Long before the 2008 Aarushi Talwar murder case and the 1999 Jessica Lal killing sparked national outrage, there was another murder that gripped India’s imagination with its mix of politics, minor royalty, sports and sex.
Syed Modi, one of India’s brightest sports stars and a 1982 Commonwealth Games gold medallist in badminton, was shot dead while returning from practice in Lucknow in 1988. He was only 26. In a courtroom drama that saw the revelation of supposedly personal diary entries from his wife and badminton player Ameeta Kulkarni/Modi/Sinh about nights of ecstasy and unusual rapture with their supposed friend, politician Sanjay Sinh – referred to as S2 in the diary – much dirty laundry was aired.
Now an eight-episode series The Chargesheet — Innocent or Guilty? (to be aired on 1 January on Zee5) recreates the murder, taking a few liberties and also refusing to acknowledge any similarities. Even though the showrunners insist any resemblance to the Syed Modi case is purely coincidental, the plot seems awfully similar — a bright, Commonwealth Gold medal-winning table tennis player, Shiraz Malik/Syed Modi (played by Shiv Pandit), is shot dead. The needle of suspicion falls on his wife, a fellow table tennis player, portrayed by Tridha Choudhury, and her alleged lover and their mutual friend, politician Ranveer Pratap Singh, played by Arunoday Singh, who happens to be former Union minister Arjun Singh’s grandson. There is also Ranveer Pratap Singh’s wife (played by Hrishitaa Bhatt), his lawyer whose character is based on Ram Jethmalani (played by Satish Kaushik) and the CBI counsel, based on S.G. Samant and portrayed by Ashwini Kalsekar.
From the sensational Nanavati case (whose latest incarnations were the movies Rustom, 2016, and the ALTBalaji series The Verdict this year) to the Talwar double murder (made into a movie — Talvar by Meghna Gulzar in 2015) to the Nirbhaya gang-rape (recreated in the Netflix series Delhi Crime), true crime as a genre is coming of age in India. Perhaps fed on a steady diet of Sansani on news television (the crime show recently completed 15 years on ABP News) along with long-running series such as CID and breathless prime-time coverage of cases such as the Sheena Bora murder, Indians have developed an appetite for the seamier side of human nature. They know whodunnit, but they still want to watch how it was done.
In one of the many stories it devoted to the Syed Modi murder in 1990, India Today described the real-life potboiler thus: “A country boy who rose to be the country’s badminton superstar, his off-court love affair and marriage to another player of repute, an ambitious scion of royal lineage whose political aspirations and closeness to the prime minister became as controversial as his reputed ways with women, mysterious characters including the lady’s mother who seemed to be advising her daughter on how to keep the three-cornered relationship going and a brutally climactic murder that stunned the country.” The scandalous murder even made it to The New York Times where it was described as “Dallas, Delhi-style”.
The Syed Modi case had echoes in Parliament too. India Today reported on 15 September 1990 that “An agitated Congress(I) which had staged a walkout from the Rajya Sabha on August 7, the day the accused, Sanjay Sinh, took his oath as MP, created a furore in Parliament and stalled all proceedings for two consecutive days. Shouting slogans of ‘Jo Syed Modi ka hatyara heh, V.P. Singh ko pyara heh’, they demanded that V.P. Singh himself should give an explanation as a relative of his was involved.”
Senior journalist Sharat Pradhan recalls the murder that took place outside Lucknow’s K.D. Singh Babu stadium. “The manner in which he was bumped off and his suspected murderer’s body was found on the embankment of the Gomti river, barely a kilometre from the stadium the same night, spoke volumes of the involvement of some very influential persons, other than his wife and Sanjay Sinh, who were the key accused in the criminal conspiracy. But they were eventually acquitted. The poor fellow’s mother lives like a pauper while the wife got all the largesse given by the government. It was a case of derailed justice; India lost a great badminton champion and his murderers just got away with it,” he told ThePrint.
The sports star is largely forgotten today except at the annual Syed Modi International Badminton Championships in Lucknow. Sinh, who once thought he would become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has performed some extremely agile political acrobatics since then: shifting loyalty from Sanjay Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi, quitting the Congress to join V.P. Singh’s Jan Morcha only to return and then quit again to become member of the BJP. Ameeta Kulkarni/Modi/Sinh was twice elected as MLA from Amethi, representing the BJP once and the Congress the second time.
Legally adopted by the king of Amethi Rananjay Sinh, Sanjay Sinh became his heir, but is locked in an inheritance battle with his first wife, Garima, and his three children with her. In a high-profile electoral face-off in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, Ameeta, representing the Congress, lost to Garima, from the BJP. Both women listed Sanjay Sinh as their spouse because Garima has claimed that her husband is yet to divorce her formally. This is one saga that lends itself to another genre of TV entertainment — bahu vs bahu, or perhaps, who’s the real rani?
The writer of the new series, Priyanka Ghatak, who has written major crime shows in India, from Crime Patrol to Gumra to Savdhaan India, told ThePrint that The Chargesheet has nothing in common with the Syed Modi case, and that in fact, she didn’t even know about it until she was well into the prep for the series. “My influences are Sidney Sheldon and Manohar Kahaniyan,” she told ThePrint, “and this series has the typical formula for success: politics, adultery, glamour, sports and even a courtroom drama.” The series is told from multiple perspectives, including the last episode that is told from the dead man, Malik/Modi’s perspective.
It’s directed by Shashant Shah, who had also helmed The Verdict, which is based on another all-time cinematic and TV favourite – the Nanavati case.
In 1991, Dev Anand had used the Syed Modi case as inspiration for his film, Sau Crore, with Naseeruddin Shah essaying the politician aka Sanjay Sinh’s character, Dev Anand playing the CBI inspector, and Anupam Kher was a rival politician. It was his last hit as a director and actor.
Now, The Chargesheet will retell the Syed Modi story for a whole new generation in India. Wonder what Sanjay Sinh’s old-new party BJP will have to say about that.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.