The makers of the film "Sholay" had picked out gabbar, a real dacoit of Chambal, but portrayed the police officer as a maimed man, and his force as a bunch of buffoons, something that does not match reality at all, reports TSI’s Anil Dwivedi
TSI | Issue Dated: July 27, 2008
The grenade hit him in his chin… the blast blew off most of his face, and thus died one of the all-time terrors of Chambal Valley, bandit Gabbar Singh. The name is still familiar, and perhaps will remain familiar for a few more generations to come, thanks to the never-aging blockbuster, Sholay. But it was not the hyper histrionics of Veeru (Dharmendra) and the armless cop Thakur Saheb that saw Gabbar’s end. It was a very real encounter by a very courageous Indian Police Service officer, Rajendra Prasad Modi. Now retired, Modi still rues the 'impotent' image that the film has almost permanently pasted on the face of the police forces, for the 1960s and 1970s belonged as much to the brave brigands as to courageous cops.
“Mujhe Gabbar chahiye… zinda, sirf zinda.” This gristly dialogue hissed from beneath the clenched teeth of Sanjeev Kumar (Thakur Saheb in Sholay) still resounds in the minds of those who have watched the film. In reality, this was spoken by then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kailasgh Nath Katju, who demanded of his police force: “Gabbar, dead or alive”. He had no choice. The Opposition party in the state Assembly had just paraded all the 10 victims of Gabbar, whose noses he had hacked off and sent the men back as ‘mementoes’. Katju’s political career was at stake, and he entrusted this assignment to Modi, who had already proved his mettle in wiping out some dreaded gangs of dacoits, including the legendary
Modi had been after Gabbar for some time, and had frequently raided Dang, the Bhind district village he hailed from. He had reports that Gabbar even forced his own fellow villagers to part with their money as well as women as ‘comfort girls’ during his periodic sojourns. Modi had one day received intelligence that Gabbar was visiting the village and rushed there, but the brigand had vamoosed. However, he found some commotion in Dang that day, because a home was on fire and a small boy, Shikhar, was trapped inside. The gutsy officer plunged in, and plunged out with the boy, safe, and handed him over to his family. He won total admiration that day, and the reward came just a few days later.
Late one night, on November 13, 1959, even as he was dozing off in his bed, a man, some neighbour of Shikhar from Dang village, crept up to startle Modi in his bungalow. “We all see your terrific efforts to get Gabbar, and we want the same thing… please wipe out that scourge. You saved Shikhar, that day and now you have to save the rest of us. I have come to tell you that we know Gabbar is coming to our village tomorrow to again demand ransom.” That was enough. Modi drummed up a force close to 500 men and with the man guiding them, quietly reached the spot and laid ambush. Gabbar was there already, resting. Thus, when Modi ordered about two dozen of his men to open fire, the gang had little time to regroup and respond. In no time, most of them lay dead, and Gabbar was about to run.
“That is when I lobbed the grenade, and it hit his chin, blowing out his jaws, as you see in the photograph,” Modi told TSI. “But I still feel frustrated that his kin now accuse me of killing him for no reason. They say he had not come for ransom, but this is not true.” But then, accusations always fly against cops who are honest and are true fighters, and this was not the first time that Modi had slain a dreaded criminal. However, the entire system of becoming a baaghi (outlaw) has a different history, and these men were originally not simple criminals.
Though the dacoits of our times are little more than murderers and rapists, mythology has it that the Chambal River is the symbol of Draupadi’s open tresses, which she had vowed never to plait till she washed it in the blood of Dushshasan, who had disrobed her in open court. Thus, revenge for restoration of honour lies at the core of Chambal’s psyche, the psyche of the people of one of the toughest terrains anywhere: the bihad, or the arid, ravines, where life is always a massive struggle. And traditionally, whenever anyone from these bihad had felt wronged, he had become a baaghi and not rested till revenge had doused the fire in his heart.
Such was the great procession of baaghis… Pana, Sultan Singh, Man Singh, Amritlal, Lakhan, Gabbra (Gabbar) and Putli Bai, and among them, Daku Man Singh even now stands the tallest in stature. He had laid down a code of conduct, which denounced killing or sexual assault of women, robbing for robbing’s sake, and such other dictats. It was not a charmed life, but there was a level of romance. The dacoits even had their own wonderful folk music typically called Ala-Udhal, and the other legend, Putli Bai was a fabled singer of those soulful ballads on two fearless warriors, who never rested till their enemies were alive. And though later day bandits, like Phulan Devi, were complete perverts, the legend of Putli Bai lives on.
In fact, Putli Bai was the first among Modi’s many trophies. Once a dacoit’s moll, this bewitching beauty had become a terror in her own right in the Chambal of 1950s. It was January 23, 1958. Modi got information one day that Pulti and her gang had taken shelter in Sangli-Harisa village of Bhind district. He raced there and surrounded the dacoits. “Soon after, we came upon the gang,” Modi recalls. “But I did not order to open fire till we were a mere six feet away from where the gang was. Then, the firing started. In minutes, 11 dacoits lay dead. As we counted the bodies,
the third happened to be Putli’s,” Modi told TSI.
Modi is now a decorated officer, having been awarded the President’s Police Medal for gallantry, the highest award for a policeman in India. He lives with his family in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh. And he still bemoans the fact that the unreal film Sholay showed a very real dacoit Gabbar, but a maimed officer taking the help of two petty thieves to catch Gabbar, and bring him to his feet. In fact, in the role played by Asrani, as a jailor, from whose custody Jai and Veeru (Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) escape, the entire police force is shown as a bunch
But then, in life, often the highest praise comes from the worst foe. And this one came from a former nightmare of Chambal, Mohar Singh, who had surrendered in the 1970s under a special initiative by social reformer Jai Prakash Narayan (JP). TSI met him at a public meeting at Mehgaon, 70 kilometre from Bhind town. Resplendent in his flowing dhoti-kurta, his thick black beard, a gun nestled against his legs, and a red vermillion teeka on his forehead, Singh, now in politics had much to praise in Modi: “On the very first occasion that I saw him, I instinctively knew that here comes an honest and extremely courageous officer, and at the same time a perfect gentleman. I have a great desire to meet him once again some day.”
Today, after the JP initiative led to the surrender of about a thousand dacoits, and after nasty riders of the Chanbal tradition like Phulan have been slain, the guns are more or less silent in Chambal’s bihad. But the legend of Draupadi, and the concomitant threat of another man or woman jumping into the ravines, gun in hand, is still alive. But the legends of the likes of Rajendra Prasad Modi live a quiet life, unsung anymore today!