Jewel heists ruling Bollywood storylines

In a daring daylight robbery, thieves made away with diamonds worth USD 50 million from an aircraft in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday, February 18. Coincidentally, back home, the movie that’s drawing theatergoers nowadays is Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26, which tells the story of how a gang of thieves masquerades as CBI officials and loots diamonds and other jewels worth lakhs from a jewellery store.

Special 26
Akshay Kumar and Anupam Kher play conmen who rob jewellery stores in Special 26

Films about daring diamond heists have always found an audience in both Hollywood and Bollywood. Sanjay Gadhvi, who directed a diamond robbery sequence in Dhoom 2, said The Thomas Crown Affair was one of the sources of inspiration for his film. “And why only The Thomas Crown Affair, all the heist films that I grew up watching including Krishna Shah’s Shalimar, had an influence on Dhoom and Dhoom 2.

Yaadon Ki Baaraat
In Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Ajit plays a smuggler who enlists Dharmendra’s help to extort jewels from a rich man

In fact in Dhoom 2, I wanted to include a whole elaborate sequence inspired by The Thomas Crown Affair where Hrithik Roshan paints himself the colour of the walls of a museum to merge in the decor and steal diamonds. Eventually we modified that sequence. But the basic structure of the heist drama influenced the caper climate of Dhoom 2. We wanted to make the museum-robbery sequence as riveting as possible,” says Gadhvi whose Dhoom and Dhoom 2 are two of the most successful heist capers in recent years.

Dev Anand and Vyjantimala perform a song-’n’-dance routine to catch a thief in the film, Jewel Thief

Gadhvi says that while getting inspired by films he grew up watching was a part of his creative output in Dhoom 2, it was also imperative that he impose his own directorial stamp on the end-product. “And for a good adventure-caper-heist story a director must look at real life. Look at the films that were made out of the hostage rescue at the Entebbe airport in 1976, or the terror attack on the Munich Olympics. I am sure a film would definitely be made out of the Brussels airport diamond incident,” says Gadhvi.

In Dhoom 2, Hrithik Roshan plays the clever thief who sets up an elaborate plan to steal a diamond from a museum

Real to reel
For Neeraj Pandey, whose Special 26 is based on a real-life crime that occurred in 1987, it’s difficult to decide where facts end and drama takes over. “I did borrow from a real-life incident. But I added considerably to the original incident. I changed the characters and the climax completely. A real-life crime incident involving a fake CBI raid cannot be converted into a faithful blow-by-blow account.

Illustration/Amit Bandre

To that extent onscreen renderings of real-life crimes must by their very nature move far away from the given material, as I’ve done in Special 26,” says Pandey. While he admits that he is not aware of what exactly happened in the Brussels diamond heist, he adds, “But I am sure it can be made into a terrific film. I opt for real-life incidents for fodder in my films. But I can’t project those facts faithfully. For me, telling an engaging story is more important than being faithful to facts.”

Rob ‘n’ romance
Dev Anand’s Heera Panna was based entirely on the idea of a diamond theft. The 1973-film saw the late actor play a character called Heera and Zeenat Aman play Panna. However the ‘heera’ in the title had a hidden meaning.

Zeenat was actually angling for the pouch of diamonds that she had hid in the fuel tank of Dev Anand’s sports car. Hence Anand Bakshi’s lyrics Panna ki tamanna hai ki heera mujhe mil jaye, where Dev Anand feels she covets him, when in fact the ‘heera’ in the song refers to the diamonds in the car.

“Diamonds and films about diamond thefts were huge in those days. Lots of film scripts were woven around them,” says Zeenat who was in two major jewel heist sagas of the 1970s --Heera Panna and Shalimar. In Kaalia, Amitabh Bachchan’s title character and his adversary (played by Amjad Khan) vie to steal the same diamond necklace from a starlet’s neck in the song Jahan teri ye nazar hai.

In 1979, Dharmendra played a customs officer and Hema Malini an air hostess who smuggles diamonds from Singapore in Dulal Guha’s Dil Ka Heera. In Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief, diamonds and other gems played a prominent part in building the suspense.

Remake a robbery
So are diamonds our cinema’s best friend? Ananth Mahadevan, who remade Victoria No. 203, one of the most-beloved diamond heist films of the 1970s, said he had to drastically change his version. The original film starring Ashok Kumar and Pran was about a cache of diamonds hidden in the light-box of a stagecoach.

“The heist in the original Victoria No 203, appeared too simplistic for a new millennium remake,” says Mahadevan. “So it got magnified into new-age technology with laser beams and high-tech methods to lift the diamond off its pedestal. Too many heist films in Hollywood too had left a mark.

