Back in the 1990s, Bollywood was nothing like the sanitized, studio-controlled, corporate-financed industry it is today. Tinsel town had its moguls and its mandarins who, along with Mumbai’s realty players, controlled incredible sums of black money. So it was only natural that when Salem decided to go beyond the construction business, it would be to the veritable gold mine of Bollywood.
The first target would be Subhash Ghai, one of the reigning maharajas of superstardom. Ghai’s cash registers had been ringing and coffers overflowing ever since his 1993 box office superhit Khalnayak, starring Salem’s now-on, now-off friend Sanjay Dutt. The director’s stocks had soared so much that he could even sign Shah Rukh Khan for a film.
This, Salem believed, was the perfect time to send Bollywood a message. And the target would be Ghai. Salem deputed five youths from Azamgarh to deliver this ‘hit’. But the deputy commissioner of police, Zone VII, Satyapal Singh, received intelligence about the hit squad. He immediately assigned the task of foiling the attack to his special squad, led by Assistant Inspector Pradeep Sharma. The police team laid a trap and arrested the quintet of would-be killers.
Salem, on his part, continues to maintain that he had never intended to kill the director. All he wanted was to send out a message to him. And that missive was: ‘Pay up now or be prepared to face dire consequences.’ Later, Ghai said in an interview that Salem had called him and spoken to him quite politely. Salem wanted the foreign rights for his movie Pardes and when Ghai told him that it had already been signed away, Salem asked for a print of the movie so that he could make pirated copies and sell them. Salem also reportedly told Ghai that he was a big fan of his work.
Salem’s other target in Bollywood was director Rajiv Rai, who had seen major commercial success with Tridev (starring Naseeruddin Shah and Sunny Deol), Mohra (starring Akshay Kumar and Raveena Tandon) and Gupt (starring Bobby Deol and Kajol). As it turned out, Rai was a far easier man to convince than Ghai.
One day, Salem received an annoying phone call from a news reporter who worked with the Indian Express. Audaciously, the reporter asked Salem if his men were so incompetent that they couldn’t even deliver on a single death threat. The gangster said simply that it had never really been his intention to kill either Ghai or Rai. He added that the following week would see someone killed.
The next week came along and, sure enough, the gangster delivered on his word. Gulshan Kumar was brutally killed in public. The killing would also become Salem’s big ticket into the heart of Bollywood. After the Gulshan Kumar murder, the Indian Express reporter called Salem again. ‘Was this the murder you were talking about?’
But this time, the bluster was missing on the other end of the line. The Indian government was furious about this high-profile murder and the mafiosi was getting jittery. The whole of the Dawood gang was running scared, tails between their legs.
Salem hesitated for a moment and when he did speak, it was to say, ‘Yeh murder Lal Krishna Advani ne karvaya hai, why don’t you call and ask him?’ So, Salem did not own up to the Gulshan Kumar murder; nevertheless, he had managed to generate a deep-rooted fear psychosis in the film industry. Filmwallahs had a simple logic: If this man could make someone like Ghai cower and could bump off a big fish like Gulshan Kumar, no one was safe.
Salem had begun to use a code name when he called film personalities: Captain. The Mumbai Police had begun tapping phones, and since these conversations were considered to be culpable evidence, Salem decided to use the code name. The industry was soon abuzz about calls from the Captain.
Salem also appointed a small army of spies and scouts in the industry, people who were keeping tabs on a wide range of industry insiders. The most famous among them was a producer called Bobby. This man could walk into any Bollywood office, meet any star and demand a commitment. ‘At one point of time, some thirty top film stars had signed contracts with Bobby. They had promised chunks of dates to Bobby and there was no hassle about the remuneration,’ recalls a top film director. Even some top stars who routinely played hookey after committing dates with reputed banners and haggled endlessly over their signing amount and fee would heed hastily when that one call came from the Captain, followed sometimes by a polite threat from Bobby. Suddenly, they would all be available, usually gratis.
Soon, all of Bollywood’s biggest names were inhabitants of Salem’s cell phone book. And whenever they flew to a European destination to shoot a scene or a song, they would invariably fly into Dubai to pay obeisance to him in person. Without exception. But none of them met anyone called Salem.
The mafia boss’s modus operandi was to meet Bollywood’s who’s who as Arsalan (a fictional assistant to Abu Salem). This man was a suave and elegant person with a sophisticated, polite and urbane manner, while the reputation of Abu Salem was that of a ferocious, bloodthirsty don whose language was littered with more profanity than Mumbai’s roads are filled with potholes.
