Blinding Star

Theft in the shadow of Amitabh Bachchan

Bachchan’s weekly appearance to the public is an established ritual. mithila joshi
01 March, 2015

LATE IN THE AFTERNOON on the first Sunday of the year, fifty-six-year-old Sunitadevi Jaiswal arrived at Jalsa, Amitabh Bachchan’s two-storey bungalow in the Mumbai suburb of Juhu, with her husband and adult daughter. The family, visiting Mumbai from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, joined a tight cluster of people jostling the bungalow’s wooden gates in hope of seeing the superstar. Private guards kept the swelling crowd out, and off the adjacent walls and trees. As 6 pm approached, cries of “Aaya, aaya!”—He’s come!—rose and fell every time the gates opened for an employee or a guest. Jaiswal noticed a man hovering around her. An officer spotted the gold chain around Jaiswal’s neck, and told her to cover up.

Nearby, police constable Nirmala Bhosale, with baton swinging, herded the crowd out of the driveway before the compound. One man, not content with the promise of a mere glimpse of his idol, demanded a one-on-one meeting, and threatened immediate suicide if denied. “Not in my duty hours,” Bhosale told him, and whisked him away to the local police station, a few hundred metres away, before returning to her post.

The gates opened again, and there he was. Bachchan stood atop a stepladder in a red tracksuit, waving and smiling. The crowd squealed and spilled forward. Jaiswal pulled her sari tight around her shoulders and rose to her toes for a better look. Within a minute Bachchan was gone. And so was Jaiswal’s gold chain.

Bachchan’s fleeting darshan is a decades-long tradition, observed every Sunday afternoon that the star is home, and hundreds gather for it regularly. But not all of them are drawn here by his fame. The event has become a hotbed of petty theft, much to the chagrin of Constable Bhosale and her colleagues, whose efforts to keep the crowd calm and cautious are undone as soon as the star appears.

I joined Jaiswal, bereft and with her family in tow, as she marched to the police station to register the theft. There, she gave her name, and described a suspect—the “short, bearded man” she had noted earlier. She was led away to look through pictures of history-sheeters.

Pandit Thakre, an inspector, told me the Juhu station registered three First Information Reports of theft at the darshan in 2013, one in 2014, and one more—Jaiswal’s—so far this year. No arrests have been made in any of the cases, nor has any thief yet been caught red-handed. But another officer told me, on condition of anonymity, that the police preferred to register lost objects as missing rather than stolen. This, I was told, was to play down Jalsa’s reputation as a crime hotspot, and because the police only had to investigate further in cases of registered theft. On a follow-up visit, I asked to see the station's Missing Objects Register, and discovered fifteen instances of wallets or mobile phones going "missing" at Jalsa between 5 pm and 6.30 pm on Sundays in 2014.

But even adding up the number of stolen and “missing” items doesn’t reveal the full scale of the problem. “On many occasions, the victims don’t even come to us to register complaints of theft,” Thakre admitted. “Our attention is divided between making way for vehicles, regulating the crowd and ensuring safety of the VIP. Knowing this, criminals take advantage of the chaos.”

“People come to see the actor on their own,” Thakre later told me over the phone. “We try our best to control them and tell them to be careful,” he said, and added that there was little more the police could do. As for having cautionary posters or announcements at the site, he said, “These initiatives need to be taken from by them”—the Bachchans. “We will definitely give them the requisite permissions if they approach us.”

While he waited for his wife to complete the formalities, I struck up a conversation with Jaiswal’s husband, Sudama, a seventy-one-year-old retiree earlier employed by Tata Motors. For more than forty years, he said, he had been meaning to come to Mumbai to meet Bachchan. Having realised that a personal meeting was impossible, he was content to have simply seen the actor in the flesh. I asked if he would come to a darshan again, in spite of the theft. “If I manage to make it for a few more years,” he said, “I will.”

Jaiswal was unimpressed. “I didn’t even want to see him,” she rued. “It was my husband who insisted.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 15 cases of wallets or mobile phones going missing were registered at the Jalsa police station on one Sunday in 2014. These instances took place on multiple Sundays throughout the year. The Caravan regrets the error.

Omkar Khandekar is a journalist from Mumbai, and an alumnus of Cardiff University. His reporting from India, the Maldives and the United Kingdom has appeared in numerous publications, including The CaravanOpen and Scroll.