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The murder that changed Ram Gopal Varma's Satya

Had Gulshan Kumar not been killed at a juncture when plans could be upended, ‘Satya’ may have been a very different film. An excerpt from 'Bullets Over Bombay'

Urmila Matondkar on the sets of ‘Satya’.
Urmila Matondkar on the sets of ‘Satya’. (Photograph: Gerard Hooper; Courtesy HarperCollins)

On 12 August 1997, at around 10 in the morning, Gulshan Kumar, founder of T-Series, India’s biggest record label, entered Jeeteshwar Mahadev Mandir, a Shiv temple in Lokhandwala. He was a devout man—the T-series empire was founded on religious music as much as on film songs—and this was how he normally began his day. He left half an hour later and headed for his car. Suddenly, two strangers walked up to him. One of them pointed a gun at him and fired. The bullet hit him, but Kumar managed to stagger away. The shooters followed, firing 16 bullets into Kumar before fleeing the scene in a taxi—a fittingly Mumbai getaway. Kumar was rushed to the nearby Cooper hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Years later, one Abdul Rauf Merchant confessed to the killing, which he said was ordered by mobster Abu Salem. Salem and his boss, D-Company head Dawood Ibrahim, had been trying to extort a monthly sum of a few lakhs from Kumar. The T-series founder initially paid up, but then refused (composer Runu Sagar attempts to do the same in Satya). The murder sent seismic waves through the Hindi film industry, which by then was used to extortion by Mumbai dons but not the bloody fallout of resisting them. Hits had been taken out on Bollywood directors Rajiv Rai and Subhash Ghai in the past, but in both cases the killers were unsuccessful. (Actor) Saurabh Shukla summed up the general feeling in the industry then: ‘That was the time I felt personally how close we were to the underworld.’

Bullets Over Bombay—Satya And The Hindi Film Gangster: By Uday Bhatia, HarperCollins India, 260 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Bullets Over Bombay—Satya And The Hindi Film Gangster: By Uday Bhatia, HarperCollins India, 260 pages, 399.

How disconcerting must it have been to learn of the killing of one of the most powerful figures in Bollywood while beginning work on a film about the Mumbai underworld? Satya wasn’t a huge production, but (Ram Gopal) Varma was a hot director then, (Urmila) Matondkar was a star and word had gotten around that a realistic gangster film was underway. Did crew members ever wonder if they’d inadvertently stumbled into the crosshairs of the mob? Or did it make the production more exciting, like Ben Hecht and William Wellman must have felt when reviews of their gangster films shared newsprint with the bloody exploits of their subjects?

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Nearly every person who worked on Satya mentioned the Gulshan Kumar murder to me. If Barnali Ray’s start date of 11 August is accurate, then the killing happened on the second day of production. Other accounts place the shooting on the first, second, third or fourth day, some in the morning, others in the evening. Everyone agrees the murder was early on in the shooting schedule, while they were filming the tabela scenes. Varma told me he heard the news in the morning, on set, and cancelled the shoot for the day. Apurva Asrani remembers the director getting that call and looking shell-shocked.

To complicate matters (for me, if no one else), Varma had two versions of events. When I transcribed our conversation, I found he’d placed himself on set, and, at a different point in the interview, in producer Jhamu Sugandh’s office, at the moment of being informed of Kumar’s death. The Sugandh version appears in Guns & Thighs (Varma’s memoir) and in several of Varma’s interviews. In it, as Sugandh is telling Varma about Kumar’s last moments, his thoughts stray to how the shooter’s day must have unfolded. ‘If Gulshan Kumar woke up at 7 o’clock, then at what time would the killer have woken up?’ he writes in his memoir. ‘Did he tell his mom to wake him up because he had a shooting to carry out? Did he have his breakfast before committing the crime or after? … Then it suddenly struck me that you always hear about gangsters only when they either kill or die. But what do they do in between? That was the thought which eventually resulted in Satya.’

If you take the account at face value—if Kumar’s death was indeed ‘the thought which eventually resulted in Satya’—it would mean that the actual journey began after production was already underway; that one of the most influential Hindi films of the last 25 years found its raison d’être only after shooting had begun. I prefer the version where Varma gets the news on set, and Kumar’s death is a catalyst, not the origin, for Satya. Then again, this might be my way of imposing order on what seems to have been an atmosphere of intensely fruitful chaos.

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Whatever the circumstances of his finding out, the bloody end of Gulshan Kumar sparked something in Varma. He told me he threw out most of the existing script and started afresh. ‘After the death, we stopped shooting for a very long time. The bulk of the film formed in my mind in this interim period.’ They began meeting people who had details of, or could offer insight into, Kumar’s killing. What led to the murder, what kind of people were involved, why someone would become a shooter, why a contract to kill someone is given—every new bit of information now had a purpose. (Anurag) Kashyap’s version of events was similar—he remembered Varma saying ‘We need to make a different film’, and junking whatever they’d written. Every day, journalists were writing about the underworld. Varma and his writers started scanning the papers for material. They met reporters and cops, including, Kashyap said, Dhanushkodi Sivanandan, who’d been Mumbai’s additional commissioner of police (the Mohanlal character in Company is supposedly based on him).

Had Gulshan Kumar not been murdered at a juncture when plans could be upended, Satya would probably have turned out a very different film. And if Satya hadn’t been made, there might not have been Company or Sarkar or the dozen or so gangster films Varma would go on to produce or direct. Kashyap wasn’t exaggerating much when he said, ‘Ramu’s filmography changed after that incident.’

Uday Bhatia is film editor, Lounge. Excerpted from Bullets Over Bombay: Satya And The Hindi Film Gangster, with permission from HarperCollins India. The book releases on 30 August.

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