Meeting The Wizard of True Crime: Anirban Bhattacharyya

The author is back with another bestseller - India's Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery

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After writing about India’s Most Notorious Serial Killers in his book The Deadly Dozen, Anirban Bhattacharyya is back with another true story behind one of India’s biggest and most sensational bank heists in his latest, India’s Money Heist. In conversation with the Storizen team, he tells us about his journey so far.

It is indeed an honor to have a conversation with you. The first and foremost question is -are you not afraid of crime and terror?

The honor is all mine – to be featured by your esteemed magazine for the second time… I am completely stoked. The world of true crime fascinates me – and when I research these stories I feel like an investigator who is slowly digging up the clues and solving the case again, albeit on paper. Like anybody else I too would not want to be mired in criminal activity, or be confronted by or be at the mercy of a criminal.

But as a writer, I am writing about solved cases. Terror is not about confronting the criminal – the terror lies inside the minds of the criminals. The reasons why they do what they do – that is not only fascinating but also terrifying. For my first book The Deadly Dozen: India’s Most Notorious Serial Killers (Penguin, 2019) I had to dive into the devious minds of these killers to decipher their modus operandi, the justifications that they invented to support their crimes… I had to think like them – and that was a terrifying experience for me. 

When did you first find interest in this topic? What was the first book or article on the crime you read?

You will be surprised perhaps when I tell you that most of us start reading crime books at the age of 8. The Secret Seven, Famous 5, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew are actually crime stories, aren’t they? Softer crimes no doubt, but crime stories nonetheless! And later I moved on to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Feluda, and ByomkeshBakshi. And every Indian language or region has its own detective stories – Marxin and Pushparaj (Malayalam), Faster Feneand the detective stories by SuhasShirvalkar in Marathi, Rajesh Kumar (pen-name for author KR Rajagopal) in Tamil… these are all actually crime stories. So we are all primed to fall in love with crime stories. This fascination for crime led me to create the true crime show called Savdhaan India in 2012 for LifeOK (later Star Bharat). 

Savdhaan India is one of the most watched and talked about shows. Did any particular case haunt you? How did you compose yourself?

Daniel Wallace in his epic novel Big Fish says – ‘when a man’s stories are remembered, then he is immortal.’ Or as Shakespeare wrote in his sonnet – ‘Do thy worst old Time: despite thy wrong, My love shall in my verse ever live young.’ As authors and content creators we are unconsciously leaving behind our creations for future generations. We will be gone in a few years… but our books, paintings, TV shows, music, movies, corporations, and companies all live beyond our human years thus making the artist or the creator immortal, in a vain sort of way.

Savdhaan India is now part of the television history and culture of India. Did we know that it would become such a huge hit? No… but we hoped that it would. So I have been truly blessed that the Universe helped me to create this. In Savdhaan we wanted to highlight the stories of the underdogs, the victims. And therefore the tagline ‘India Fights Back’ became iconic! And it also made the show completely different from Crime Patrol, which was a pure police procedural show.

I lived, breathed, and dreamt about Savdhaan for 7 years! 24/7 I was in a world of true crime – researching, writing, and being the showrunner. It was exhilarating. There are so many cases that still haunt me from the series for various reasons – the mistakes of the victims, the cruelty of the criminals, the investigation by the cops… so many others!

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When did you want to write a novel? How did the genesis happen?

In 2018 I met Suhail Mathur for some other work and in conversation found out that he was a literary agent whose agency The Book Bakers pitched books to publishers. So we got chatting and I expressed my desire to be an author. Being an English Literature student (St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata) I always wanted to be an author. And though I wanted to debut with fiction, it was Suhail who very rightly suggested that I should write a true crime non-fiction book.

As my creative background was steeped with Savdhaan and true crime – the publisher and of course the author would be able to leverage that. And the readers would take the book seriously knowing that it is coming from a world of authenticity.

So I created two pitches and sent them off to Suhail who shared them with Penguin and within a week I think, Gurveen Chadha the editor from Penguin got back saying they want to commission the book on the serial killers of India. By God’s grace, it has since, become a No.1 Bestseller and has received amazing reviews and endorsements.   

Anirban with Mohanlal at the book launch
Anirban with Mohanlal at the book launch

Before writing a story, how do you plan the plot? What kind of research happens?

