The recently released movie 'Once Upon a Time in Mumbai' [OUATIM] has again brought to celluloid the story of late Haji Mastan Mirza, the underworld don who had become a cult figure in his life.
Though films and media have been obsessed with gangsters and often the dons have been glorified, there is a marked difference between Mastan and the later dons.
Despite being a notorious law-breaker and feared underworld don, Mastan, had to an extent, acquired social sanction and respect. [After him, the 'bhais' turned to open extortion, drug dealings and finally, terrorism]
This was perhaps because he had certain principles that appealed to common folk, just like the Chambal dacoits* who fought against the system but never harmed the poor, instead distributed money among them, and acquired the image of Robinhood.
In the 70s, Mastan ruled the Mumbai underworld, and made a fortune in gold smuggling. It was license-permit Raj era, and the smuggling of imported goods brought him immense riches and as a result tremendous clout. However, he stayed away from the dirty business--smuggling of weapons or narcotics.
Ajay Devgan, who plays the role of Haji Mastan, has a dialogue in the movie that illustrates this difference between Mastan and the dirty dons which followed him, "I smuggle goods that are not permitted by the government but I don't smuggle goods that are not permitted by my conscience".
Popular magazines of the era, particularly, Illustrated Weekly of India and India Today published special features on Haji Mastan, which further glorified him and turned him into a celebrity with a larger-than-life image.
Mastan, who had migrated from Madras [Tamil Nadu], and began working as a coolie at the Bombay port, went on to become a rich and immensely influential man.
He later financed movies and also entered politics. Mastan's life has inspired several movies in the past also including the blockbuster Deewar and Maqbool. [Varadarajan Mudaliar, often described as the first Mumbai don, also hailed from Tamil Nadu]
Glorifying the gangsters: Role of media, movies and society
It's indeed ironic that notorious criminals and lawbreakers are eulogised and seen as heroes in the society. Perhaps, the rags-to-riches stories fascinated section of society that saw no way towards upward mobility and could only dream of instant riches.
While gangsters get undue coverage in media, the truth is that society also enjoys reading about the exploits of the outlaws. The anger against the establishment or the 'system', particularly the corrupt bureaucrats and criminal politicians who are also seen as criminals to an extent, is probably a reason that a sections of soceity are in awe of the dons.
Mastan had a long and 'successful' innings. Though he couldn't make a mark in politics despite floating a party and trying to forge a Dalit-Muslim political alliance, he stayed in public life and had his admirers. People flocked to see him and he was mobbed in parties. After him, the underworld turned even dirtier.
Killings for extortion became order of the day and the decade of 90s saw the underworld drift towards terrorism. Both 'Maqbool' and 'OUATIM' exploit this grey area and seem to stress on the 'values' and relative principles of the earlier dons.
Haji Mastan, who became a don without ever firing a single bullet!
"He may not have even slapped anybody but English magazines presented him as a dreaded gangster and he also enjoyed it, never contesting the charges, in fact, even trying to dress himself in such a manner so that he could appear as a don".
"He was not a don but a smuggler who was spendthrift and helped poor and in process acquired fame. He quietly helped the needy. When I was as student in Maharashtra College, I was among a group of students who protested the presence of Mastan Mirza in a poetry meet that was held on the college premises, in order to generate funds for the institution.
However, we later found that college authorities were in dire need of funds and Mastan Mirza alone had given Rs 3 lakh, says Rasheed. "He was not a killer mafioso rather a man who had become a celebrity due to his sheer luck and the prevalent social circumstances apart from the role of media."
Read translated excerpts of Sajid Rasheed's article:
Fact Vs Fiction: More myths than reality, Mastan was more a smuggler than a mafiosi
Haji Mastan earned his fortune, smuggling gold and foreign goods. When Indira Gandhi imposed emergency, all smugglers were arrested under MISA. Mastan was also sent to jail. Later Congress lost elections and Janata Party assumed power.
Incidentally, someone had suggested to Mastan that he should meet loknayak Jai Prakash Narayan [JP], the ideologue of Janata Party, and confess his crimes. Along with Yusuf Patel, Mastan presented himself before JP, and seek forgiveness for his past life.
It was this 'surrender' that was lapped up by national media. In the pre-TV era, magazines and papers were read extensively and cover stories featuring him, turned Haji Mastan into the country's foremost don. Mastan loved expensive cigarettes, liquor, beautiful women and splurged money.
He dressed himself in white and even wore white shoes. He was a partyman and Bollywood personalities surrounded him. A photorapher who worked as free-lancer one day beamingly told me that he had built his own house after Mirza lent him Rs 40,000 and when he went to return the amount, Mirza scolded him and refused to take back the money.
The photograph of showman Raj Kapoor bowing in front of Mirza had also been splashed in papers and magazines in the era. But much later Mastan Mirza told me that Raj Kapoor was bankrupt after Mera Naam Joker failed at the box office, and though I asked him if he needed money, Kapoor politely refused because it was black money.
Mastan said that Raj Kapoor was not bowing due to a sense of obligation, in fact, the photograph was deceptive as the showman was drunk and got stumbled when a cameraman took the photo but it was interpreted otherwise.
[Sajid Rasheed is a senior journalist and this article was published in Urdu daily Sahafat, Mumbai]
[*Chambal dacoits were seen as rebels and society in general admired them for their valour. Most of the dacoits robbed the rich, particulary, the exploitative money-lenders, and some of them had become bandits because they rebelled against the system. Either failure to get justice after the death of a kin by influential persons or caste oppression, the dacoit was seen as 'baaghi'. However, in recent years the tradition also changed and dacoits became brute killers and kidnappers.]