Authors: Shadaab Amjad Khan
PENGUIN BOOKS AND BLUE SALT
Shadaab Amjad Khan is a Bollywood actor and scriptwriter by profession, hailing from one of the oldest film families in the country, with its most famous member being his father, the late actor Amjad Khan.
Shadaab made his acting debut with the film
Raja Ki Aayegi Baaraat
, after which he starred in several films, while also working behind the scenes as a scriptwriter, before finally moving on to his long-cherished dream of turning a novelist.
Shadaab lives in Mumbai with his wife, Rumana, and is planning to make his directorial debut soon.
To my late father,
How ironic that our greatest regrets are one and the same.
To my mother,
Love you with all my heart.
To Rumana, my better half,
You are my strength and my biggest weakness. Thank you for completing me.
Yeh hai Bollywood, meri jaan. Yahan dil milein ya na milein, hath milate rehena.
The sensational film-land killings which rocked the entire nation and generated unprecedented media frenzy have now been named the Bollywood Murders. In its official statement to the press, the Mumbai Police has named the killer as one Manjeet, who when confronted with the overwhelming evidence, made a full confession. The motive behind the killings was, however, not revealed and neither did the crime branch's Special Case Squad give out any photograph of this Manjeet, making it impossible to know the perpetrator's sex or identity. âWe have deliberately withheld certain information from the press and public alike, purely to safeguard the reputation of a number of innocent people who found themselves dragged unwittingly into this sordid affair,' a police spokesperson clarified. But when quizzed about the rumour that more than one arrest was made, the gentleman declined to comment, looking rather uncomfortable, and ended the press conference abruptly. It was all this acute secrecy that attracted my publisher to this extraordinary case, who, in turn, commissioned me to get to the bottom of the mystery and unmask it before the public in the form of a crime novel. Now, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have had a problem uncovering the truth, considering that I am a former investigative journalist who had always enjoyed an excellent rapport with the police department. But this time around things were decidedly different, as all my efforts to get to the heart of the matter were repeatedly shot down by the very people whose friendship I had cultivated over the years. Why, even Mumbai Police's finest, Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan, who single-handedly cracked the case, was at his uncooperative best, albeit with his trademark smile and impeccable manners very much in play.
âI have no doubt, SK, that sooner or later you will uncover the whole truth. And when you do, ask yourself the question, what is of greater importanceâyour desire for an explosive bestselling novel, or the need to safeguard certain reputations, which will undoubtedly lie in tatters once the facts are made public?' the good inspector said as he walked me to the door and bid me farewell.
The following day itself, I set out in pursuit of this one big story the whole world wanted revealed, while those in power wanted it concealed. During my quest, I would bribe, cajole and coerce a host of gossips, busybodies and eavesdropping underlings connected to the glamour world and the police. They were, in fact, collectors of whispers here and there who became privy to the information which interested me.
But today, as I sit at my desk a little after midnight, with all the facts no longer beyond my reach, I understand without doubt that Inspector Khan was right and the truth about the Bollywood Murders must never be revealed. However, I have decided to create a detailed account of this complex and terrifying matter, strictly for my eyes and personal benefit, perhaps as a grim reminder of the baseness of the human soul, which in this case was a dark, malevolent entity, who spawned a seed most evil, and so its progeny was twisted and diseased.
The date was December the fifteenth. The place, Mumbai's iconic Gulistan Studio. Raju, the security guard, glanced at his watch. It showed twenty minutes past ten. He then stretched his legs and rose from his chair inside the makeshift cabin by the studio's main gate. For the next few minutes, Raju continued to stare out of the cabin window into the darkness which encompassed him, looking ill at ease, no doubt from a sense of sheer reluctance which he encountered night after night, just before venturing forth into the winter chill and eerie solitude to conduct his customary rounds throughout the length and breadth of the studio.
âNo need to go about patrolling this jungle area, crawling with wild animals, in the dead of night. No one is here to see if you went on your rounds or not. The studio is always deserted night and day, and because of all the cost cutting, you are the only security guard on duty, so just sit back in your cabin, turn on the radio and go to sleep.' Nimbu Lal, his predecessor, had advised.
