Arun Gawli: The Don of Dagdi Chawl

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The life of Arun Gawli, one of Mumbai’s most notorious mobsters, is being recreated in a new film

A FEW WEEKS AGO, the filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia found himself in the dingy neighbourhood of a central Mumbai chawl. Seated beside him, and ringed in by a bevy of burly men known in the locality as ‘shooters’, was the protagonist of one of the city’s most mythic mobster folk tales. It was dark. The don, seated there, like always, was silent and impenetrable. About almost three years had gone by since the filmmaker, along with his lead actor Arjun Rampal, first began interacting with the don and his family about the possibility of collaborating on a film on the mobster’s life. Much of this time was spent convincing him to approve the project, and then, perhaps the most crucial aspect, trying to win his trust and candour.

Ahluwalia was sitting with Arun Gawli, out on parole, in his own stomping ground, Dagdi Chawl, as the fruit of their joint effort was unfolding on a screen in front of them.

In the years it had taken to convince Gawli, both Ahluwalia and Rampal—the film’s co-producer who plays the gangster in it—had come to believe they had built a certain level of trust, even friendship, with him. He had told them things about himself and others. And very directly, too, Ahluwalia emphasises a few weeks after the screening. They had asked him all sorts of questions. They’d even had the nerve to ask if they could show him smoking a chillum (Gawli was known to habitually use a pipe to smoke pot). To which Gawli had turned around and asked “Kyun? (why?)” but agreed, once they told him that this would make the film more authentic and he wouldn’t be judged for it. He had signed the screenplay, loose leaves really, of about 100 pages of mostly just ideas of scenes and very little dialogue. Ahluwalia had noticed how he was an unusual gangster, someone who only spoke in Marathi, and had none of that swagger one associates with ganglords. And when Gawli’s son got married, late in 2015, they were even invited to it. He had opened up at least some part his guarded life to the two, they felt.

But as Ahluwalia sat with him, he began to wonder if he really knew much about the man beside him. Gawli was not a man easy to read. His eyes were always saturnine, his face deadpan, and his mannerism always to the point. He would be there in a conversation, Ahluwalia says, and yet not be—seemingly engaged in a chat, but with his eyes trained on all the men present. And then there were the many stories about him, with conflicting versions, depending upon who you spoke with. Ahluwalia knew he did not have the definite story. “But nobody really does,” he tells me. “It is all possible stories.” This was one reason why he decided to tell the story from the perspective of several characters.

It’s also why Ahluwalia was a little nervous. Dagdi Chawl was a fortress, with swarthy men frisking visitors and keeping tabs on new faces. Along with them in the small screening room were some 40 others, who every few minutes bent and whispered something into the silent don’s ears.

Playing out on the screen was everything. Not just what he had told them, but all that they had managed to dig up—from police files and newspaper reports to judicial case papers and anecdotes from associates. There were other narratives of other gangsters enmeshed in this principal story, whose characters dissed and even traduced Gawli. There were the stories and vignettes of men and women Gawli had never spoken about to Ahluwalia. And there were killings, brutal depictions of how things had gone down with some of his closest family and friends.

“It was strange to watch him watch the movie. I began to realise that when I was shooting [the film], to me all of this was just fiction. But for him, this was all real,” Ahluwalia says, “These were all really real, raw memories.”

Ahluwalia began to grasp that Gawli had agreed to the film with a certain vision in mind, something of a very Bollywood or Ram Gopal Verma type of gangster film. But what Gawli saw was its realism, how close Arjun resembled him, the violent narrative of his life. Ahluwalia says he could see how taken aback Gawli was. And the conspiratorial whispers of his henchmen in his ears weren’t doing his nerves any good. “It was scary, man,” Ahluwalia says. “It was so, so scary.”

