Around 10.30 pm last Saturday, three men arrived on an Activa two-wheeler. The man sitting in the middle took out a .32 bore revolver and fired five rounds towards the Juhu bungalow of film producer Ali Morani. One bullet hit a tree while another pierced the window pane of the bungalow. Officers from the Crime Branch who are conducting parallel investigations said that producers Ali and Karim Morani, who have produced successful films like Chennai Express, Raja Hindustani and Damini were out of the country at the time of the incident.
After the firing, fugitive gangster Ravi Pujari sent an SMS to Morani on his cellphone, allegedly threatening him with dire consequences. Morani reported the incident to police on Sunday. Mumbai Police Crime Branch officers on Tuesday detained two suspected aides of Pujari who are believed to have fired the shots.
While the Mumbai Police maintains that the local networks of underworld gangs have long been neutralised in the city, and that gangland activity has been at a low in recent years, former Chhota Rajan lieutenant Pujari has been a thorn in the flesh over the past decade. His name continues to crop up in connection with extortion calls and threats delivered to prominent Bollywood personalities, businessmen and lawyers.
Pujari, who hails from Udipi district of Karnataka, indulged in petty crimes before moving to Mumbai for better prospects. Here, he came in contact with the Chhota Rajan gang through Rajan henchman Shrikant Malvankar alias Shrikant Mama. In 1996, he fled to Dubai with Rajan and Guru Satam. He parted ways and floated his own gang shortly after helping Rajan escape an audacious attempt on his life in Bangkok in 2000 by Chhota Shakeel aides.
In the past, Pujari, who positions himself as a ‘Hindu Don’, has also grabbed headlines by targeting lawyers, such as Majid Memon in 2005 and more recently M S Khan, who were representing Muslim accused in terror attack cases. Khan was representing Indian Mujahideen member Yasin Bhatkal.
Prior to Saturday’s firing, Pujari was under the scanner during the acrimonious falling-out between actor Preity Zinta and Ness Wadi in June. Industrialist Nusli Wadia’s office in Worli received a total of five calls, allegedly from Pujari. While Pujari asked to speak to Wadia in the earlier calls, in the last two calls he told the Wadia’s assistants that he should stay away from the Preity-Ness matter. Pujari is reported to have also confirmed to a news channel two days later that it was he who made the call as he was a huge fan of Zinta’s and no one seemed to be standing up for her.
Dhananjay Kamalakar, Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order), said the Juhu police and Crime Branch are reviewing the security status of actors and people related to the film fraternity following Saturday’s firing. “After a person approaches us, the anti-extortion cell first finds out whether the threat is genuine, and if it is, we definitely increase the security of that person,” he said.
According to the police, they are scrutinising CCTV footage of the area near Morani’s Juhu bungalow.
Investigators said on the basis of text messages and phone calls received by Morani prior to the incident, they were tracing members of the Ravi Pujari gang. “Pujari generally hires freelancers for such tasks and we suspect that these three men are also people who are not associated directly with him,” said a Crime Branch officer.
The officers also said that since Morani is close to actor Shah Rukh Khan, they suspect that he also might be a target. Crime Branch sources said Pujari was attempting to issue threats to Khan, but was unable to do so directly. Instead, while issuing threats to Morani prior to Saturday’s attack, Pujari told the producer to warn Khan too, a Crime Branch source said.
The police, however, are dismissive of these threats. Mumbai Police Crime Branch officers, who monitor extortion calls, paint a sorry picture of Pujari as a gangster craving for publicity. Empty threats to high-profile targets assures Pujari media coverage, officers said. Often, when his threats go unnoticed, he is even known to call up journalists and draw their attention to his ‘recent work’.
“The Ravi Pujari gang is nothing but a marketing gimmick. He picks high-profile targets as a ploy to be in the news from time to time. He does not have any gang members per say, and uses hired guns he can recruit through a couple of local pointmen still owing him allegiance. These youth are recruited from states such as UP, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Bihar, and leave the city after one-time jobs,” said a Crime Branch source.
“The firing took place at 10:30 pm on Saturday, but went largely unnoticed. Finally it was reported on Monday only after Pujari himself called up some journalists and claimed responsibility. This is his usual modus operandi,” said a senior police officer.
Offering a contrary view, another Crime Branch officer said although Pujari does not have a strong network of foot soldiers in Mumbai, it was possible that he was still managing to strong-arm small-time builders and businessmen into coughing up a few lakhs.
“Unlike other fugitive gangsters, Pujari has not forayed into legitimate business ventures or entered the real estate market. He is desperate to be paid protection money from local businessmen to support himself overseas. Although he claims to be based in Australia currently, our information reveals that he spends considerable periods in the Gulf. It is possible that small businessmen could be intimidated with reports of Pujari targeting high-profile personalities,” said the officer.
Between June and September 2010, the Ravi Pujari gang was a force to reckon with. Gang members opened fire, and sometimes injured people, outside offices and stores in the western suburbs of Khar, D N Nagar, Oshiwara and Santacruz for extortion. In a major crackdown, the police arrested 11 gang members and gunned down one in an encounter.