One of the darkest aspects of Bollywood in the 90s was its association with the then thriving Mumbai underworld. A lot of criminals were involved in financing films and there were instances of actors being forced to do certain films after getting a certain call from the dons. The assassination of T-Series founder Gulshan Kumar in 1997 by gangster Abu Salem sent shockwaves and further scared the Bollywood fraternity members. Shah Rukh Khan however was an exception. On his 52nd birthday, we talk about this aspect in this Bollywood Hungama special feature.
Anupama Chopra has wonderfully narrated the whole episode of SRK’s conversations with various gangsters in her book ‘King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema’. It all started in January 1997 when senior police officer Rakesh Maria frantically called Mahesh Bhatt, who was then working with SRK in Chaahat and Duplicate, and told him that there’s a danger to the superstar’s life and that he should be stopped from going outdoors. SRK had no idea that he was under mafia’s radar. A bewildered and scared Shah Rukh met Rakesh Maria and he was asked about possible motives that would compel the underworld to set their eyes on him. But the discussion yielded no result.
Nevertheless, Shah Rukh Khan was given a bodyguard, Mohan Bhise, from the Special Operations Squad. The actor kept his movements to a minimum and even changed cars and routes to work everyday. He attended a wedding of a famous cricket player at that time where a fan asked for an autograph. As he pulled out a pen for autograph, SRK pushed Gauri away, thinking it might be a gun!
Finally one day, Shah Rukh Khan was returning from Khandala after shooting for Dil To Pagal Hai and that’s when he got the call from Abu Salem. The gangster gave SRK choicest of abuses in Hindi but the latter remained calm and polite and kept his conversation in English. Salem then came to the point that he was angry as SRK had refused to do a film of a Muslim producer, close to Abu Salem. Salem argued that SRK should have shown his community some support. Shah Rukh however reminded him that he was already working with Mansoor Khan, Abbas-Mustan and Aziz Mirza. Moreover, Mahesh Bhatt’s mother was also a Muslim. Realizing that SRK made sense, Abu Salem said that he’d spare his life and that he doesn’t need police anymore. The police however didn’t take any chances and refused to let go of SRK’s police security.
Abu Salem then started calling Shah Rukh simply to chat and make small talk. SRK followed Rakesh Maria’s instructions: be polite, don’t take information and don’t give either. After every call, SRK used to wonder if he said the right things to maintain peace. Abu Salem also made it clear that he has complete information about SRK’s whereabouts, whom he was sitting with, and where his security guards were standing. SRK called this period ‘depressing and scary’. Yet, he continued working with the same zeal. He shot for some of the key scenes of his film Duplicate on the streets of Mumbai, despite the looming danger. Salem would tell Shah Rukh Khan to do a particular film and his reply each time was, “I don’t tell you who to shoot so don’t tell me which film to do.”
Soon, the Chhota Rajan gang also started calling him. When he refused their film offers, Anupama Chopra said that “they withdrew with surprising decency.” Meanwhile, a small-time gangster called Gongaa Bhai offered SRK the lead role in a film based on his own life. Shah Rukh Khan confused him with his English, “I am not able to conceive the kind of emotional graph that I can develop.” After a year-long pursuit, Gongaa Bhai gave up.
Finally, Chhota Shakeel called SRK after being offended by the line ‘Paun jannat tale’ in the song ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ from his film Dil Se. He felt that this line, which translates in English to heaven is beneath my feet, is un-Islamic. Believe it or not, SRK fooled him by claiming that the lines actually were ‘Paun jannat chale’ (My feet are going to heaven)!
This association with the underworld went on for four years. What worked in SRK’s favour was that he was extremely polite – he addressed them as Mr Chhota Shakeel and Mr Abu Salem. Also, he was a Muslim superstar and due to his religious identity, gang members were reluctant to kill him. The other small reason was SRK’s extreme popularity with the family members of the gangsters. Abu Salem himself told SRK that his mother and his wife were big fans.