Web series

Web series ‘Dinner with...’ celebrates meals with dacoits and encounter specialists

The website 101 India series is a gonzo-style exploration of the gastronomic pleasures of men with blood on their hands.

That gangsters and police officers are two sides of the same coin is an idea that is nearly as old as cinema itself. And if gangster films are to be believed, what is a respectable don without a passion of the finer things in life? In the website 101 India’s web series Dinner with..., host Vishal Chopra dines with a variety of guests with blood on their hands – from an encounter specialist with 116 kills to his name to a Hyderabadi don who is now a marriage counseller.

The series has been inspired by Vice documentaries that attempt to give an insider view of the underbelly. Dinner with... began life in June 2016 as vignettes with dons from the Dongri and Nalasopara neighbourhoods in Mumbai. The series features conversations with evocatively named men such as Salim Chopper, who says he was inspired by Sanjay Dutt’s character in the movie Vaastav (1999). Gangsters also hold forth on Mumbai’s fabled street food.

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Salim Chopper: Dinner With The Dons.

The gangsters featured in the series are reformed criminals who talk dispassionately about chopping victims into countless pieces. Like the Vice documentaries, the information is unverified and unsubstantiated. However, stylish visuals and intimate access to flamboyant characters conveys a sense of time and place.

In one episode, Vishal Chopra visits Dindigul, referred to as the “crime capital” of Tamil Nadu, to meet local don MK Tevar. Chopra’s easy camaraderie with the mobster leads to the hilarious moment when Tevar agrees to be interviewed at a graveyard along with his dog, who is named after India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli. Tevar speaks about his abiding love for biryani, which he says should be his final meal.

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MK Tevar: The Don Of Dindigul.

The most comprehensive explorations of India’s underworld take place in the infamous Chambal valley, which has been immortalised in numerous films including Bandit Queen (1996) and Paan Singh Tomar (2013).

The first of the Chambal episodes looks at Ramesh Singh Sikarwar, who surrendered in 1984 and became a farmer. Sikarwar answers the question that plagues everyone: Who is the Samba to his Gabbar?

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Ramesh Singh Sikarwar: The Don Of Chambal.

In the second part, Chopra meets police officer Ashok Bhadoriya, who has been involved in numerous encounters in the Chambal Valley and had a near-death experience during a shootout. Bhadoriya is a fascinating character and speaks candidly about his past encounters.

At the end of both episodes, Chopra asks his subjects whether they feel any remorse about the numerous lives they have extinguished. With their answers, both law-breaker and enforcer become equals. They have no regrets except a fleeting one over the innocent lives lost in the crossfire.

It is in these portions that the shortcomings of the series become apparent. The gonzo-style investigation has its limits. The intimate access comes at the expense of genuine sociological insight. Both gangsters and officials allow only as much detail as they want to reveal. While the time spent in the underworld locales is thrilling and pregnant with dread, Dinner with... is unable to what Tigmanshu Dhulia’s biopic Paan Singh Tomar did admirably – enter the grey area between cop and don and uncover the ethical and moral dilemmas plaguing both.

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Ashok Bhadoriya: Chambal's Bandit Hunter.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.