When political parties and police have links with drug lords, why blame film stars?

Film stars are stressed out, physically and mentally, and need drugs to survive, claim doctors. Sanjay Dutt and Sushant Singh were stressed. Any bets that everybody else is not under similar pressure?

 When political parties and police have links with drug lords, why blame film stars?

Sujata Anandan

Watching the near-hysterical media coverage on the connection between Bollywood, drugs, smugglers, and the underworld, I wondered if people have forgotten the 1980s and 1990s when it all manifested itself and led to a change in the laws of the country?

To me, who cut my milk teeth in journalism reporting on the advent of drugs into India, it seems bizarre that people should believe that the relationship between stars and drugs is anything to write home about. Does anybody recall Sanjay Dutt, son of Sunil and Nargis Dutt, who once epitomised everything that was wrong with Bollywood and set a trend that continues to this day?

Actually, there is nothing new about Bollywood's connection to the unsavoury elements of society – ever since Independence there has been a natural progression between Bollywood bigwigs and the underworld. In the early days it was voluntary with the existence of benign dons like Haji Mastan and Karim Lala – indeed Bollywood even ended up making films about their obsession with film stars in later years.

But it is Dawood Ibrahim who gave a sinister twist to Bollywood, often directing top film stars and even film directors into dealing with the underworld in finalizing films, the cast and contracts. It was an association that grew because of the failure of the government to recognise Bollywood as an industry per se that made it difficult for them to seek institutional finance from banks and other funding agencies and the capricious nature of films that may or may not guarantee the financiers assured returns that left a vacuum for the underworld to step in. But the relationship between the stars and the underworld had their greatest confluence in the 1980s and their relationship is a reflection of India's archaic laws in many sectors.

Soon after Independence, the benign dons were mostly smuggling gold and diamonds from South Africa and Belgium into India. But soon electronic goods were added to their portfolio - watches, two-in-one music systems, calculators along with foreign-made fabrics, perfumes, etc were much in demand from the 1970s through the early 1980s.

In Mumbai a whole community of smugglers even set up shop on the pavements and their goods were much in demand – in a couple of upmarket shopping centres, you could even pre-book your order for the next consignment that would arrive from either Dubai or Singapore and it was a very lucrative business for the underworld.

As the tight import-export laws and that of foreign exchange and travel began to be eased, these goods lost attraction for buyers and profit margins fell for the smugglers who suddenly discovered a more sure-fire seller – drugs. Under the counter in those shopping centres. Everybody knew which ones they were and even Dawood Ibrahim set up shop in the area. More specifically, these drugs were cocaine or brown sugar as it was known in India at the time.

Sanjay Dutt was among the most prominent and among the first of the film stars of that generation to develop an insidious relationship with drugs that would destroy his life in many ways. Before the 1970s, neither Bollywood nor the rest of India knew much about the kind of narcotics that had taken over India. We were governed by the opium-era British laws that were inadequate to check cocaine smugglers who not only supplied Bollywood but also almost destroyed an entire generation of school going-children before both bewildered parents, who had not had to deal with in their time, and before the government woke up to the potential disaster.

Fresh laws were enacted, the Narcotics Control Bureau set up and local police units across the country were armed with anti-narcotics cells even as armies of social workers moved from mere drunkards (until then alcoholism was the greatest vice) to rehabilitate children and teens from the debilitating effects of these life-destroying drugs. But if they succeeded in some measure, it was owing less to the effectiveness of the NCB and more to the fact that the underworld, now led by more sinister gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan and Abu Salem among others, had found an even more lucrative business – arms smuggling even as terrorism overtook the country. Is it any wonder then that Sanjay Dutt, after strenuous efforts by his father to successfully wean him away from cocaine, then took to flirting with the possession of dangerous weapons and ended up in prison on more than one occasion?

But he was not alone. There were at least three top reigning stars of the time who were equally involved with the arms smugglers and in possession of similar weapons, though they were rather more intelligent than Dutt in disposing off those weapons – police found AK47s washing up the shores of Mumbai more than once at the time and could never trace the ownership while Sanjay Dutt left a trail to himself in having his own weapons destroyed in a friend's foundry.

But by this time almost all top stars, and not just Sanjay Dutt, had an incontrovertible relationship with drugs. When Fardeen Khan, son of Feroze Khan, was arrested by the NCB for possession of a few grams of cocaine, I recall one top cop ruefully telling me that they got only the small fry when they were expecting to net a very big fish indeed, who, according to their tip-off, had been present at the same spot buying from the same agent. Had they reached on time and got him, it would have caused a national sensation and overtaken Sanjay Dutt’s stellar role in this department. The name had me reeling and, at my incredulity, this officer reeled off a series of names, both male and female, who he said were regular users.

“But none of them were quite as foolish as Sanjay Dutt to leave a trail behind them. But sooner or later we will get them,” he said. They didn’t because the focus of both the government and the police shifted to other issues, open borders and the international fight against terrorism meant less avenues for the clandestine sales of drugs which, due to advent of technology, took on more untraceable forms.

But also because even cops got into the business as evident from the case in Punjab wherein a top cop thought he was escorting drug smugglers when they were actually terrorists (as in the Pathankot attack) and even political parties began to use drugs for funding as evident in the case of a meticulous inspector in Mumbai who was framed for tracking down the business to one political party in 2014.

In the meantime, Bollywood continued to snort – as a famous doctor once told me the beautiful bodies of Bollywood are merely an optical illusion. The film stars are mostly all stressed out, physically and mentally, and need the drugs to survive.

Sanjay Dutt was stressed out. Sushant Singh Rajput was too. Any bets that everybody else is not under similar pressure?

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.