Jason Burke in Delhi 

Meenakshi Thapar’s death in Mumbai adds to horror in Bollywood

Indians have been gripped by the grisly fate of the young actor, which follows the violent death of the producer Karan Kakkad
  
  

The plot might have come from one of the films she was so desperate to star in. A young, beautiful girl from an up-country town arrives in the big city, gets lucky with a role in a B-movie and brags about her wealthy family. Overheard on the set by two fellow actors, she is allegedly kidnapped and held for ransom. When her boasts of wealth turn out to be unfounded, she is killed and parts of her body hurled from a moving train.

However, the fate of 26-year-old Meenakshi Thapar is no Bollywood horror flick but a true crime, the details of which have been revealed in successive front-page stories by India's press over recent days.

Amit Jaiswal, 36, and his lover, Preeti Surin, were arrested after police found them in possession of Thapar's mobile phone sim card. Police said they later confessed to strangling her.

Along with a spate of similar cases, the murder has provoked deep concern in Mumbai, India's sprawling commercial and creative powerhouse where Thapar allegedly met her killers, as well as morbid fascination across India.

Shobhaa Dé, a socialite and writer based in Mumbai, said inhabitants of the city could no longer smugly contrast themselves with Delhi, which has long had a reputation for brutal sexual violence.

"There was a time when Mumbaikars would express shock and awe at the violent goings-on in the national capital … We would say a trifle smugly, 'Thank God we live in a civilised city' … Till a recent spate of grisly, cold-blooded killings woke us up to a harsh new reality," Dé wrote in her column for the Asian Age newspaper at the weekend.

The other recent murder mystery in Mumbai involved an aspiring producer, another actor/model and her partner. In that case it was the producer, 28-year-old Karan Kakkad, who ended up dead. The actor-model, a socialite called Simran Sood who has been pictured in local media with a variety of cricketers, top businessmen and A-list Bollywood stars, has since been arrested along with her partner, an alleged gangster.

Sood's story also reads like a movie script. Like Thapar, she had gone to Mumbai with dreams of becoming a Bollywood star but had not managed to break into films. She met her partner while he was working in a restaurant near her gym, and police say the pair killed Kakkad, allegedly out of greed, because of the BMW he drove. Sood, who is alleged to have acted as a honey trap, flew to Bangkok. Her partner is said to have been found using Kakkad's credit cards. Veteran police officers say that the number of such incidents is unprecedented.

"We used to get the odd case like this but never so many. We never saw things so well organised before either," said Sachin Vaze, a security consultant who retired from Mumbai police after 20 years when elite anti-gangster units were disbanded five years ago.

The murders of Kakkad and Thapar played out against the backdrop of Mumbai's western suburbs of Juhu and Andheri, where many of the stars live in high-rise apartment blocks set back from the Indian Ocean. The less successful – or the fading – struggle to raise the stupendous rents demanded in the area. The Times of India newspaper spoke of the area being "permeated" by a "Bollywood-inspired kitschy subculture". "These areas you'll find so many upcoming models and so forth. They are what we called 'struggle-ups'. It's that kind of a place," said Vaze, the former police officer.

Thousands of young people from all over India travel to Mumbai hoping to get a break in the world's largest entertainment business. Very few succeed and many sink into a netherworld of vice and drug abuse. Film producers interviewed over the weekend on Indian television suggested the pressure to succeed – and the disappointment of failure – was responsible for the violence.

In another incident that has shocked local people, a gang in Mumbai beat a 17-year-old student to death last week.

There was also outrage after two young men were attacked and killed after defending women from sexual harassment outside a restaurant last year.

Overall, however, homicide rates in India remain relatively low by international standards and have dropped in recent years.

 

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