The movie Aa Dinagalu came highly recommended. Saw it on a list on Reddit, and it had been coming up in conversation every now and then.
I watched it, and loved it.
The title, literally Those Days, seems like one of a mellow tale of student days. Instead, you’re treated to the film version of two of the most landmark events in the history of Bangalore crime. The best part? None of it was even made up. Not the industrialist who hires rowdies to keep his son off of a girl of another caste, not the rich kid who takes it as a personal affront and decides to off the city’s biggest don.
I couldn’t get enough.
I watched the ‘sequel’, Edegarike. It has the same people. But a different story. More intense on the mindblerg.
I decided to read the book it was all based on. Agni Sridhar’s My Days in the Underworld – Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. I devoured all six hundred pages of it in a day and a half. I had never, ever read such a juicy, fast-paced, erudite book before.
The closest anyone’s come to to writing about organized crime in India other than this has to be Hussain Zaidi, who has written extensively on the Mumbai underworld. Those books are infinitely more famous than Agni Sridhar’s, given they have been the basis for movies like D, Company and Shootout at Lokhandwala and its sequel, Shootout at Wadala. I devoured those books too. But it felt like there was something missing, something not quite up my street.
And Agni Sridhar hit that spot.
Think about the Bollywood depiction of the Underworld, and Dons. Gangmembers are always introduced in a cloud of smoke. They are always nuzzling the muzzle of a gun. Cussing. There are cool camera angles, and music. Oh and some vamps, who almost always dress like fisherwomen and have paan-reddened lips. And they call each other Bhai all the time. And even the songs aren’t complete without bhai dialogue in them.
That’s the gangmembers. Then there’s the policemen. Poverty-stricken, with families, and corrupt. The one honest cop is either as evil as the gangs or he is off’d in the first thirty minutes.
And the Don. They are all based off of someone’s impression of Dawood. The Don is usually Quiet. Not quiet, but Quiet. All you see of him is one look, one nod, one wave of the hand. And maybe a nasal voice. They mess this up with Don Corleone sometimes, and you get Sarkaar. In that, the Don does everything silently. He manages to communicate everything from an execution order to intense desire in one look. It was fascinating when Brando did it, but when Amitabh Bachchan does it, it is plain overdone.
When bad guys were the protagonists in Satya, it was new and refreshing. Now it’s the same old grind, same old glorification of gore and violence. It feels fake after the third or fourth time. The roles get written as chores, not as a genuine feeling in someone’s heart.
The books are insightful. You’ve never heard of half the crazy things that happened. The stories are exciting. They touch on politics, history, social dynamics, and are just plain fun. But it’s obvious they aren’t Hussain Zaidi’s own perspective. They are dramatized versions of stories someone tells him, and they seem to tell him the Bollywood masala versions of those stories. And you kind of empathize with him putting those stories out there – he’ll be bumped off if he doesn’t, it feels like. After all, in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, he very conveniently skips Dawood’s sister Haseena Parkar who died only recently.
Contrast with the Kannada versions. The movies are based each on one incident in the book. And they get as de-glam as they get. No convenient camera angles, minimal swearing, no women showing tons of skin. No flashy gangsters. And best of all, the most it goes to ‘silent don’ is Atul Kulkarni gently telling the hotheaded male protagonist, ‘Anger must always be a positive emotion’.
And yet, at something as benign as ‘I’m Sridhar Murthy, Advocate’, you find your hair stand on end.
The book…. the book is something else. I don’t have enough words for it, but I’ll try. First of all, hardly anyone gets into crime solely because of poverty. Rowdyism is not glorified, but at the same time not vilified either. The tone is very matter-of-fact. You hear shady stuff about everyone in Karnataka public life and politics. Most of the rowdies even have day jobs. And cult nicknames as well.
Various con schemes are elaborated on. Violence is not the first resort, and killing is certainly more plotted than actually carried out. And, heck, the police even keep their integrity and power for the most part.
And that, everybody, is the difference between a crime novel written by the fanboys of a Don, and one written by the Don himself.
Agni Sridhar survived the rule of two dons of Bangalore, Kotwal Ramachandra and Jayaraj, and was second-in-command to Muthappa Rai, before couping him out of town and pretty much being the Don. Until finally he decides he has enough and reforms. And starts the tabloid Agni.
The other difference between Agni Sridhar and Hussain Zaidi? Sridhar studied Law. His bag on stakeouts had two ‘long’ swords and two books. He read extensively. He moved in the same circles as Lankesh (one of his first arrests was for beating up Gowri Lankesh’s stalker) and counted among his friends professors at Bangalore University. Hussain Zaidi… in a talk he gave once, he said reportage is not about the writing ability, and that he didn’t know to write in English when he first came to Mumbai. As much as we like to think that doesn’t make a difference, it does.
It’s not about the language. Agni Sridhar’s book was translated from Kannada. But he is a born raconteur. The tales are told matter-of-factly. Each bit is narrated with so much insight and understanding. Though it is a first-person account, it has a third-person detachment to it, none of the dramatization or strong emotion.
It’s a good read, a fun read. More so if you are from South Bangalore. The nooks and corners I grew up around, they were used for shady meetings upon shady meetings. A restaurant a stone’s throw from where I lived was planned by Muthappa Rai to be the scene of Sridhar’s murder.
He speaks out against Kannada tabloids glamorizing rowdyism when in reality it wasn’t anything like that. And how it led to him eventually starting his own. There’s tidbits on famous journalists like Tejsaswini Gowda and HR Ranganath. And pages about Ravi Belagere. And about how he tried convincing BC Patil to stick to policing and not do movies. A ‘senior’ Swamiji at Siddaganga Mutt paying him to ‘off’ the ‘junior’ Swamiji.
Preying on and extorting homosexuals in Krishna Rao park in the ’80s. Roughing up couples around Bugle Rock and robbing them. Using a fake currency racket as a front and conning people.
And the best ever twist? Sridhar gets into a life of crime because Kotwal’s men broke his brother’s leg for no reason. The brother on the other hand studies well and becomes a cop. Such a successful cop that even in 2012, there were issues about posting him to Kumaraswamy Layout police station as his ex-don brother was living in the same area and was involved in several land deals.
The movies are made by Sumana Kittur, who seems an out and out bold village girl, the sort that Sridhar seems to respect a lot (He says that glowingly about Tejaswini Gowda). Given her background and how quickly she got taken under Sridhar’s wing when she gets to Bangalore, it feels like he’s been ghost-directing the movies anyway. And doing a better job than RGV and Mahesh Bhatt put together.
True crime fiction’s got a long way to go in India. For now, the ones that are going to be popular as hell are going to be Hussain Zaidi’s, because they are so influential, and about Mumbai. But Agni Sridhar’s account is better than any I’ve ever come across, a true first-hand account. Zaidi says he’s the first one to put together an account of the Mumbai underworld, and I still wish there had been someone as sharp as Sridhar to write about it than Zaidi who simply compiles accounts.
Read them all. But start with Zaidi and move on to Sridhar. Start with the movies and move on to the books. You’ll appreciate them all well that way.