Mamata Kulkarni: A Siren in a Scandal

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Mamata Kulkarni returns to make a cameo appearance in the real-life saga of a druglord

A FEW YEARS AGO, a film journalist at a popular Mumbai tabloid was asked to look up the former Bollywood star Mamta Kulkarni. A popular actress of the early and mid-1990s, Kulkarni’s career had petered out as the decade progressed, until she vanished without a trace. Within film circles, as the journalist Soumyadipta Banerjee discovered, there were several rumours. According to some she had turned ascetic. Another set claimed she had married a druglord. Some said she was living in the US. According to another group, she was holed up in Dubai and running an event management firm. “She was somewhere on the planet,” he says. “That was for sure.”

Banerjee pursued the assignment, even after he quit the profession and set up a film blog, Bollywood Journalist. He asked other journalists, looked up old industry acquaintances, until one day he found her. Mamta Kulkarni had written what appeared to be an online book about a guru she revered, Gagangiri Maharaj. Titled Autobiography of a Yogini, the book had recent pictures of her, slightly older and sans make-up. It also had links to her Twitter and Facebook profiles, both of which upon checking revealed that she lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Banerjee managed to contact her, and after some persuasion, he says, she granted him an interview. Here, she revealed that after quitting the film industry, she had first moved to Dubai to be closer to her then partner Vijaygiri Goswami, better known as Vicky Goswami, who was imprisoned for dealing in drugs, and later, upon his release, to Kenya.

The interview, published in 2013, created a bit of a stir. It was picked up by some newspapers and websites. But then something strange happened. According to Banerjee, he began to receive several emails and phone calls asking him to help them contact Kulkarni and Goswami. One of them was from a South African journalist, and several others, he suspects, were from the South African police.

“Vicky Goswami, I realised, was still being pursued,” Banerjee says. “The South African journalist (a Sunday Times scribe named Mzilikazi Wa Afrika) told me Vicky was wanted by the South African authorities for the disappearance of a businessman.” They sought Goswami for the yet unexplained disappearance and death of the businessman and alleged drug dealer, Roberto ‘Rocks’ Dlamini, in South Africa.

Within a few months, Kulkarni vanished again. She removed links to her e-book and deleted her blog and social media profiles. All you get now, on looking her up online, are a few small portions of her e-book. “I suppose Mamta realised that Goswami was being tracked through her online activity,” Banerjee says.

By the following year, they had caught him thanks to an elaborate sting operation. In November 2014, anti-narcotics agents from the US, posing as Columbian drug dealers and aided by Kenyan authorities, arrested Goswami and three accomplices. Kulkarni was held on charges of gun possession, although she was released later.

Earlier this year, the anti-narcotics cell of Thane began to investigate the appearance of large amounts of ephedrine within the city. While the formulation is used abroad to treat asthma and bronchitis, it can also be abused as a recreational drug. It is also the key ingredient of methamphetamine, or, as its popular name goes, meth. In India, its production is strictly monitored.

“Before it was not uncommon to catch a few grams here and there,” says Bharat Shelke, assistant commissioner of police at Thane’s anti narcotics cell. Behind this burly police officer with a thin moustache is a wall with the giant painting of a large handcuffed cannabis plant. “But we were now finding kilos and kilos of it.”

Last month, a series of busts took place. On 10 April, a Nigerian national, Sipren Chinassa, was arrested with around 500 gm of ephedrine. He tipped them off about two cars that were to reach Thane with 2 kg of the substance. The ensuing arrests led them to a drug dealer in Solapur. One bust followed another, one tip- off led to another, until the anti-narcotics cell found itself a few days later at the Solapur factory of Avon Lifesciences, a pharmaceutical company listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange. Within it were some 18.5 tonnes of what the police call ‘unaccounted ephedrine’. All these recoveries taken together, around 23 tonnes of it had been found, valued by the police at around Rs 2,000 crore. According to Shelke, upon interrogation the director of the company, Manoj Jain, admitted that most of the consignment was to be shipped to Kenya, where it would be processed into meth and then shipped to the US and Europe. The man he had met in Kenya earlier in January and struck a deal with, according to Shelke, was Goswami (out on bail). “When we first started, we had no idea that we were eventually going to reach Vicky Goswami,” Shelke says.