When one is writing non-fiction, research is key. And for me I spend months on end diving through thousands of documents, and legal papers, interviewing with people before I start to put a structure down on paper. For example when I wrote about Thug Behram who lived in the 1800’s I had to dive into the historical archives of libraries in India and abroad to find first-person accounts of the man and the crimes that he had committed. And I came across research that unearthed a new world to me… their secret language, their customs, and rituals, Behram’s personal life… If my research had been weak, or if I had not taken the effort then the story would have not had the magic and depth that it has now. For my latest book India’s Money Heist, because I was writing and researching the book during the pandemic – it was all done online through hundreds of hours of interviews over video calls, and of course poring through hundreds of pages of legal documents, articles, and more.

India’s Money Heist, your new book, the title is attractive. What made you choose Kerala’s bank robbery incident to be your story?

By the end of 2012, we were nearing the end of the first season of Savdhaan India. I needed a story. A juicy, thrilling, pacy story. I had had enough of researching and showing stories of extramarital affairs, murders, greedy relatives, and love stories gone wrong. As a showrunner, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to tell the story of a real-life bank heist. I googled ‘India’s biggest bank robbery’ and there it was on my laptop screen. The Chelembra bank robbery (2007). I read the Wikipedia entry: ₹8 crores stolen, a theft inspired by the movie Dhoom, and that was it! I wanted to tell this story – but there was scant research online and I had to let it go. But over the following years, I kept revisiting the story trying to unearth research and write the episode authentically – but couldn’t.

Anirban with Mohanlal and P. Vijayan
Anirban with Mohanlal and P. Vijayan

9 years passed by. In 2020, during the pandemic, I reached out to my erstwhile classmate Rajesh Abraham, who lives in Kochi. All I had was a name: P Vijayan, the man who had solved the case along with his team. I asked him if he could help me get in touch with him. I was pleasantly shocked when he said that he was going to meet the man the next day! That was a moment of serendipity!

I think the sheer audacity of the criminals, the perfect planning of the crime, the way the criminals led the police on a wild-goose chase, and the determination of the cops to solve the case – all of these attracted me to tell the story. It is a landmark case solved by the Kerala Police and the country needed to know about this thrilling case.

And so after 10 years of chasing the story, it was finally published in 2022 by Penguin and launched in Kochi by the superstar Mohanlal.

Writing crime thriller stories is not an easy task. Do you give more stress on the characters or the narration?

For me both matter…if one does not build the characters properly – there will be no depth. The reader will not have empathy, sympathy, hate, or love for the character… then it is a wasted effort. The narration matters as it is a crime story – the pacing, the detailing, the research, the authenticity, the humor, the emotions – all of these are crucial elements to building the narrative. And my writing style is very visual. I want the readers to feel that they are watching a movie on the pages. So both are crucial for the book to be good.

What is your writing process is it instinctive or storyboard mapping style?

For my non-fiction it is the research, the chronology of the events that help me to lay down the first structure for me to understand the entire story – the genesis, the planning, the crime, the aftermath, and the arrest… but when I am writing the story it is a very organic process, almost a stream of consciousness kind of an experience. I fracture time, I travel back and forth, I take the readers down side paths… there is no story mapping or any technical mumbo-jumbo that I do when I write. Not even for fiction.

I know the scene in my head… and I know the journey of the characters and I just sit and let the words flow organically… the story needs to tell itself. It is a very spiritual experience on the right days and nights. At times even I am left gobsmacked with the result. I believe that something does happen in those moments. You may call it a muse or inspiration. But as a writer, it is the hard work of writing every day that actually sharpens your skill set.

Who is your favorite author in the crime thriller genre? Why? And what do you like in their books?

I have stopped reading crime books. I don’t want the writing styles or tropes used by other authors to influence me even if it is done unconsciously. I want my writing style to be as organic, honest, and real as possible. So I read Murakami, Pico Iyer, Bill Bryson, and my favorite author Amitav Ghosh.

What is your opinion on today’s Indian writing and literature?

Indian writing is superb. But most Indian readers still have the colonial mindset of only reading foreign authors. In any Writing or Reading group on Facebook, if you ask who is your favorite author or book, 9 out of 10 names will be foreign authors or books. We have amazing authors across genres. Publishers encourage Indian writing as well.

