the cable noted. “After the government added the film industry to the list of legitimate industries, the corporatization of Bollywood – and the wider entertainment industry – began”.
In addition to film financing and money laundering, film piracy, counterfeiting and distribution have also become lucrative activities for the Indian underworld.
The cozy relationship between the Indian mafia and the film industry appears to be symbiotic on the surface. Indian film stars openly flaunt their organized crime connections, and Bollywood’s A-list celebrities routinely attend lavish, well-publicized mafia parties around the world. At the same time, however, these links have proven deadly for the industry’s most notable members. While India’s most powerful underworld bosses like Dawood Ibrahim and Abu Salem will celebrate with Bollywood’s most distinguished members one day, they will extort them the next.
In January 2001, popular Indian film director Rakesh Roshan narrowly escaped an assassination attempt outside his Mumbai office after he refused to sell the overseas distribution rights of one of his blockbuster movies to notorious mafia Dawood Ibrahim.
With certain minor exceptions, Indian authorities have mostly been reluctant in either investigating or taking action against those members of the film industry having connection with the mafias.
According to industry insiders, underworld and other funds can flow in films and web series either through hawala route or through legitimate formal means like Soros investing in Reliance Entertainment. It is impossible to plug this route because slush money can flow through legitimized corporate structures set up as production houses or venture capital funds. Steps can be taken to force transparency about sources funding various films and web series. The most crucial link in the chain is the control over distribution and exhibition. In 2010, India had around 10,000 single-screen cinema halls and about 800 multiplex screens. Approximately 60 percent of the total single screens were in four South Indian states and around 10 percent in Uttar Pradesh. In 2019, India has about 9,600 screens with nearly 3,000 multiplex screens. This shows that in the last decade more than 3,600 single-screen cinema halls have either shut down or got converted into multiplexes. According to global consulting firm E&Y, multiplexes now account for 50 percent of the box office collections in the country. This shows a slow and steady transition from unorganized widely dispersed single screen industry to organized cartelized multiplex industry.
Bollywood Mafia controls the same with extreme impunity. Can any pro-India movie get released and get adequate number of screens across the country? The answer is a big NO. Between three large production houses, they control a significant majority of screens across the country. Multiplexes are a natural choice of producers, due to transparency in reporting box office collections. Dwindling single screens and the rise of multiplex chains have increased the stranglehold of Bollywood Mafia and ensures that outsiders’ films are not released, or they don’t get adequate screens. Maharashtra and Bengal Governments have ensured that Marathi and Bengali films get screen space in multiplexes. Similar modus operandi is required to promote films made by new and small filmmakers.