The photo of Indira Gandhi meeting Karim Lala and Hridaynath Chattopadhyay that is doing the rounds now. (Image: India Today)
Underworld don Karim Lala, who ruled over Mumbai in the post-Independence era, is back in the news thanks to a controversial remark by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut. He had said former PM Indira Gandhi used to meet Karim Lala and the don had huge influence on the politics of Maharashtra. A yesteryear journalist who saw Karim Lala in his prime said he enjoyed a significant clout in Bollywood as well.
Sanjay Raut has said Indira Gandhi would often meet Karim Lala and the politicians of that era would listen to the gangster and avoid angering him. This has not only angered Congress leaders but also provided BJP with new ammunition to charge at the party.
In the middle of this is a black and white picture in which Indira Gandhi is smiling at Padma Bhushan recipient Hridaynath Chattopadhyay. In the early 1970s it was well known that don Karim Lala had a big hold on the unorganized Bollywood that was flourishing with his help. His kangaroo courts sorted out financial and even personal issues for many Bollywood personalities and that is probably why there are pictures of Karim Lala with veteran actors, Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, Shashi Kapoor and many others.
Veteran crime journalist Baljeet Parmar, who covered the underworld scene of Mumbai in the post-Independence period when Karim Lala ruled the city between the 1940s and 80s, remembers him an imposing six-footer.
Parmar says Lala always wore the Pathania suit. He had once told Parmar that even though there were many pictures of him with Bollywood celebrities he did not watch films as sitting for three hours in one place was not possible for him.
BOLLYWOOD LINK TO LALA-GANDHI MEET
Baljeet Parmar recalls that he had gone to Karim Lala's office in Dongri once to meet him when he saw a big album filled with pictures of Bollywood celebrities. There he saw pictures with Indira Gandhi too. Parmar had asked him about it and Lala told him that since he had not seen the Rashtrapati Bhavan or for that matter ever met a Prime Minister, he tagged along with actor Hridaynath Chattopadhyay for the Padma awards ceremony.
In 1973, Chattopadhyay was awarded the Padma Bhushan. It was here that the bespectacled Chattopadhyay introduced Indira Gandhi to Karim Lala. "Lala was introduced as a leader of the Pathans in India. And he in his typical Pathani style had said to Gandhi, if you come to Mumbai, remember me. It was reciprocated by Indira Gandhi as well. But this was the only time that the two had met," says Parmar.
LALA DID NOT GO TO JAIL DURING EMERGENCY
Karim Lala, according to Parmar, had been in and out of police stations many times because of his illegal activities. But during the Emergency when many underworld dons like Haji Mastan were sent to jail, Karim Lala was spared. This too had fuelled fire about his connection to the Congress.
However, according to Parmar, Lala was spared only because he was not a smuggler unlike other underworld gang leaders whose main income came from smuggling gold, silver and other materials.
"Kareem Lala used to run liquor and gambling joints. There was prohibition in Maharashtra around that time. His work stretched on for four decades because there was no other competitor before him. But he did not have any other illegitimate business," recounts Parmar, stressing that it was the only reason why he was spared during the Emergency.
THE HELEN STORY
Baljeet Parmar recalls an intriguing story right out of a 70s don film in which Karim Lala came to the rescue of Bollywood star Helen who was thrown out of her house by her husband.
Karim Lala, a thorough bred Pathan, would never look at women. One day actor Helen arrived at his door to seek help and with a note written for her by Dilip Kumar. Karim Lala still did not look at her but assured her that her problem would be solved.
Narrating the story, Parmar says, "Helen was thrown out of her house by her husband, P N Arora, who treated her very badly. She did not know what to do, so had gone to Dilip Kumar asking for help. Dilip Kumar tried to reach Lala but could not. So he sent Helen with a handwritten note to Lala in Urdu. After she met Karim Lala even before she could reach her house her husband had kept her things back in the house and left the keys with the guard and left."
The journalist remembers both Karim Lala and Dilip Kumar openly speaking about the incident.