For, Salem’s relationship with Bollywood was no one-way street. In addition to making his influence felt, he too was deeply influenced by Bollywood, its megalomania, its larger-than-life plots, its drama. He was fascinated by the idea of a dual identity.
He relished posing as Arsalan and would even go so far as to look at his cell phone every now and then and claim he had received a missed call from Salem bhai. He’d sometimes have imaginary conversations with this caller, even as the stars he was spending time with shuddered in fear.
Around this time, Salem had entered into a relationship with an attractive starlet who occupied the fringes of Bollywood. For a while, he used his second identity with her as well, before finally introducing himself as the dreaded Abu Salem. Taking advantage of her gullible nature, the gangster decided to put his moll to ‘better use’. Salem’s experience told him that the one common thing among producers, directors and actors was that they were all a bunch of liars. The starlet helped keep him in touch with these people’s lives, their financial condition and their upcoming projects and so on.
The dreaded call from the Captain soon came to follow a set pattern. A typical scenario would entail the producer or director getting a call from the Captain. It’s not hard to imagine the scene at the producer’s end, the fumbling over the phone, the desperate search for ideas to outwit Salem.
‘H-h-hello bhai,’ the victim would manage to mumble.
Salem would make some small talk, just to break the ice. And then would ask if everything was all right.
‘Sab aapki kripa se, bhai,’ the hapless producer or director would reply, the ultimate choice of words for a desperate sycophant. And then, his tale of woe would begin.
‘Family mein death hui thi. Toh pichhle chaar–paanch hafton se koi kaam nahin kiya. Paisa bhi kam hai.’
The call done, Salem would then ask his lady-on-the-inside to call the producer and check what was actually happening at his end. Salem’s spy and lover would often come back with a contrasting report. While the producer had grovelled in front of Salem, he was back to playing a big shot as soon as he had finished the call. After getting the inside information on many such people, Salem would then respond with more threatening phone calls, warning his victim not to take him for a ride. Inevitably, they would succumb and pay up.
Salem got his lady friend to infiltrate the Bollywood network, even gaining access to the likes of Aamir Khan, J.P. Dutta and Rakesh Roshan. Whenever Salem received word that these people were about to disobey him or were unwilling to do his bidding, he’d send a subtle message like those sent to Ghai and Rai, and they’d fall right back in line. In short, the whole of Bolly- wood was now in Salem’s back pocket. Or so Salem thought.
Conspiracy in Dubai
12 June 1997
It was pegged as the glitziest party in all of Dubai, ever. Everyone who was anyone was going to be there. The entire Bollywood industry as well as all the movers and shakers of Mumbai and Dubai. Anis Ibrahim personally issued instructions to Abu Salem to round up Bollywood’s top stars to show up at the party. After all, this was the launch of Vicky Goswami’s Empire chain of hotels. Goswami, a notorious drug lord based in South Africa, whose friends and cronies included sheikhs, industrialists and assorted moneybags, was launching a chain of hotels across the world with the apparent objective of laundering some serious money. Two of his most influential friends were Dawood and Anis Ibrahim.
When Salem first moved to Mumbai, film stars were citizens of an entirely different world from the one he inhabited. How things had changed in a matter of a few years—now this glittering galaxy of stars were constantly at his beck and call. The contrast between the way they were depicted interacting with people onscreen and the way they behaved with Salem was an unending source of amusement for him.
He wondered if the grovelling, weeping person on the other end of the line was really the same guy he saw beating up thirty people single-handedly or saving a school bus full of children and even catching a bullet with his bare hands on-screen, and with enough spare time to romance a pretty woman. Sometimes two.
Salem was briefed by Anis about this major bash. Anis explained in no uncertain terms that this was as big as it got and told Salem to ensure that Chunky Pandey, Jackie Shroff, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and the usual gaggle of names from the film fraternity were all present. Of course, no star-studded gala like this one would be considered even remotely complete without the women of Bollywood.
Goswami’s parties were, in fact, not only always extremely lavish affairs but they were also attended by the most jaw-droppingly ravishing women. The sideshow activities would have once blown the mind of a young kid straight out of Pathan Tola in Sarai Mir village of Azamgarh. But Salem had been around the circuit long enough to have seen it all. This was nothing new to him. Coked-up, spaced out and sloshed starlets, who had previously never even tasted a sip of beer but nursed a burning desire to be seen at the ‘right’ parties were de rigueur at these soirées. Needless to say, these young women were always willing to dress in a manner that flaunted the advantages of a D-cup, and would gladly go the ‘extra mile’ for a role in a film or two.