Imagine a literary agency like The Book Bakers has over 500 Indian authors signed up with them! So there is no dearth of Indian storytellers. We write… but the readers need to support our books as well.

What is that one unique feature in your writing that will entertain the readers?

That is for the reader to point out. For me when I am writing – I give it all that I have. My one mantra is – the readers have to find my book interesting. It’s like cooking a dish… someone will say ‘Ah! I like the tanginess’, or someone else will say ‘it was superbly spicy.’ Different readers react to the book subjectively. For the author it is always difficult to try and please everybody’s tastes… but the duty of the author is, to be honest to the genre, write a brilliant narrative, flesh out the characters and get the detailing correct.

My first book had dialogues in 9 Indian languages as I wanted to immerse the readers into the world of serial killers and their local environments. India’s Money Heist has quite a few dialogues in Malayalam – especially ‘punch dialogues’ from Vijayan sir and Babu the mastermind at crucial junctures… because that is what they were thinking at that point in time. My primary aim is always to tell a genuine story.

Anirban with actor Aamir Khan
Anirban with actor Aamir Khan

In this book, India’s Money Heist, which is your favorite part?

I think what really defines this story at the end are the characters. Every one of them is unique – Vikraman, Mohanachandran, Assainar, Shaukat Ali, Vijayan sir, Babu, Shibu, the Haji duo… all of them are unique. I studied each of them – going into their personal lives and bringing the entire character to the reader. For me the book is not about a true crime case – that is secondary. For me a story is about the people who drive the narrative.

The biggest challenge was that the story takes place in Kerala which has a unique culture and ethos, and I did not speak Malayalam. So I read about the history of the region, the culture, festivals, and traditions of the different parts of Kerala, including how the dialect differs between the southern and northern parts of the state. And I built all of this into the narrative.

To help me get insights into this milieu I had two incredible people: researcher and writer Saif Mohammed, and journalist AnandHaridas. The biggest compliment I received was from CH Nagaraju sir, who is the Commissioner of Police, Kochi City. He shook my hands after reading the book and said, “I can’t believe that you are not from Kerala! You have captured the Kerala ethos and culture so well.”

What are your likes and dislikes?

In what sense… this is a very broad question… I like food, I like reading, I love to travel, I love music and the movies, I like cooking… I hate bigotry, I hate fake news, and I hate the way in which the country is being polarized.

Few words to our subscribers and readers.

Read Indian novelists and books. Go to the physical bookstores and buy a book – even if it is just a magazine. All of us prefer to buy books online for the discounts and the ease… but support bookstores. If you buy two books in a month – buy one from the store! Read… Read… Read…

Inculcate the habit in your children… if they love to write, encourage them… teach and encourage your children to dream…

I want to thank P. Vijayan IPS (IGP, Kerala) and his entire investigating team without whose contributions this book would not have been possible. I want to thank Suhail Mathur and The Book Bakers. A huge thank you to Penguin India and Penguin Random House India. I have been blessed to have Gurveen Chadha again as my editor. The book would not have been possible without the support of my family. And finally thank you to Saurabh Chawla and Storizen for being so gracious, generous, and kind to give space to my book, and allow me to share it with the readers. Thank You!

What are the next books in the pipeline?

So 2022 was unique for me. I have had four releases in one calendar year!! It is a blessing for an author. My debut collection of poetry and photographs Mumblings & Musings (Petals) was published in January. And the book has just won The Lit Digital Award 2022 for The Best Book of The Year. Then in the summer my book The Adventurous 6: The Sinister Summer Holiday (Om books) was published. It’s a YA fiction book, which has been loved by young readers across the world.

India’s Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery followed this; which is soon going to get a screen adaptation! And the year will end with The Hills Are Burning (Fingerprint) which is a true memoir of my growing up years in a boarding school in Kalimpong, set against the violence of the Gorkhaland agitation of the late 1980s. Basically, The Wonder Year meets The Killing Fields. A coming-of-age story peppered with love, violence, heartbreak, death, and tons of emotions!


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Storizen Magazine September 2022 cover anirban bhattacharyya and mohanlal

Read more stories and book reviews in our September 2022 issue featuring The Wizard of True Crime – Anirban Bhattacharyya