Jail breaks, bank heists and diamond robberies have been overshadowed by micro-chip hacking and equally mind-boggling matrix hijacks. So the poor man’s cinema of diamond heists is feeble fodder for the criminal mind at work at airports and jewellery establishments. Still films seem to bear the brunt for “inspirations” for real life cons and robberies. Doesn't sound convincing at all. Films have yet to have an ‘intelligent’ plot that would drive thieves to emulate them.”

Mahadevan feels heist films seek inspiration from real life rather than the other way round. “Films dramatise and blow up newspaper headlines on real-life heists. Fiction and art have always depended a great deal on real life. A dash of imagination goes a long way in making a caper crisp and watchable. I don’t think real-life cons are so much inspired by the way they are shown being carried out in films. It’s the dare devilry that attracts attention.”

The Background
How the Brussels diamond heist unfolded on the tarmac of Zaventem International Airport at 7:47pm local time on February 18:

Eight masked gunmen cut through a perimeter fence at the airport.
They board two black vehicles - a van and a car - fixed with blue flashing police lights. They drive these vehicles to a plane on the tarmac. The plane, operated by Helvetic Airways, is scheduled to fly to Zurich.
The diamonds had just been transferred from the armoured van to the cargo hold of the aircraft.
The robbers are dressed in the uniform of the local police, wearing ski masks and are heavily armed. Four of them get down from each vehicle. They brandish their weapons and hold up the aircraft’s pilot, co-pilot ground staff and security guards.
They break into the cargo hold and transfer 120 parcels from the plane into their cars in 2 minutes 50 seconds.
They drive through the fence and escape. The entire incident takes less than five minutes and not a single shot is fired.
None of the passengers aboard the plane is even aware of what happened.

Shaken and certainly not stirred
Buzz in Mumbai’s diamond community about Brussels heist

Mumbai’s diamond community is shocked at the audaciousness of the heist. (see box below: ‘The background’ to get a gist of what happened). Many feel that the thieves will probably never be caught. Says Bharat Shatilal Shah president, Mumbai Diamond Merchant Association, “There have been diamond heists in the past, so this is not shocking per se.

What is shocking though, is that security at the Brussels airport proved so porous that thieves dressed as cops could penetrate those layers and drive up to snatch away these diamonds. Here, reality has certainly transcended the movies. We often think that such things are only shown on celluloid but this is a real life incident so sensational that it might need little embellishment, if ever a filmmaker decided to make a movie on it.”

According to Shah, “In The Bharat Diamond Bourse at Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) in Mumbai, security is very tight within the complex. Earlier, when the hub was Opera House, there was an element of danger as diamond merchants moved out on the street from building to another.”

Shah also gives a little slice of life in Belgium, where a large number of India’s (many from Mumbai) diamond families reside. “With residences and offices there, they have made it their home. Currently there are at least 350 Indian families into diamonds in Antwerp. Many take their maharaj’s (cooks) with them to Belgium. Now, some of these maharaj’s have opened Indian restaurants there!” (he laughs). In the end, Shah says that, “Since there has been no result in 48-hours post robbery, these thieves must have escaped to different places in Europe and now I think they may never be caught.”

According to Arun R Mehta of Rosy Blue Diamonds, “The Indian diamond community is not just in Belgium but now they have a big presence in Dubai, Tel Aviv (Israel) and Hong Kong. Post this robbery, one assumes that the Belgium Govt. would be thinking about security, very, very seriously and how this lapse occurred. They are also concerned about the migration of the Indian diamond community. I remember at least 15 years ago, thieves had targetted a safe deposit vault in Antwerp by digging a tunnel underneath. Yet, this is different because it happened at the airport and that certainly is a cause for worry.”

For Anoop Mehta, president, Bharat Diamond Bourse, “It points to an inside job, but these diamonds are insured. However, this is a complete breach in a hi-security zone.” Hardik Hundia, editor Hiramanek, a trade magazine of gold and diamond jewellery, says, “It must be doubly worrying for Belgium, because of the security breach and also the fact that so many Indian diamond families have moved from Antwerp to Dubai, off late.”

In fact, Hundia sounds a warning bell stating, “It would be very unfortunate if I am proved right but I think there might be a major incident here near the Bourse at the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) if we are not careful. While security is very tight inside the complex, roads are deserted in the late evenings outside and there are people struggling to get transport. People are scared to talk about this.”

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Hemal Ashar 

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