Headless bodies, honey traps, Bonnie and Clyde … India's movie capital is in danger of becoming its murder capital too as a series of killings capture the public imagination. Samanth Subramanian, Foreign Correspondent, reports.
Murder in Bollywood, where death imitates art
Headless bodies, honey traps, Bonnie and Clyde … India's movie capital is in danger of becoming its murder capital too as a series of killings capture the public imagination. Samanth Subramanian, Foreign Correspondent, reports
The murder and dismemberment of an aspiring starlet and a songwriter with a flash car have enthralled an Indian public with an insatiable appetite for Bollywood sleaze.
The murders in Mumbai have been dramatic, almost cinematic, in their details. In early April, Meenakshi Thapa, a 27-year-old who was pursuing an acting career, was kidnapped by a fellow bit-part actor, Amit Jaiswal, and his girlfriend Preeti Surin. Police say the couple heard Ms Thapa brag about her family's riches, and kidnapped her to demand a ransom of 1.5 million rupees (Dh105,000).
When the kidnappers discovered she had exaggerated her parents' wealth and her mother was able to pay only 60,000 rupees, police allege the couple strangled their hostage, beheaded her and dumped the parts of her body in various places outside Mumbai.
Police arrested and charged the couple two weeks ago, after tracking the victim's mobile-phone SIM card, which they had continued to use.
Ms Thapa's torso was found but police say the accused couple "couldn't tell us exactly where they threw the head."
In the second case, the body parts of a small-time Bollywood lyricist, Karan Kakkar, were found stuffed in hessian sacks in a forested area of the state of Maharashtra. He had been reported missing on April 14.
Police have arrested Simran Sood, a model and actress, and her partner, Vijay Palande. It is alleged that Mr Palande killed Mr Kakkar for his BMW car, his debit cards and jewellery worth about 5 million rupees.
Ms Sood and Mr Palande worked in tandem, police say. Ms Sood was the "honey trap" for wealthy men, and Mr Palande killed them and stole as much as possible. Mr Palande has also been charged with the murder this month of Arun Tikku, a Delhi businessman, in the same way.
The popular media in India call Mr Palande and Ms Sood "Bunty and Babli", the main characters in the 2005 Bollywood film of the same name. Movie fans will recognise the striking similarity with Bonnie and Clyde, the story of Depression-era lovers and outlaws who were shot dead by police in Louisiana in 1934.
The type of crimes that claimed Ms Thapa and Mr Kakkar are, the author Meenal Baghel told The National, "a relatively new phenomenon, even though Bombay has always been a crime-prone city".
Last year, Ms Baghel released a book entitled Death in Mumbai, about the 2008 high-profile murder of a young television producer named Neeraj Grover. That murder too was masterminded by an aspiring actress and her boyfriend.
In July last year, the actress Maria Susairaj was convicted of destroying evidence and sentenced to three years in prison, which she had already served. Her boyfriend, a naval lieutenant named Jerome Mathew, was convicted of culpable homicide and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Ms Baghel pointed out that many of the protagonists in such cases come to Mumbai from small towns across India, trying to become Bollywood stars.
"The problem is, the film industry is totally unstructured," Ms Baghel said. "It's a total free-for-all, where anybody can feel like they have a chance. You set your own bar for how far you will go. You set your own moral compass. It's just an insanely competitive world."
As in other parts of Mumbai, Bollywood is also rife with vast inequalities in wealth and status, which breed "insecurity, envy, even sexual jealousy".
On the website MumbaiBoss.com, the columnist Deepanjana Pal called Mr Palande's story "a sign that there are serious faultlines in the security that was a trademark of Mumbai. It's now the city with dollar signs in its eyes and a graveyard of broken dreams. As the gap between the rich and the poor turns into a death valley rather than a divide, it isn't surprising that the strugglers are turning to crime."
Roma Khan, a forensic archaeologist with Insaaf, a Mumbai-based homicide-scene analysis facility, pointed out that crimes driven by greed and resentment "are not specific to an industry. It's just because it's Bollywood, and because everybody's hungry to know more about Bollywood, that these cases are in the news as much as they are."
In her experience, "people coming in from small towns are uniquely vulnerable, and vulnerability leads to this sort of thing".
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the murder rate in India dropped from 45 per million population in 1991-92 to about 28 per million in 2009. "But of course, that only tells us about registered homicides," Ms Khan said. "There are still so many homicides that go unregistered."