His fears turned out to be unfounded. Gawli was upset, but mostly by the depiction of his mentor’s murder. It was brutal, and before he is killed, he is shown pleading for his life. According to Ahluwalia, this was one of the stories he had heard. “But Gawli said it had never gone down that way. ‘I knew him. He would have never begged’, he told me,” Ahluwalia says. But he was not angry. “He had some other minor requests, very reasonable ones, which we [acted on]. Filmmakers tend to be very exploitative. But you have to respect the [film’s subject] sometimes. And these were raw memories for him,” he says. Gawli had corrections to offer. He told them that a 1987 newspaper headline portrayed in the film was wrong. “Point is, when he watched the film, there was all this information which he hadn’t given me, or characters [and their stories]. He never once asked, ‘Who is this man? Who is this woman?’ He never turned around and said so. So there was this tacit understanding [between us] that this guy [the filmmaker] had done his homework,” Ahluwalia says. Suggesting the headline fix, he says, Gawli said, “If you are making a real film, then get all of it.”

“Gawli is an accidental gangster. That’s what I find fascinating about him. He wasn’t the guy in control, like the gangsters in movies. He was always the third wheel” - Ashim Ahluwalia, director and screenwriter

When Arun Gawli was first making his way up through the ranks of Bombay’s underworld, very few seemed to have taken much notice of him. But by the late 1980s, a time when the old order of dons like Haji Mastan, Vardarajan Mudaliar and Karim Lala was being replaced by a ruthless new and gangland wars were breaking out across the city, Gawli was in the thick of things. Many years later, he adopted the politician’s garb—white kurta-pyjama and Gandhi topi—as he tried to reinvent himself as a political leader. He was a slight, sinewy man back then—long haired, dressed in floral shirts, “as hipster as anyone” as Ahluwalia puts it, who was moving up from being a small-time protector of Dawood Ibrahim’s smuggled consignments to his foremost rival. It was around this period of the internecine gang wars in Mumbai’s streets, and a bit later when he decided to contest elections, that his house in Dagdi Chawl was first opened up to journalists. And those who came back from his lair returned with the most fabulous stories. They spoke of a chawl refashioned as a fortress, complete with metal detectors and multiple layers of security, of a neighbourhood that insisted he be called Daddy (not Arunji), of free medical centres and darbars where instant rough justice was dispensed, of negotiating rooms and torture chambers, and of buttons which when pressed would reveal secret enclosures and hidden passageways.

Tarakant Dwivedi, a crime journalist in Mumbai who goes by the name Akela, first met Gawli in Dagdi Chawl sometime in the 1990s. He remembers being made to wait for several hours before he finally met the don. “First you had to go through this big cast iron gate. You gave your name and your purpose of visit. Then you went through a smaller gate. Then you waited. Then you gave your name to another guy who would make a call. Then you waited some more. Gawli’s men would watch the visitor, sussing him out and his possible motives, each such level determining if he was fit to be taken to the next. And if you had made it this far, you were taken through a lift to some terrace,” Akela says. The rooftop in this chawl, however, was nothing like any crime journalist had ever seen. He says there was grass everywhere, a waterfall and dummies of wild animals. And in one corner, he spotted a snooker table. “I was wondering where I had reached,” he says, “Was this a zoo or some jungle?” After another wait, he was taken to a room with the don present.

After several such meetings for articles in the newspaper Akela worked for then, a senior manager of the media house asked him to help set up a meeting with the don. The reason for this, Akela says, he is unaware of. It was not unusual for people—commoners, executives and politicians—to seek out Gawli in those days. “Anybody with problems went to him for solutions. Say, if there was no water [supply] in the police quarters, the cops and their families didn’t go to their superiors or the BMC or PWD, they went to Daddy.” Akela, wanting to impress his superior, did not want him to wait too long before he was granted a meeting. So, in one instance, without giving it much thought, Akela approached the don and gave his shoulders a firm pat of familiarity to request him to not make the manager wait for too long. It was a poorly-considered gesture, Akela realised rightaway. The entire room got tense. Gawli’s body stiffened under this touch and his men looked at him for a signal. Thankfully for Akela, the don simply let it pass and accepted his request. But he knew he’d come perilously close to a brush with the man’s wrath. “That was really very stupid of me,” he says.

“It is a good film. Very real. But there is also, you know…” says Gawli’s eldest child Geeta, her eyes behind a large pair of sunglasses with a golden rim, as she discusses the film based on her father, “What do you call that thing?”

