Deathly Subject, Killer Handling?

Does Meenal Baghel’s debut offering Death in Mumbai provide any new insights into the Nerraj Grover murder? EXEC finds out…

Oshiwara is where it all starts.

In this nouveau-swish area, now Mumbai’s TV hub, is located the offices of soap queen Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, one of Neeraj Grover’s ex-employers. Small-town boy Grover came to Mumbai with a pocket full of dreams and a bag full of dangerous games. Enter Maria Susairaj, ambitious actress, with a penchant for good-looking men. And Emile Jerome Mathew, the unlikely villain. Susairaj and the good-looking playboy Grover struck up an amorous friendship when the latter promised the actress an audition in a Balaji Telefilms serial. One night, the jealous Mathew paid the duo a surprise visit, catching them in a compromising position. The two men got into a scuffle and the rest, they say, is an infamous 300 pieces of mystery.

The slinky, shiny, steroid-injected allure of Mumbai has been explored in books to the point of saturation; an even larger number of tomes has explored the city’s sordid underbelly. In Death in Mumbai, Meenal Bhagel goes down a slightly different road, investigating the dark urges the city’s entertainment trade incites in its young, sexually voracious occupants. This is done through the ghastly Neeraj Grover murder- starring the handsome Grover, ambitious Maria Susairaj, and good-boy-gone-bad Emile Jerome Mathew. The supporting cast is just as winsome, and combined with some good writing and reportage by Bhagel, makes the story eminently engaging. But, for the reader who begs a better understanding of the killing itself, the book holds little else than what has already been seen on TV.

Much to its credit, however, Death in Mumbai, which unravels in parts, is pretty cohesive. Of the segments, the second segment titled ‘Three characters in search of a film’ is the most engrossing. It features in-depth interviews with Ekta Kapoor, starlet Moon Das who was approached to play Maria Susairaj in a film, and the eccentric Ram Gopal Varma, seeking to understand the motivations of the glamour industry. We are drawn into Kapoor’s world of superstition and star power, debauchery and never-ending work hours. The producer wanted to make a film about the murder, but never got around to doing it. Ram Gopal Varma, maverick filmmaker, expounder of all things wise-and-nonsensical, and director of Not Just A Love Story (based on the murder), gives his forthright insights into the motivations of the film industry. And then there’s Moon Das, whose own mother and uncle were killed by a jealous boyfriend, who then shot himself dead. Through her compelling story-how she came to the big city against her father’s wishes, how she tried to maintain her dignity in a very ‘couch’ed world, how she now make does with performing item numbers at weddings-we’re given little inroads into all the goo behind the glitz.

The most touching chapter of the book is the one where Bhagel heads to Kanpur to interview Grover’s parents. ‘Why him?’ is the question that still echoes through the house as the father, Amarnath Grover, tries to understand why his son was so desperate to move to Mumbai… choosing to ignore all the ‘playboy’ claims. The mother, on the other hand, who despite being closer to her son, has a better understanding of the goings-on.

That Baghel has done her fieldwork well is manifest in her in-depth understanding of the case. Her interactions and interviews with friends, colleagues, roommates, police and officers are evidence enough that the author asked all the right questions. However, for the many unanswered questions plaguing the case, you won’t get any startling new answers in here. In fact, Baghel hasn’t even offered any insights or theories she might have into the killing.

If anything, the one biggest reason to buy this book would be to savour all the character sketches and little side stories, which are etched out rather organically.

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