Fair words on hindsight, considering that Gulistan Studio was located in Mumbai's north-western suburb of Borivali, an area surrounded by dense forest; so it was not uncommon to have the occasional jackal or leopard saunter past a bustling film set, albeit from a safe distance. But once the studio announced it was close to being sold, and stopped renting itself out altogether, nightly visitations by both scavengers and predators went up at least tenfold, for in the absence of the arc lights, cameras and film crews, Gulistan Studio was a dark and desolate place, fifty thousand square yards of ghost town bordering the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, whose nocturnal inhabitants, suddenly unfettered from the boundaries of human civilization, had found themselves a brand-new playground. But in spite of such imminent danger staring him in the face, Raju seemed unperturbed, so much so that his actions were always contrary to Nimbu Lal's line of thinking, and all because of the lesson his father had ingrained in him a long time ago, that when a task is undertaken, it becomes the person's sacred duty to see it through. And besides, the motto of his employer, Bullet Security Agency, weighed heavily on his mind, which wasn't the case with the slacker Nimbu Lal, who didn't consider the tag line âyou hire, we fire' inspirational. But, for Raju, those very words were his guiding light which had led him to three consecutive employee-of-the-month awards, and he wasn't about to forsake his success mantra because of something as commonplace as fear; so with a cast-iron look of finality burning bright in his eyes, he wrapped his blanket around himself real tight, then tugged at his monkey cap with both hands, adjusting it so that it fit snugly over his head, covering both ears, after which he reached out for his lathi and his flashlight lying nearby, then opened the cabin door and stepped out into the cold night air.
âMud, mud ke na dekh, mud, mud ke, mud, mud ke na dekh, mud, mud ke, zindagi ke safar mein tu akela hi nahin hain, hum bhi tere hamsafar hain,'
played the radio just then, left all by itself on the cabin floor, the strains of its melody turning fainter to Raju's ears with every step that took him further away.
A short distance from that radio, just beyond the studio's main gate, ran the near-abandoned byroad simply known as Route 15, whose snake-like stretch of concrete connected the studio to the ever-busy National Highway 8, less than three miles away. At around ten-thirty, a solitary car appeared along Route 15, moving forward at breakneck speed, and screeched to a halt just before the studio's main gate. Raju spun around sharply as the beams from the car's headlights cast a shadow over his shoulder; then he made a frantic dash to unlock the main gate even as the man behind the wheel continued to honk incessantly. Nikhil Kapoor was behind the wheelâNikhil Kapoor, Bollywood's biggest film director. He scowled in reply to Raju's overenthusiastic salute as his Rolls-Royce Ghost slowly made its way into the studio compound and disappeared into the darkness ahead. It was a lot earlier than ten-thirty every night that Nikhil Kapoor visited Gulistan Studio and stayed back until the wee hours of the morning. As a matter of fact, he was the only one allowed to enter that place even as it remained off limits to every other filmi bigwig.
That's becauseâso went the unanimous opinionâhe was a troublemaker who raised hell if he didn't get his way.
But in reality, the only reason why Nikhil Kapoor received that privilege was because of his association with Gulistan Studio, which went back a long way. It all began exactly a decade ago when NK (as he was popularly known) made his directorial debut with a small-budget film titled
Kabhi Pyaar Kar Ke Dekho
, which was shot in and around that studio. In fact, even the script of that film, written by Nikhil Kapoor over a period of 120 nights, was begun and completed inside Gulistan's Stage 7, which was a warehouse-like space with an impossibly high ceiling and a giant front door, at the centre of which was a smaller door. In other words, Stage 7 was a run-of-the-mill film stage found in every other studio, used specifically to erect all those magical sets that Bollywood is so famous for. However, once
Kabhi Pyaar Kar Ke Dekho
became a superhit, firmly establishing its director as the next big thing, Stage 7 ceased to be a humdrum filming space, for whenever NK needed to work on a new film script, he wouldn't travel to London, Paris or New York like some of his contemporaries. He would simply telephone Gulistan Studio and hire its Stage 7, where he would work in solitude night after night, until his script was complete. And since each and every one of the five films he wrote and directed became box office superhits, that warehouse-like space from where his journey once began became a hallowed ground, apart from becoming his own personal talisman, which the owners of Gulistan Studio readily made available to him, come what may. But if rumours were to be believed, Nikhil Kapoor was an odd man indeed, with the most peculiar work rituals. Firstly, he would always enter Gulistan Studio at night, a little after nine, and all by himself. Secondly, he would drive across to Stage 7 at the far end of the studio without as much as a hello to anyone around, then lock himself inside his private sanctuary, with a table and chair out for him well before he had arrived. But the third and strangest of all rituals was his habit of suddenly getting up from his chair in between his writing, and walking about the empty stage in the dead of night, laughing and talking all to himself in many different voices, presumably enacting the various characters from his script, even as he tinkered with the light switch, flipping it on and off repeatedly, only to stop as abruptly as he started and immerse himself in his work once more, before jumping out of his chair a little while later and doing the same thing all over again. So very strange indeed.