Bharat Shelke, investigating officer of the case, says they haven’t found anything to pin Kulkarni, but she is not in the clear either

Since those events, there have been several rumours around Kulkarni’s role— if any—in the drug ring. Some unnamed police sources have been reported as saying that Kulkarni is the face of the operation. Since Goswami cannot leave Kenya because of the ongoing case against him there, she, by these allegations, travels and meets clients in Dubai, Singapore, South Africa and the US.

When asked, Shelke, the investigating officer of this case, says the police have not yet found anything to pin her in this case. “But she is not in the clear either. She is Vicky’s wife. She has been with him in Dubai, in Kenya, while he has been running this drug ring,” Shelke says. “You cannot not suspect her either.”

MAMTA MUKUND Kulkarni emerged in the swirl of 1990s Bollywood. “It was a time of really poor quality films,” says the senior film journalist and author Rauf Ahmed. “And it was particularly tough for actresses... for them to get noticed and to get good work.” Kulkarni realised very early on that she needed a niche for herself. She invented herself, as the euphemism of that era goes, as ‘the bold actress’.

In her few TV interviews, Kulkarni claimed that her mother pushed her into modelling and then films. According to the photographer Jayesh Sheth, who knew Kulkarni during the period she wanted to get into movies, the actress hailed from a middle-class conservative Maharashtrian family in Mumbai, and was desperate for a break. She did a Tamil film in 1991, Nanbargal, and was one of several actors in the 1993-released film Tirangaa. “She was working really hard then. But she wasn’t getting the break she wanted,” he says.

She finally got one in 1993. She was chosen to appear in Aashiq Awara, the launch pad of actress Sharmila Tagore and cricket legend Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi’s son Saif Ali Khan. The young Khan won Filmfare’s Best Male Debut Award that year. And Kulkarni was awarded New Face of the Year. “I was really impressed with her,” the film’s director Umesh Mehra recalls. “She was diligent and hardworking. And even later when she became big, she never had any airs. She was always professional and punctual.” Mehra went on to make two more films with her, Sabse Bada Khiladi and Qila. But Aashiq Awara didn’t really propel Kulkarni to stardom.

In 1993, when the film magazine Stardust decided to run an issue with a star in the nude on its cover, it gave Sheth this assignment. He approached several stars, including Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla, but they all declined. “The actresses already had an image. Such a bold photo shoot would go contrary to that image. And they were anyway all too fairly well-established to agree to it,” he says. “That’s when I thought. ‘Why not try it with someone younger, someone bolder and unconventional?’” Sheth’s thoughts turned to the young actress who he knew really wanted to get into the big league.

The picture of her topless, cupping her breasts to hide them, wearing half-open denim trousers, was a sensation on the stands

Kulkarni agreed to the shoot. But she made sure that only two or three pictures would be chosen, one of which was to appear on the cover, and that she would be allowed to have a say in picking which. The picture of her topless, cupping her breasts to hide them, wearing half-open denim trousers and with her hair flying over the magazine’s masthead, was a sensation on the stands. ‘Hot!’ said the headline. Copies were sold out within hours, Sheth remembers. And even a month later, he found the magazine priced at Rs 20 in those days being sold in black for Rs 100. As expected, a case of obscenity was also filed, and the actress was made to pay a fine of Rs 15,000 some years later. But what this shoot did achieve was to position Kulkarni as Hindi cinema’s top sex siren.

Within a matter of years, she was working on big productions with the biggest of superstars. She appeared, with a heaving bosom and suggestive winks, in chart- topping song-and-dance sequences that served as predecessors of the next decade’s ‘item numbers’.

Kulkarni was often outspoken, lashing out at the likes of Manisha Koirala. She once called the actress Rekha a cosmetic beauty with someone influential backing her. Kulkarni’s alleged relationship with the action and stunt director Tinu Verma also played out bitterly in the press. Kulkarni, says a source, was looked upon with disdain by many. “They would make fun of the way she spoke English,” he says.