What thing?

“That thing? Kya bolte hain usko? (What do you call that?),” she continues. “Freedom, liberty…”

The phrase ‘creative liberty’ is offered. “Haan, wahi (Yes, that one). Very real film, but also creative liberties,” Geeta says, and her sunglasses rise a little under the strain of a smile.

With Gawli away in prison, Geeta has emerged as the heir to his legacy. She is the chief of her father’s now much-reduced political outfit, the Akhil Bharatiya Sena, and also its lone elected representative in the city’s municipal corporation. Unlike what one might expect of a dreaded gangster’s daughter, Geeta has the air of a boulevardier. Educated in a convent school, she sits in the dull environs of a municipal office, dressed in a bright red top and sunglasses. Outside her office door might be the mandatory pictures of the Prime Minister and outgoing President, but within her large cabin, where she sits with around 25 empty chairs turned towards her, the wall behind her has a large framed image of Arun Gawli, a reminder of who she is.

“My daddy had a tough life. It was a different generation back then. Everyone was angry and hot-headed. But he was simple and rooted” - Geeta Gawli, Arun Gawli’s daughter and Akhil Bharatiya Sena leader

Though a far cry from the elaborate access rigmarole of many journalists before me who sought her father’s time, I am impressed by the large men on her staff, and the wait in one of 25-odd chairs in her cabin, before I am ushered again to a room deeper inside. This is perhaps where she conducts more discreet conversations. Here, I see another door, and I wonder if it’s where visitors are rendered who overstay their welcome or need an incentive to make a confession. But, of course, I am letting my imagination get the better of me. This door, I later realise, only has a refrigerator with refreshments.

When she enters this chamber, she looks like a woman barely able to contain some vast and mysterious hilarity. Every few minutes, she laughs when she hears the stories of the impenetrability of Dagdi Chawl, its secret rooms and passageways. “In my time, I don’t remember pushing any button and some room opening up.” She, however, is quick to add, “But I don’t know how it was before.”

Soon she gets into a lengthy attempt to explain her father’s life as a gangster, describing the difficulties in his early years. “My daddy… you have to understand… he had a very tough life. There were so many brothers and sisters and his father worked in the mills,” Geeta says. “That’s why all his life he has been very humble. It was a different generation. Everyone was angry and hot-headed. But my dad, he was very simple and rooted. He was not like the other, you know, the other....” She pauses, looks around, and decides not to finish her sentence.

Arun Gawli’s father was a migrant who is believed to have moved to Mumbai to seek employment in one of the many textile mills. The family lived in a tiny housing unit in Dagdi Chawl. These chawls, several hundred tiny single- room tenements within a single building where facilities like water taps and toilets had to be shared, came up in central Mumbai as affordable housing for mill workers and their families. By the late 1970s, lockdowns had become common. “Gawli’s father wanted to get back to work, but the [mills’] unions didn’t allow him to,” Ahluwalia says. By 1982, all the mills had shut down. “There was no hope going around,” says the filmmaker. And then tragedy struck the Gawli household. “The father died around that time. Leaving them with no income, leaving them all adrift in Dagdi Chawl.”

It was a rough locality, a place where empty country liquor bottles crunched underfoot and jobless thugs roamed the streets. Gawli, it is said, used to deliver milk when he was a child. He worked briefly in the mills. But after his father’s death, he was working the streets at night. According to Akela, Gawli began as a petty criminal who robbed people who took the serpentine overbridge that connected Byculla East to West. By then, Gawli had fallen into the company of two old friends from the locality, Babu Reshim and Rama Naik. According to the book by well- known crime journalist Hussain Zaidi, Byculla to Bangkok, the three of them came to form what was known as the BRA gang, representing the initials of its top three members. They ran matka (gambling) dens and liquor joints. In time, as their territory expanded, they added muscle. They got into a feud with a rival gang. At one point, one of Rama Naik’s brothers was killed by a member of that gang. In retaliation, as the story goes, BRA killed an important member of that gang. ‘Gawli and his men barged into his den and killed him, in full public view, brutally stabbing him with choppers and assaulting him with swords. The gruesome killing not only shocked everyone but scared the other matka operators, who immediately shifted their loyalties to the BRA gang,’ Zaidi writes in the book.

