Deepa Bar owner starts TV news channel, stars and politicians throng launch party

Seven years after Mumbai’s infamous Deepa Bar — which was caught in a major cricket betting scandal in 2005 — shut down, Sudhakar Shetty, the owner of the bar, has turned television entrepreneur.

A party to launch Shetty’s Marathi news channel, Jai Maharashtra, at Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt hotel on Saturday was attended by top politicians including Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, besides several Bollywood stars.

Before it downed its shutters in 2006, the high-end dance bar in suburban Vile Parle was a favourite meeting spot for politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, film industry personalities and cricket bookies, and had the “crorepati bar dancer” Tarannum Khan as its main attraction.

Shetty is the chairman of the real estate company Sahana Group, and the launch of the channel adds to the long list of builders and chit funds players who have floated media organisations, allegedly because of the political clout and patronage they bring. Shetty is learnt to be planning a Hindi news channel after the Marathi channel takes off.

“While he was still in the hotel business, Shetty part-financed a couple of Bollywood films,” said a Maharashtra Police officer who declined to be identified. “In September 2011, the income-tax department raided his Andheri office in connection with alleged tax evasion by the Darshan Group of developers, in which he allegedly had some stake,” the officer said. Shetty, the officer said, had cultivated close ties with Maharashtra politicians and Bollywood actors since his Deepa Bar days.

Guests at the launch party on Saturday included, besides Chavan, Shinde and Pawar, BJP leaders Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde, Maharashtra ministers Narayan Rane, Chhagan Bhujbal and Babanrao Pachpute, Bollywood actors Priyanka Chopra, Suniel Shetty, Dharmendra, Sridevi and Om Puri, lyricist Javed Akhtar and producer Boney Kapoor.

The Sahana Group entered the real estate and infrastructure market in 2004, and is involved in Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) and redevelopment projects in prime central Mumbai locations like Parel, Worli and Sion Koliwada. The group has built malls and shopping complexes in the western suburbs of Bandra and Malad, and operates a helicopter charter company. The television business is under Sahana Films, a subsidiary of the Sahana Group.

In September 2005, Deepa Bar was at the centre of a match-fixing investigation during which Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan was questioned by the police about his alleged liaisons with bar dancer Tarannum after he was allegedly introduced to her by actor Aditya Pancholi.

Following a tip-off from the International Cricket Council about a large hawala transfer from Sri Lanka and the involvement of a prominent bar dancer and bookie in a cricket betting racket, Tarannum was arrested on September 16, 2005 for her alleged links with bookies and the underworld.

Two bookies, Milind Dheeraj Nandu alias DJ and Pradip Kumar, too were arrested. During a raid at Tarannum’s Versova bungalow, income-tax officials found a massive stash of cash. The numbers of 27 bookies were found stored in her mobile phone.

Shetty himself was questioned by the Mumbai Police Crime Branch. He told investigators that he had leased the bar to someone else to run, and was unaware of the goings-on there.

The bar also witnessed gangland violence. On March 14, 2005, seven persons opened fire at Shetty’s partner Humayun Chandiwal who, however, escaped unhurt. A watchman of the bar was shot in the back. Four days later, the police arrested seven alleged members of fugitive gangster Ravi Pujari’s gang, and charged them under the stringent MCOCA.

In March 2011, two men claiming to be Ravi Pujari aides shot dead two of Shetty’s employees at his office in Andheri.

Shetty has close ties with yoga guru Baba Ramdev. In 2009, a trust set up by Shetty in the memory of his parents handed over the 8,000-sq ft Deepa Bar property to Ramdev’s Patanjali Yog Peeth for conducting yoga classes.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting explained the process by which licences to start television channels are given: “Permission is given to a company, not to a person. We forward the company’s application to the Ministry of Home Affairs for verification of antecedents towards a security clearance. Once the MHA and Department of Space clear the application, we cannot deny permission to the company simply because it is engaged in some other business.

“In fact, in December 2011, TRAI had clarified that we should encourage pluralism of channels to prevent monopolies. It stated that since there is no lack of transponder space, multiplicity of channels should be encouraged so that people across the country have access to as many channels as possible,” the spokesperson said. (इंडियन एक्‍सप्रेस)

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