Mumbai’s Disappearing Underworld

Bollywood has always drawn inspiration from its home city’s underworld. But where did all the gangsters go?

Michaela Stone Cross

November 18, 2019

Mumbai’s Disappearing Underworld
Dawood Ibrahim (Quartz)

“Organized crime never goes away,” said Smita Nair, a veteran crime reporter for the Indian Express. “You may not see them as underworld, but they now come in another form, another sin.”

For decades, Bombay was a city of crime lords, a place that produced not just gangster movies, but also powerful gangs. From Nayakan (1987) to Company (2002) to Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010), Bollywood has taken constant inspiration from Bombay’s underworld: dons financed films and dated stars, while writers interviewed real-life criminals to get dialogues from the source. Between the 1980s to the early 2000s, it didn’t matter how famous you were: one call could change your life or end it. Rich men bowed before them, politicians feared them.

But now Mumbai is one of India’s safest cities. “The underworld scene in Bombay is dead,” said Mohamed Thaver, special correspondent for the Indian Express. “There are no real crime lords anymore. Now if I get a random call, I’m not going to pay up.”

Today, as one local put it, “the police are the real dons of Bombay.” Crimelords rise when they are needed. So where did Mumbai’s gangsters go?

Mumbai’s underworld can be traced to the rise of Haji Mastan in 1947, then just a coolie working the Mazagon docks. Mastan figured out a way to get past the British-imposed customs duties, and eventually started smuggling everything from watches to gold. 

“The Indian economy had not opened up,” said Thaver. “So a lot of these foreign products, such as watches, would be smuggled via ships. These guys began controlling the docks and ensured that the stuff got in.”

The underworld takes on a greater role when a government is both strict and ineffectual: the era of Nehruvian socialism (1947-1991) worked in the same way as American Prohibition, providing an obvious need for a parallel economy. 

“Gangsters operated due to a political, police, and criminal nexus,” said reporter Vaibhav Jha of the Hindustan Times.

Gangsters weren’t just dealing in drugs and girls — they were lending money and settling rent disputes. The police not only tolerated but also actively worked with gangsters, who gave cops tip-offs and necessary funds. Cops in India have been historically extremely underpaid, compelling even honest policemen to take bribes. 

“The police and the politicians formed the gangs together,” said Kuli Mohammad, a Mumbai shopkeeper. “They are part of the same system.” Dawood Ibrahim was the son of a police constable. With the help of cops, Ibrahim eliminated his rivals, formed the D-Company, and rose to become not just the most powerful gangster in Bombay, but also one of the most powerful people in the world