Hussain Zaidi has been busy. Shah Rukh Khan’s production house, Red Chillies, adapted his book Class of ’83, a true story about a police encounter squad that dismantled Mumbai’s underworld. The book was turned into a Netflix film earlier this year.
Farhan Akhtar is turning his non-fiction book, Dongri to Dubai, into a web series about gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s early years in Bombay. A chapter from another non-fiction book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai, is the basis of the upcoming Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, about the brothel owner and crime matriarch.
Meanwhile, his Penguin Random House imprint, Blue Salt, has published 21 books since 2013, many in the true-crime genre. One of them, Behind Bars in Byculla, journalist Jigna Vora’s account of incarceration, is set to be adapted for the screen.
And this month, Golden Pen, the content production house Zaidi co-founded, announced a collaboration with another publisher, Westland, to encourage better crime writing and new authors, and foster digital, screen and audio adaptations
From starting out as a reporter on a newspaper’s crime beat to writing 12 books, Zaidi has, over two decades, come to shape true-crime writing in India. He’s made it a viable genre for retired policemen and investigative journalists and helped Indian tales of crime and punishment take hold in the popular imagination.
Did you imagine crime would pay this handsomely?
I didn’t! As a crime reporter, I struggled to make a living. I had no clue that 20 years on there would be a true-crime genre. Or that I could make a living telling and shaping these stories.
There are so many books, so many stories. How has the genre changed?
When I started out, books weren’t focused on research. You would connect the footprint, the weapon, the fingerprint, and lo and behold, you were a private detective. Writers were not concerned about details like the forensics, CCTV footage. The approach is more serious now. Writers no longer push that bogus stereotype of the poor man forced into crime. It’s never been true, or else all of Dharavi and Govandi would be hotbeds of criminal activity. Books and scripts now acknowledge that being poor is no justification, that it isn’t always the poor who are criminal. And criminals are shown as complex people now, etched in shades of grey.
Your first book Black Friday, about the 1993 Mumbai bombings, came out in 2002. Do our changing cities produce a new kind of criminal or network now?
Largely, the clichés still hold. Delhi is where people are drunk on their connections to authority. That proximity to power still drives crime across all strata. UP is about connections too. The perpetrator is richer, upper-class and well-connected. Victims are typically from what I call the ‘helpless class’. Privilege sets the power dynamic. In Mumbai, it may seem like money is the motive. But look closer and you’ll find that much of the crime is driven by cunning – someone figured out they could game the system. Obviously, there’s less organised crime – no share scams, film-extortion gangs, no strong underworld. But there are more ways for individuals to undertake corporate pilfering, cybercrime and bank fraud. Offences against women are on the rise.
How can our cities and urban systems prevent crime?
It’s about how our citizens are raised. We no longer teach ethics – it’s in the children’s textbooks and in the scriptures. But there’s no education to deal with everyday dilemmas in the real world. We don’t consider that our engineers, computer programmers and corporate workers need to learn about right and wrong or to think of themselves as part of society. There’s no focus on cultivating a conscience. Instead, everything is measured in monetary value.