Hussain Zaidi was one of the few journalists to get an interview with the underworld don, Dawood Ibrahim in the late 1990s. The crime beat journalist, and author of several books about the under-world like ‘Black Friday’, ‘Dongri To Dubai’, and ‘Byculla to Bangkok’, Zaidi’s known to pen stories that read like action-thriller films. So, it is no surprise that film producers queue up to acquire the rights of his book even before it is published.
Zaidi’s life too reads like anecdotes from a film. He was kidnapped in Iraq, where he was writing a piece post the fall of Saddam Hussein, blindfolded in a car with a gun to his back. He was let go only after he promised he would make the kidnappers meet Amitabh Bachchan (they pronounced it Amisha Bakkan, Zaidi thought they were talking about Amisha Patel) when they came to Mumbai.
On the eve of the August 21 Netflix release of Class of 83 starring Bobby Deol, an adaptation of Zaidi’s book ‘The Class of 83: The Punishers of Mumbai Police’, I caught up with Zaidi over the phone to discuss what his relationship is like with the movies that are made from his books.
Your book ‘The Class of 83: The Punishers of Mumbai Police’ released last September. I am assuming that Red Chillies started the discussion about adapting the book before its release, seeing that they started shooting last May itself. What was the timeline of its acquisition? How did the conversation begin?
I had the idea for this book for a long time, but it was not one of my priorities. However, over time, I started penning it down. When I was half-way through it, Red Chillies approached me and said they were looking for a subject and asked what I was writing. I gave them the story idea, they were very fascinated with it and thought of making a movie, something to pitch to Netflix. I was halfway through the manuscript and told them to take a look at it, and once I finished it, I told them, I’d give them a call. After the book was finished I sent the manuscript to Red Chillies. They got a director, a storywriter, and Atul Sabharwal (the director) came on board and that’s how the whole thing came about.
So many of your books have been adapted to films Black Friday, the chapter on Gangubai Kothewali in ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’, ‘Class of 83’, and now ‘Dongri to Dubai’ with Excel Entertainment. What is your involvement in the film once it is acquired? Do you read the script? Offer suggestions? Are you ever on set?
Usually, I am part of the writers’ room. I also read the scripts. What happens usually is that the screen version of the book is almost always different from what is written in the book. They have different compulsions; the medium is different, they have to compress a 300 page book into 2 hours. While doing that they have to skip certain things and highlight certain areas. I am just a part of the process, and they use my expertise in detailing certain scenes. But I try not to be overbearing because film is a collaborative medium.
You mentioned in an interview that for Gangubai Kathiawadi you met Bhansali and Alia Bhatt a few times but that’s about it. Is your involvement in different book adaptations different, or do you have a uniform policy?
It depends on what the project and the makers require.
95% of police encounters are fake… [T]here is no heroism in encounter [killings] but the cops still do it out of certain reasons, because they don’t want the gangsters to escape. Then people start considering them heroes which is not the case.
You have often written about the nexus between Bollywood and the crime world. But since Bollywood was given Industry status in 1998, there has been a lot of formalization. Does the nexus still exist or is as prevalent as it was?
Earlier it was too rampant, quite blatantly. Film producers and directors openly boasted, some of the stars flaunted their connections with the mafia too. They would say, “Abhi Bhai se baat kiya.” There was a certain fear and people were scared.
Now they are not so open about it. Nobody will brag and boast about their connection with Bhai. However, there are some who keep connections in a low profile, sly manner. They will only talk to Bhai when they are abroad from a different SIM, they won’t talk to Bhai when they are in Mumbai. They know there is surveillance and their phone is probably being tapped. So, connections are there and people do keep in touch for old times sake, or whatever reason.
By “Bhai” are you referring to Dawood Ibrahim specifically or anyone in the underworld?
I am using it in a broad sense. I mean Chota Shakeel… Abu Salem is in jail so he’s not applicable. I mean gangsters who might be abroad. Up until a few years ago, some shady producers were funding movies and these guys were a front for the mafia’s ill-gotten illicit money.
Do you think your books naturally lend themselves to being made into films or is there something you consciously do while writing to make it more narratively coherent?
You must have heard the phrase, “Fact is stranger than fiction.” Those who know the history of the mafia, will know that the kind of action scenes that have happened in the history of Mumbai, is far more gruesome and graphic, violent and much more cinematic than what some screenwriters may have imagined.
For example, killing a criminal inside a courtroom by a guy dressed as a lawyer has happened in reality! Going and killing a rival inside a lockup and smashing his head with a hammer, and using bombs and grenades to enter a guarded lockup… these are the realities! I am not imagining things. I am just being a crime journalist, giving a vivid description. Maybe the filmmakers or screenwriters reading the book get totally stunned! Which is why instead of imagining make-believe details, they are relying on reality. The world is moving towards real cinema and biographies, which is why they are interested in my books.
I want to ask about the valorization of encounter killings. We have seen that last year with the Hyderabad Police shooting the rapists, and more recently with Vikas Dubey. Are you worried we might be valorizing these encounters? The tone of the Class of 83 trailer seems like it might be doing just that.
When I write a book I don’t go beyond what actually happened. Now a filmmaker might have a different take. I am often asked about the glamorization of the mafia. But it is not really the glamorization of the mafia. The whole thing is that they want to cast a hero in the role of a gangster and because the hero has a certain fan following, they have to pander to the ego of the actor, projecting him in a certain light. They have to justify his taking to crime. It’s actually creating a hero’s arc/journey for the screen which leads to a lot of these dramatisation decisions.
I am not doing that. In my books I have described gangsters in the most cunning, wily manner; how they often resort to religion for a camouflage to hide their devious deeds. I am not being nice or justifying their deeds. But when it is made for the screen, you have no control over that.
Similarly in encounter killings. After the Vikas Dubey incident, I wrote a piece where I said 95% of police encounters are fake. I have covered crime for 25 years. I don’t think police officers will be able to take on these gangsters one-on-one if it comes to a shootout. They just realize that based on the evidence, if they arrest the gangster and they present him in court, they won’t be able to present a solid case leading to conviction. So they have to dramatize the incident where the gangster is said to have escaped and they had to shoot him dead and all of that. Now when you say these things people end up doing hero worship. They think the cop is brave, and managed to kill a ferocious gangster, which is not the case.
In my books I wrote about this gangster whom the police tried to kill thrice in fake encounters and he survived all three despite sometimes suffering 16 bullet injuries!
My point is that there is no heroism in encounters but the cops still do it out of certain reasons, because they don’t want the gangsters to escape. Then people start considering them heroes which is not the case.
Do you feel the same about the specific encounter killings described in ‘Class of 83’?
I clearly said in my book that these cops who started becoming the law enforcers somewhere along the line tried to change, and become the law unto themselves. When you work so much, and there is media adulation, and you are invited to influential parties, it gets to your head, and you start believing in your own heroism which is actually fake.
I want to end with asking you about that curious anecdote of Iraqi terrorists making you promise to get Amitabh Bachchan to meet them. Have they followed up since?
No, but when I gave my number to them, I gave one wrong digit. So there’s no way for them to come down to Mumbai and track me down. If they can’t pronounce Amitabh Bachchan’s name correctly how will they contact me?