In popular cinema, they are reduced to ‘Mona Darlings’; caricatures clad in a silky something, cigarette in hand, occupying centre stage for the odd item number, and invariably taking a bullet to atone for their sinful ways.

But talk to some old-timers, living in the by-lanes of Dongri, Mumbai’s Palermo, and reality plays out rather differently. The underworld may have been largely male dominated, but female dons have from time to time made their presence felt, especially in late 1970s and right through the ’80s. Most of them kept a low profile, but they were determined and aggressive. So much so that some of them even posed a challenge to the reigning male dons.

“From my research I have found that men usually turn to crime out of joblessness and sheer desperation. With women it is more about power and a desire to call the shots,” says Hussain Zaidi, senior journalist and co-author of Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of women from the Ganglands which traces the lives of some women who made it big in the underworld. “Women have a bigger motivation to rule, to make men bow down to their wishes. I found these women were single-minded, devious and focused.”

A classic case in point was Neeta Naik. A graduate from the prestigious Sophia’s College for Women in posh south Mumbai, Naik led a double life for years. A corporator (one who is a member of a corporation) in the Shiv Sena, this fiery and attractive woman was a rising star in the party and a prominent figure in the municipal corporation.

By night Neeta ran her husband, gangster Ashwin Naik’s extortion business, which she took over after he fled the country and continued to manage later while he was in prison. She took great care to ensure her political career was not jeopardised; operating through a well-established network of shop-keepers who collected the weekly hafta on her behalf from local traders and hawkers.

It all ended in 2000 when Naik was gunned down outside her home, allegedly at her husband’s orders. Although he was later acquitted, police sources are convinced Ashwin Naik ordered the killing over her affair with a police bodyguard. The killers were told to call him before shooting her because he wanted to hear her screams. She was just 37.

Like Neeta Naik, Mahalaxmi Pappamani got drawn into the world of crime through her husband who was a drug peddler. She started assisting him and later took over the business when he became an alcoholic. She went on to become one of the richest drug barons in Mumbai, with the backing of Varadarajan Mudaliar, or Vardabhai, one of the most feared gangsters of the ’70s.

Popularly known as Amma (mother) she was generous with financial assistance to poor families in the Sion-Koliwada area where she operated from. They in turn tipped her off when police raided the area. In the end her luck ran out when she was betrayed by her husband and daughter. She spent over a decade in prison and after release made a living as a vegetable seller until her death in the late ’90s.

Both Pappamani and Neeta Naik owed their rise to the considerable backing they received from powerful male dons. One woman, however, took a different path, and for that she occupies a special place in Mumbai crime history. Ashraf, better known as Sapna Didi, may not have been a don, but she was the only woman who dared to take on the most powerful figure in the Mumbai underworld, Dawood Ibrahim.

Ashraf was married to Mehmood Kalia, a small-time gangster in Dawood’s gang, who was killed in a police encounter, allegedly orchestrated at his boss’ behest. Ashraf set about seeking revenge, in the process taking on a new name and joining hands with another gangster.

“Sapna Didi had no criminal background,” says Isaak Bagwan, who retired as Assistant Commissioner of Police, Central Mumbai, a few years ago. Bagwan who spent over 10 years in the Mumbai Crime Branch was in close contact with Sapna Didi. “She took to crime only after her husband was killed. She even became a police informant, in an attempt to keep tabs on Dawood’s business. Such was her determination to take revenge.”

“She trained herself to be a killer,” adds Zaidi. “She learned how to ride a bike and a jeep which in the ’70s was rare. She stepped into a turf totally dominated by men. She even married a cop to help her carry out her plans.”

Sapna Didi travelled to Nepal to take on Dawood’s men and destroy his weapons consignment. According to police sources, she hatched a plan to kill him at the Sharjah cricket stadium. But she was betrayed and Dawood ordered that she be murdered in the most brutal manner to send out a message. “Sapna Didi is my personal favourite,” says Zaidi, ”because she did it for love.”

Also famous for her chutzpah was the legendary Jenabai Darvesh, who occupied a prominent place in the underworld in the ’70s, along with the big guns of the time like Haji Mastan and Karim Lala. A Memon by birth, Jenabai took to crime to support her family after her husband migrated to Pakistan after Partition, leaving her behind with five children.

Jenabai started her criminal career in the early ’50s by working as a broker for smuggled grains. She acquired the name Jenabai Chavalwaali. This changed to Jenabai Daruwali when she switched to bootlegging. She ran the business from a small room in Chooriwala Building on Mohammed Ali Road where her daughter lives even today.

“She was fair, tall and very beautiful,” remembers Bagwan who was a young inspector when he first met Jenabai. “She was very fond of gold and diamonds and would always wear a lot of jewellery.”

Jenabai became a matriarch for dons like Haji Mastan, Varadarjan Mudaliar, Dawood Ibrahim and Karim Lala, often mediating in gang wars. Her biggest claim to fame, for which Mumbai police still give her great credit, is the peace pact she brokered between the warring gangs of Dawood Ibrahim, Karim Lala and Haji Mastan, thereby preventing great bloodshed.

“She was very shrewd and managed the gangsters and the police well,” says Bagwan. “She knew the families of the major gangsters well. She was of the same age as Mastan and Lala so they respected her. Dawood called her mausi. At the same time she would manage the police stations by feeding them information about local happenings so they could keep tabs on the area. She ensured she was in everyone’s good books.”

Jenabai’s daughter Khadija, 70, dismisses any reference to her mother’s colourful past. She prefers to call her a social worker but as she starts talking of her childhood memories the immense clout Jenabai wielded becomes apparent. It’s remarkable, given the conservative society she belonged to and the fact that she was uneducated.

“She was very devout and always observed purdah. She never showed her face but people respected and feared her,” says Khadija.” When local boys got arrested for petty crimes, their families would come home and plead with my mother to intervene with the police. She would do so only if they promised to keep the boys in check. I have seen couples with newborns, those starting a new business, even film producers come to her for duas. When she died thousands of people came to pay their respects.”

Jenabai died in her late 80s surrounded by her family and admirers; the only female don to die a peaceful death. A testament perhaps to times gone by, when even crime had a code of honour.