Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  The reluctant Mafioso

Don’t blame the don, it’s the marquee that does the trick. It’s debatable whether yesteryear don Haji Mastan deserves immortality through celluloid; what’s true is that mere mortals become larger than life on 70mm.

The gangster has always been fodder for Bollywood. Our scriptwriters have Indianized internationally known characters. They rechristened Dawood Ibrahim “D", a rip-off on the merchant of death in Central Africa and Asia—Viktor Bout (better known as V). They then renamed Chhota Rajan as the Intelligence Bureau’s Lucky Luciano (a Sicilian Mafiosi who helped British allies during World War II). In Kamal Haasan’s Nayagan and Vinod Khanna’s Dayavan, the late Matunga don Varadarajan Mudaliar got a halo to adorn his obit.

Mastan was set to be our answer to the Godfather.

We will soon watch another interpretation of his life. Blurring the lines between hero and villain, will Ajay Devgn’s histrionics add another layer to the myth in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (the film releases on 30 July)?

In his times Mastan was lucky to watch himself portrayed by none other than the Big B in Deewaar. Mastan’s compatriot Karim Lala got his own little moment under the sun when Pran portrayed him in Zanjeer as the good-hearted Pathan. After the movie, Lala gained a fan club and almost managed to escape his past as a goon.

The irony is, Mastan was not a dreaded gangster like Dawood or a muscleman like Mudaliar. He was simply a reformed smuggler. He never gave up smuggling for any noble reason, as recorded by films in the past. He gave up smuggling because he feared the law. When he needed muscle, he forged partnerships with gangsters and did not create his own gang. The aura around Mastan is simply a product of directors’ imaginations and a biopic’s inherent potential to glorify its subject.

But what made a man like Mastan tick? What was his ticket to power? To sum it up in a word, it was his alliances—two of the most notorious musclemen in Mumbai, Karim Lala and Mudaliar.

Mastan used people to his advantage. Even Dawood Ibrahim resented that his father, retired head constable Ibrahim Kaskar, was treated shabbily by Mastan. Kaskar was an honest policeman and had considerable clout among the city’s Muslim community and policemen, which Mastan tapped. The first bank robbery in 1974 that Dawood was involved in was carried out under the impression that he was looting Mastan’s Rs4.75 lakh. However, it turned out that the money belonged to Metropolitan Bank, not Mastan. So, contrary to popular perception, Mastan was not Dawood’s boss, but his bete noir.

Mastan was a wealthy man. But he realized that he could not buy respectability. While his wealth brought him acolytes in police and political circles, he could not shed his image as a smuggler. He was the first one to be jailed during the Emergency under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa). He yearned for credibility and dabbled in Bollywood hoping that the stardust would rub off on him. Attempts at funding several Muslim social movies to promote his actor wife Sona also bombed.

Mastan’s life is the stuff of legend for another reason: It epitomized the quintessential rags to riches story that the metropolis became synonymous with. It was a life built on opportunity and hope. Similarities to the character of Don Corleone in The Godfather are obvious. Mastan started out as a coolie and rose to the pinnacle of affluence and power.

Mastan Haider Mirza was born on 1 March 1926 into a farmer’s family in Panaikulam, a small village 20km from Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu. His father, Haider Mirza, was a hard-working but impoverished farmer, who came to Mumbai after failing to make ends meet in his village. Father and son reached the city in 1934. After trying their hand at odd jobs, they managed to set up a small shop where they repaired cycles and two-wheelers in Bengali Pura, near Crawford Market. Mastan soon realized that even after all the toil he could only make a meagre Rs5 a day.

As he would walk home to his basti from Crawford Market, he would see the grand theatres, Alfred and Novelty, on south Mumbai’s Grant Road. He would stare at the cars of Mumbai’s rich and famous, their Malabar Hill bungalows, and dream. He wanted to be rich and famous.

In 1944, Mastan joined the Bombay docks as a coolie—his job was to unload huge boxes and containers of ships coming from Aden, Dubai, Hong Kong and other cities. Here Mastan learnt a few tricks. The British levied import duty on the goods that came in and there was a good margin to be made if this could be evaded. In those days, Philips transistors and imported watches were a rage in Mumbai. Around that time, he met a man named Shaikh Mohammed Al Ghalib, an Arab by descent. Ghalib was looking for someone who was willing to help and support him do exactly the same.

Soon after independence, smuggling on a big scale was unheard of. There were petty smugglers dabbling in permissible quantities, which back then used to be six watches, two gold biscuits, four Philips transistors, and so on. The Arab told Mastan that being a coolie, it would be easy for him to tuck a couple of biscuits in his headband, stash a few watches in his underwear or a couple of transistors in his jhola. The Arab promised a good reward, and they were in business.

In 1950, Morarji Desai, the chief minister of the then Bombay Presidency, imposed prohibition on liquor and other items. With such impositions in the state, the mafia of the time saw an opportunity to rake in more profits through smuggling.

The windfall came in 1956 when Mastan came in contact with Sukur Narayan Bakhia, a resident of Daman and the biggest smuggler in Gujarat. Bakhia and Mastan became partners and divided certain territories among themselves. Mastan handled the Bombay port and Bakhia the Daman port. The smuggled items would come to Daman port from the UAE and to Mumbai from Aden. Mastan took care of Bakhia’s consignments.

His rise was phenomenal. But Emergency took the wind out of his sails. The smuggler was incarcerated. The man who came out after 18 months in jail was reformed and surprisingly emerged a hero. Mastan Mirza began to introduce himself as Haji Mastan and began using the prefix of Haji, which refers to devout Muslims who have been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, before his name.

The erstwhile smuggler with all the symbols of glamorous fame—a beautiful, aspiring starlet and a Malabar Hill residence—was trying to wipe the slate clean. While he yearned for respectability all his life, his redemption lay in his past—or at least the media thought so.

A fledgling political organization to tap into his popularity didn’t work out and his attempts to forge a strategic alliance with Dalit leader Jogendra Kawade and form the Dalit Muslim Suraksha Mahasangh as an answer to the Shiv Sena also turned out to be a bad idea.

The media didn’t want a politician with a murky past, they wanted Haji Mastan, the don. And that’s what they chose to talk, write and make movies about. Mastan’s life might not have been the most dramatic among Indian mafiosi, but it was without doubt the most accessible.

How else can you justify three films on Mastan and the absolute oblivion of Sukur Narayan Bakhia, a man who lived a far more dramatic life. Mastan lived in Malabar Hill, Bakhia in the obscure town of Porbandar. The marquee does the trick.

Hussain Zaidi is resident editor, The Asian Age, Mumbai. He is currently working on his second book, Dongri to Dubai, which chronicles the history of Mumbai’s underworld.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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