Amusement. Mild amusement. That was my initial reaction to the CNN IBN–Cobrapost sting operation, in which a bunch of Bollywood figures compromised themselves rather foolishly. It looked promising to begin with, though, so I kept waiting for the sting in the operation. But I gave up hope when we got to Payal Rohatgi, who could, at best, be loosely described as an actress.

Granted, there were other bigger names, like director Anubhav Sinha (Ra.One, Dus) and Anees Bazmee (Ready, Singh is Kinng, No Entry) and producer Vashu Bhagnani, currently better known for unleashing his son Jackky on us.

But, of all the murky happenings in the Hindi film industry, was this the best they could come up with?

Lest that seem uncharitable, let me say Black money in Bollywood (as across India) may be an open secret, but this piece of work has provided some documentation, at least. For that, we can thank CNN IBN and Cobrapost.

My grouse: All that effort and hype wasted on this. I would have dismissed it as one more example of Bollywood being an easy target, if it weren’t for the fact that Cobrapost has an eminent founder and editor-in-chief in Aniruddha Bahal. Famed for his exposés on match-fixing in cricket, the ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal in which MPs were caught taking money for asking questions in Parliament, and for blowing the lid off murky deals in defence contracts, Bahal is not a journalist known for taking the easy way out.

Bahal didn’t do the Bollywood sting operation; an undercover Cobrapost reporter did. I’m sure he did his research before setting out; he must know of Bollywood’s bigger, more dangerous stories waiting to be told. Perhaps, like all those newcomers and actor hopefuls peddling their portfolios, he simply found it difficult to get through to the big names — or bigger stories. Stories such as the role of political money in the industry, or the continuing influence of underworld money in film financing. I’m sticking to the area of finance; let me not get into the sleaze or other areas; they are more personal in nature, unlike those mentioned above, which are of national significance.

Take political money, which finds its way into the industry through a number of indirect routes. The film industry is in constant need of money and political parties have enough of it. Thanks to the uncovering of so many scams, we now know the extent of ill-gotten wealth our netas have amassed, which they need to park somewhere. How star-struck many of them are, we have always known. The dots have to connect somewhere.

What easier way to open the glamour gates than a bagful of cash? To give you an example, one hears that a once-prolific film-maker who’s had a run of flops is now working on not one or two, but four films. Insiders insist the money has come from a political party headed by some of the wealthiest politicians in the country.

No wonder there have been just token reactions from the political class. A few of them spluttered and came up with the usual comments, but soon, the next scandal burst onto the news bulletins, and Bollywood was pushed aside. The one politician who didn’t mince his words, and pointed out the elephant in the room (as always) was Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy, who said, “It is an excellently done research and is very courageous because Bollywood is also partly connected with underworld and mafia.”

The underworld, so beloved of film-makers across the world, has seen its overt influence wane in Bollywood. It is nowhere near its peak of the 1990s, but it sure hasn’t gone away —this, I was told by J. Dey, the crime reporter who was killed by the underworld last year. Dey, a friend and colleague, explained that with the underworld having diversified its operations, it has created more degrees of separation between itself and the film industry. So, its money is routed to films through other businesses or financiers. Since the dons don’t always deal directly with the director or the actors in the film, and don’t have their henchmen drop in on films as they once did, the writers, cast and crew are often genuinely not aware of the source of the funding.

Dey’s guesstimate was that 20 per cent or more of the industry’s finances come from the underworld. The big production houses don’t need them, of course, but, as with any other industry, there are invariably those who don’t walk the straight line. And money is always welcome, whether from the underworld, or other sources — especially when the investor is happy to stay anonymous.

As the unfortunate Anubhav Sinha said on the tape: “It mostly happens that people invest but their name doesn’t come even on the posters of the film. So, in your case also, we should do something like that since you are so secretive… if anyone asks me from where it’s come, I won’t tell anyone.” For a man swearing secrecy, he sure was indiscreet!

Another side of the coin is the fact that many producers are known to routinely inflate budgets for public consumption. One reason is that a few crores added make the project look that much bigger and more attractive.

The extra crores find their way into the producer’s own pocket, of course. Many a Hindi film producer has fallen by the wayside because of this trick, but quite a few have got away with it long enough to make the risk worth their while.

But then, financial manipulation is endemic in this country. Bollywood’s sins are magnified while other industries carry on in the shadows. Let’s clean up the film industry, but let’s get to the big guys, please.

Picture by Bijoy Ghosh

(This article was published on July 19, 2012)
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