After this killing, Gawli was sucked deeper into the gangster vortex. “My reading is that Gawli is an accidental gangster. That’s what I find fascinating about him. He wasn’t the guy in control, like the gangsters in movies. He joined Babu and Rama’s gang because they were childhood friends, and Babu was kind of like their leader. Arun was always the third wheel, never the guy in charge,” Ahluwalia says. “The first [alleged] killing was done in anger, to avenge Naik’s brother’s death. That went on to a professional hit, because people had seen how audacious the first one was. And then another don tells him to do this hit, for which he will get Gawli out of the last one. So there was always this barter. The more he wanted out, the more he got in.”

After Naik fell out with Dawood Ibrahim over a land deal and the former was bumped off, Gawli swore revenge in response, resulting in a savage gang war that was as much about turf as honour. Each one of them took out the other’s men. Dawood had Gawli’s brother Bappa killed. And he in turn had Dawood’s brother-in-law Ibrahim Parkar done in.

Gawli, however, remained unreachable in Dagdi Chawl. In this locality, where some 500 families still live, whenever the police— brave or foolish enough—would conduct raids, Gawli would almost never be found. According to an unconfirmed story, he was once caught by the police in a secret drawer inside a bed.

But as the gang wars escalated and police squads began to liquidate mobsters in encounters, many of them fled to foreign shores. According to Ahluwalia, Gawli got himself arrested, realising that the jail was perhaps the safest location.

A strongman often feels that he can reshape a city. That a city turns on his command. It can take time to realise that he is only caught up in a larger narrative, one beyond his control. Gawli began to get some political backing after turning himself in. He found himself being referred to as one of “our boys” by the late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, playing him as a Hindu gangster against Dawood, the Muslim gangster. “So finally politics happens. Gawli thinks he is going to clean up, help people, going to reform himself, get political backing and police protection,” Ahluwalia says.

By this time, Gawli began to exhibit signs of paranoia that he was going to get bumped off by the police. It is a trait several people say he still has. Several attempts had been made on his life, Ahluwalia says. Even when he had to travel, Geeta remembers, her mother would ensure her father didn’t go with policemen but in another car with his men. When he stood for elections, it is said he never stepped out to seek votes or even to cast his vote. Gawli was particularly worried about the late encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar, who it is said used to sit in a police chowki that had been built outside Dagdi Chawl’s gates. The two would eyeball each other through a CCTV camera Gawli had put up outside the gate. “It was like a game was being played. He would watch the cop outside. And the cop would watch back [through the camera]. [It was like] ‘Just wait, wait till you come out’,” Ahluwalia says.

But the Shiv Sena, wary of Gawli’s influence in central Mumbai, did not oblige to his requests. In response, the don launched the Akhil Bharatiya Sena, and fielded candidates for elections. Geeta, who had just finished school then, remembers being told by her father that she was going to stand for an election. “I just said ‘okay’. I was so young then. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know how to talk to people,” she says. “And I won too.” Gawli also became an MLA. But the party began to diminish rapidly. “They threatened the party members. They had their way,” Geeta says.

She hopes she will be able to get her father freed in the near future. And then, using his help, she will gradually build the party again to win at least 10 or so municipal corporation seats in the next few years.

According to Geeta, while the family is now more at peace without an imminent death threat to her father, she is also careful not to make enemies. “That generation is gone now. Those hot-headed people. I just want to cool things down. Our first priority is to get our father back. He is already so old now,” she says.

A few days ago, with just about a month left for the film’s release, Arjun Rampal got a call from Geeta. Her father, it appeared, might be out on parole sometime in September, around the time of Ganpati festivities. And he wanted the film to release then. It would be auspicious, Gawli had apparently conveyed.

So what did they do?

“Of course we agreed,” Ahluwalia says. “How do you say ‘no’ to Daddy?”