Salem would initially gawk at these women who he had previously seen dancing gracefully on the big screen or playing an ideal housewife; they were now stumbling around in an intoxicated state, willing to go that ‘extra mile’. But he got used to it soon enough.
Salem set about contacting everyone on his list. His intention was not to merely invite them to the party, but to inform them that if their personal health and safety was of any importance to them, then they would do well to attend the party. Who could argue with that?
And so, hordes of actors and actresses descended upon Dubai. Tickets had been sent in advance. Now it was only a matter of picking each one up and bringing them to Royal Empire Hotel.
As expected, none of the stars had the impudence to ditch the party. It was a gala affair, with top stars having a whale of a time. Or at least giving the impression that they were enjoying themselves. The music was pumping, the liquor flowing and the food plentiful. Acres of smooth skin were on show, and heaving cleavages and slender waists cast a spell on the sheikhs and stars. A loud and drunken cheer went up as the state-of-the-art sound system emitted the opening strains of a song that had been topping the Hindi music charts for weeks.
Salem unfortunately was on duty that night. As he was taking care of the party, a glum-looking man approached him. It was the music composer Nadeem, part of the successful Nadeem–Shravan duo. Nadeem got straight to the point— which was to settle the matter of Gulshan. Nadeem’s problems with music baron Gulshan Kumar were no secret. Wanting to keep matters as discreet as possible, Salem took Nadeem over to a corner and made him sit down comfortably and asked him if he wanted something to eat or drink. A shake of his head and a wave of his hand sent the waiter away and Nadeem began spilling the beans on his woes.
He related his tale of how Gulshan had made his life absolutely miserable and pleaded with Salem to find a solution to his problem. The more he spoke, the more agitated he became. Salem tried to convince him that things weren’t as bad as he made them seem. After all, it was Gulshan who had given him and his partner Shravan Rathod their first big break by letting them compose the music for the 1990 Rahul Roy–Anu Agarwal starrer Aashiqui. But Nadeem was beyond reason. At one point, he stood up in anger and had to be taken by the arm and coerced gently back into his seat.
Salem told him that perhaps he would be able to help. A token payment of Rs 25 lakh from Nadeem would ensure that Gulshan would be ‘taken care of’. Nadeem seemed relieved and went home from the party satisfied. Salem realized that while Nadeem may well have set the ball rolling, it would be himself who would stand to gain the most from this. If he caused the death of one of the brightest stars of the music industry, he would become one of the most feared members of the underworld.
For the next few days, Salem set about planning the final chapter of Gulshan Kumar’s life. The shooter, the location, the time of day, escape routes and other such variables had to be charted out with total precision. Once he was totally satisfied with the plan, he would decide whether Gulshan should be given a hint of the doom that awaited him. If he wanted to play ball, Salem would allow him to pay up, but if he chose not to comply with Salem’s diktat, then everything would have been planned already.
Meanwhile, Nadeem began to lose patience and got more desperate. He had already been told that the cost of ‘dealing with’ Gulshan was Rs 25 lakh. On 28 July 1997, at the Natural Ice Cream store in Juhu, Nadeem’s men handed the amount in cold hard cash to three men sent by the gangster. Nadeem called Salem that evening and asked if he’d received the money. The music director implored the don again, the police would later claim.
Salem, on his part, said he would deliver on his end of the bargain, and then decided to fine-tune the big plan. He gathered all the information he could about Gulshan’s daily routine. On 9 August, when everything was in place, Salem gave the T-Series chief a call and told him gently that he was working on Nadeem’s behalf and had to protect his interests. And if he had any concern for his safety and well-being, Salem explained to Gulshan slowly, he would have to pay up.
Salem had expected the T-Series man to stand his ground for a little while and then eventually succumb to the demands as had other Bollywood supremos, Subhash Ghai and Rajiv Rai. Not once did he imagine that Gulshan would display outright defiance. He was incredulous that someone could think of opposing his will. The gangster told Gulshan that he would have to have him killed. The latter didn’t seem to care. It hardly mattered to Salem. He had already decided that Gulshan’s days were numbered.
(Hussain Zaidi is a former investigative journalist. His other books include From Dongri to Dubai, Mafia Queens of Mumbai and Byculla to Bangkok)