How Bollywood Went Underground

The Indian government conferred industry status on its film industry only in 2001. For years, the best way to fund movies was through the world of crime.

Michaela Stone Cross

November 27, 2019

How Bollywood Went Underground
Gamal Abdel Nasser at the Filmfare Awards, March 1960; Though the Indian state didn't recognize film as an industry, it has had a history of state leaders interact with its stars and Bollywood events. (Wikimedia)

It was the winter of 2000, and Shah Rukh Khan, “King of Bollywood,” was hiding in his costar’s trailer. Not from paparazzi, or rabid fans, but from a man in a suit. The man, Nazeem Rizvi, claimed to be a producer, but in reality, represented a powerful crime lord called Chhota Shakeel. Years of Bollywood’s collusion with the underworld meant that Khan was used to receiving death threats: hits like Devdas (2002) were funded by the underworld, with “black money.” 

“The underworld had grown to the extent that 80 to 90% of the films being made were funded by the underworld,” said Sanjiv Puri, a veteran writer from the industry. “There were certain producers who were close to gangsters. You’d see them sometimes sitting with a rough-looking guy on sets.”

Until 2001, a legal quirk had made Bollywood an underground business. Cinema was not given “industry status,” which meant producers could not borrow from banks or even apply for insurance. The central government refusing to recognize film meant that those who funded films either had money to launder, or just to burn.

“It was never looked at as a serious industry,” said Puri. “According to the powers-that-be, ‘industry’ was the cement industry or the auto industry.”

While the Soviet Union was pumping out cinema through state-funded artists such as Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, India’s government did little to foster the burgeoning art. Crippling entertainment taxes and obstructionist Licence Raj meant that the Indian state harmed more than helped film. Bollywood, as a result, is something of a miracle: the bastard child no one wanted, who outshone all the rest. 

“If you look at the list of shelved films, it’s huge until the ’80s,” said film historian S.M.M. Ausaja. “That’s when corporatization began. The black money became white and the probability of a film getting completed was higher. There was no ambiguity of funding like there was in the past.”

From the 1940s to 1960s, Hindi film was funded largely by distributors. Producers would sign an artist and pitch the movie to distribution companies from territories across the nation. But the ’60s saw the dawn of the star system: escalating production costs meant that distributors only accounted for 50% of funding. The remaining half had to be collected from whoever was willing to pay.