Around fifteen minutes later, as Raju was halfway through his round, he heard a low, ominous growl. He quickly turned his flashlight in its direction, and that's when he saw the carcass of a mongrel that had been torn to bits, lying a short distance away, and right beside it was a pair of burning eyes, staring at him from the bushes nearby. It was one of the leopards of Gulistan Studio, no doubt, who had just enjoyed a late-night snack. There was a hint of contentment in the leopard's growl, as if to indicate that its belly was full; so Raju was not in any imminent danger. However, it was prudent to beat a quick retreat lest the animal get provoked. Without a moment's delay, Raju turned in the opposite direction and began to walk away, wiping the sudden beads of sweat breaking on his forehead, even as he threw glances over his shoulder from time to time; the grip around his lathi got tighter with every step, then he looked around once more and heaved a sigh of relief, as the leopard was no longer in sight. Raju stood rooted to the spot in absolute silence, until his heart ceased to beat violently. He then moved hurriedly towards the safety of his cabin, abandoning his nightly rounds, as he had had enough excitement to last a lifetime. Suddenly, an ear-piercing scream shattered the silence of the night and, as Raju looked around startled, trying to determine where that sound came from, realization dawned that apart from him the only other person present on the studio lot was Nikhil Kapoor. As Raju made a frantic dash towards Stage 7, he couldn't help but think that the film-maker must've wandered outdoors and was attacked by a wild animal, probably by the same leopard which had mauled the stray a little while ago. But there was no leopard or even Nikhil Kapoor's mangled remains, for the only thing that welcomed Raju as he reached his destination was a morbid silence which he never knew existed. A short distance away from where he stood was Nikhil Kapoor's Rolls-Royce, and just beyond that loomed Stage 7's giant front door, with the smaller door at its centre left ajar, revealing total darkness at the other end. As Raju pushed open the door to investigate, the first thing that struck him was a strong, pungent odour emanating from inside, which strangely smelt like burning flesh. Disturbed by this discovery, Raju called out to Nikhil Kapoor repeatedly, with more than a hint of panic in his voice, but all he could hear was his own echo reverberating in the emptiness of that space, as if it meant to say, why don't you come in, for something terrifying lies in wait.
âNikhil sir, is this a joke? Are you trying to scare me?' Raju inquired. He stepped inside nervously, the solitary beam from his flashlight illuminating the path ahead, revealing an empty chair, along with a makeshift writing table on which lay a stack of writing paper, a bottle of ink and a fountain pen, as Nikhil Kapoor never worked on a laptop or computer; he always wrote by hand. There was also a bottle of Scotch, a glass, and a bucket of ice lying at the foot of the table, but the owner of all these things was nowhere to be seen. Visibly perplexed, Raju directed his flashlight towards the ceiling, in the direction of the scaffolding, made almost entirely out of ropes and wooden planks, which circled the length and breadth of the stage, and was designed specifically to bear the weight of the mighty arc lights. Nikhil Kapoor had been seen up there a couple of times in the past. He called it walking the plank, which was something he indulged in to get the creative juices flowing on an off day. But on that particular night, the scaffolding lay desertedâMr Kapoor had well and truly turned invisible. Just then, Raju had an epiphany that made the hair at the back of his neck stand up. It was a sudden awareness, an inkling that there was someone hiding in the darkness to his right, crouching by the light switch in the corner. Perhaps it was a thief who had sneaked into the studio to see what he could get. Or worse, maybe an obsessed fan who had caused Nikhil Kapoor grave bodily harm. Raju spun around in the blink of an eye and charged towards the perpetrator with his lathi raised above his head in readiness for a fearsome strike, but the morbidness that his flashlight revealed made him scream a terrifying scream, then fall to the ground with his eyes wide open and face as white as a sheet. He had just found Nikhil Kapoor, you see, lying on the floor in a crumpled heap, his body charred to the colour of the night, with his right hand turned to a terrifying shade of black, on account of it being stuck to the light switch for a while as it electrocuted, then released him when it short-circuited, plunging Stage 7 into darkness. He always liked tinkering with that light switch, did Nikhil Kapoor, although he had been warned that Stage 7 was well past its prime and its wiring was old and obsolete. Pity he didn't listen; he could've been among the living, instead of dying by electricity.