Ahmed, whose recommendations Hindustan Lever would seek while picking actresses for its brand Lux, was once on a visit to a film set when he was approached by Kulkarni, he recalls. Without much of an introduction, she asked him, “Do you want to know my budget?” This, Ahmed later realised, was her way of asking if he’d like to know her endorsement fee to recommend her name for Lux’s advertising campaign.

She was at a high point in her career. And then, just as quickly, her dream began to unravel. By the Bollywood grapevine, she’d had a tiff with the director Rajkumar Santoshi during the filming of the 1998-released China Gate, a Bollywood remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Their relationship soured so badly that he wanted her replaced in the film, but, as the tale goes, her then beau Goswami had the gangster Chhota Rajan intervene.

Although she was reinstated, her role had been chopped. The only song in the film, Chamma Chamma, a big hit of those times, was offered to another actress, Urmila Matondkar. The film tanked.

Meanwhile, word of the gangster’s call to the director spread throughout the industry. Gangland threats to Bollywood personalities and even the odd shooting were not uncommon at the time, and people turned wary of her. “Industry professionals were known to flaunt and bluff about their gangster connections,” Ahmed says. “But this call, as it came to be said, was very real. Everyone was now afraid to work with her.” Like many other actresses of this period, Kulkarni’s career did not survive past the turn of the decade.

BY THE MID 1990s, the influence of Vicky Goswami—the son of a former deputy superintendent of Gujarat Police who had made his way up bootlegging alcohol in the state to selling mandrax in Mumbai’s party circuits—had reached Mumbai. According to Kulkarni’s interview to Banerjee, Goswami began to pursue her sometime in 1996 or 1997. “It was a different time in Bollywood,” a journalist recalls. “Everyone knew someone in the underworld. Their connections, the money floating around was quite open.” Goswami was so well connected, according to this journalist, that almost every big name in the industry attended the 1997 launch of a hotel he opened in Dubai.

According to ACP Shelke, Goswami then moved from Mumbai to Zambia, and later to South Africa, pinning new destinations on the world map for mandrax, his wealth and drug empire rapidly expanding. In 1997, he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in Dubai. While in prison, he converted to Islam, by one rumour, and was released for ‘good conduct’ in 2012. Kulkarni moved to Dubai while he was in prison to be ‘closer to him’, as she told Banerjee in her interview. Some claim Kulkarni married Goswami while he was in prison, while others say that they married shortly after his release, although both have denied their marriage in recent interviews from abroad. After his release, the couple moved to India briefly, before relocating themselves to Kenya, where Goswami allegedly re-activated his drug operations.

In 2014, an eight-month long sting operation mentioned earlier led to his arrest again. He is reportedly a key member of a drug ring called Akasha Organisation, and his role includes producing and distributing methamphetamine and heroin. Along with him, the alleged kingpin Baktash Abdalla, his brother Ibrahim, and a Pakistani national, Gulam Hussein, who specialises in transporting heroin internationally, were nabbed. US officials claim that Akasha’s narcotics are sold in Africa, Europe and the US. Officers of the Thane Police’s anti-narcotics cell believe they have uncovered a part of supply chain in India.

Since the 2014 arrests, the case in Kenya for their extradition to the US has been delayed as a result, in part, of numerous applications by the defence—including one for an English translator for one of the accused—and several adjournments. All the accused are currently out on bail. Despite repeated requests by Open, the defence representing the Akasha brothers and Goswami, refuse to comment on the case. The Thane police and the US DEA are working together to unravel the extent of Goswami’s involvement. And if at all Kulkarni is also involved. “We’d like nothing more than getting [Goswami] back to India,” Shelke says.

To Sheth, all these rumours about Kulkarni and the news of her alleged husband turning out to be an international druglord have come as a shock. All he remembers of her, he says, is their last meeting towards the late 1990s. Kulkarni was already on her way out then. Most of her movies had begun to flop and work was hard to come by. The actress wanted to do a magazine shoot like she had done with Sheth many years ago. “But she had become heavier by then,” he says. “It wouldn’t have worked.” As they got talking, she told him she might move to Dubai. “I didn’t think of it much then. Stars used to perform in Dubai,” he says. “I thought it was just that.”