‘I can only hope his life now imitates Munnabhai’


My relationship with Sanjay Dutt began in one of the bleakest phases of his early professional life. There was, of course, his drug addiction; he also had a series of unmemorable films to his name, right from Rocky, his launch, whose release tragically coincided with his mother’s death. I remember thinking of him at our first meeting as a stunning-looking boy, but one rather quiet — too quiet, there was something unhealthy about his silence. It took me a while to fathom that that silence was drug induced. I had been working for a while on an idea that later became Naam, and I knew that the two people I wanted for the film were Sanjay Dutt and Kumar Gaurav. Our relationship began in the frequent visits these two made to my house, where we would spend hours talking about the movie and what it could become. Then there were Sanju’s appeals to his father who was completely against his working with outside banners. A further objection Dutt saab also had was that the person Sanju wanted to work with was himself a kind of an oddball. Sanju was still very much a kid tied to his dad’s apron strings at that time. I remember visiting Dutt saab to try to get him to change his mind; in a corner, I could see Sanju anxiously biting his nails, waiting for the verdict.

As a launch, the only reason Rocky was talked about was because it was the great Nargis and Sunil Dutt’s child who was making his foray into films. In the industry, the word around Sanju, the whisper that is a kind of scream, was that here was this drug addict with blank, dead eyes, a no-good actor who got sniggered at every time he appeared on screen. There was his disastrous role in Vidhaata, where the audience roared with laughter when he did an emotional scene because he was so ineffective. Professionally, he was born dead; his reputation made him a leper nobody wanted to touch.

But he was desperate to prove himself. I’d go to his home, and he would disappear into his room and come out with these strange scars on his face, scars achieved by make-up that he would bear like medals to show what great characters he could play. What I saw in him was exactly what I wanted for Naam — a guy with this appetite to dazzle the world, to outdistance and outshine the expectations of his parents, but who is without the means or the tools to do it. I wanted to work with him despite the sceptics because I was convinced the raw material was there. Mentoring and a little structural support from the script were all it would take to get an effective performance out of him.

Naam was greatly delayed: Dutt saab said a clear no, and Sanjay disappeared suddenly to the United States for his detoxification. When he came back, he was transformed, he was like a flower that blooms overnight in your backyard. He came back clean, he had the fragrance of life in him. And that’s when Kumar Gaurav prevailed upon his father to not hold Sanju back any more but to let him make Naam. Dutt saab was an overprotective father who knew his son had more than one problem. He did not want to relinquish him to alien hands lest he make a complete fool of himself. But, as they say, bheega hua aadmi barsat se nahin darta. Dutt saab’s resistance collapsed simply because there were now no takers for Sanjay Dutt, he had no films on hand, he had no career at all.

I remember thinking of him at our first meeting as a stunning-looking boy, but one rather quiet — too quiet, there was something unhealthy about his silence
I remember thinking of him at our first meeting as a stunning-looking boy, but one rather quiet — too quiet, there was something unhealthy about his silence

So Naam began. The making of Naam was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had. There was an enormous trust Sanjay, Kumar Gaurav and I shared — in fact, Kumar Gaurav was the single most important component in the remaking of Sanjay Dutt. Here was a man who was saner, on a firmer wicket, and was the producer to boot, who put himself on the line for Sanju just out of sheer generosity. It’s something you don’t see in the movie world. As for Sanju, he gave everything to the film — he was single-minded, as focused as a horse with blinkers, he just did not see anything beyond the movie. It was deeply satisfying to watch — perhaps it caters to a certain Pygmalion complex, but nothing is as invigorating as seeing someone who has been written off come into full bloom right under your gaze.

Up until now, the who’s who of the industry were very sceptical of the project. Mahesh Bhatt had found success with Arth and Saransh but, as they saw it, even if Mahesh made a good film this time, his delivery boy remained Sanjay Dutt. Then Naam released and it dazzled everyone. It brought the tragic dimension of Sanjay Dutt to the fore — a boy who had the best of intentions, whose niyat was the most important thing and that was what the audience embraced. Naam was a golden jubilee film; with it, Sanjay Dutt was reborn. The first time he came to see me later on, I still remember the smile he walked in with, the sunlight shining through his hair and the gratitude in his face as he looked at me. I had never experienced a thank you said so silently and so eloquently.

Sanjay Dutt is not a man of words. He’s a disaster when he opens his mouth, he has no control of his tongue, he talks like a low-grade moron. But what he feels, he feels with an energy that just surges out of him and overwhelms you. He has never enjoyed hobnobbing with people of any intellectual pretensions. The lingo he used even then was that of the common man — foul-mouthed, abusive environments made him very comfortable. The purer you are, the more distant you are from Sanju. The coarser you are, the more real you are to him. Anything refined is for him something suspect.

One of the things I loved about working with him was the relief of finding an actor who is not narcissistic. I remember thinking during Naam: This guy doesn’t give a damn about how he looks on screen, he leaves it to the cameraman and just goes and does what he’s supposed to. And this in an industry where men (and macho men, not just the pretty boys) go to huge lengths to control how they look on screen — lighting, best profile, best angle — spend hours, like women, in front of their mirrors before they give a shot. Not Sanju. It was a relief to find a male who was not in awe of his own physical form. I don’t think I’ve found an actor who fits that bill in all my life.

It’s a trait that shows up in him in other ways as well. Sanju never exploited his physiological assets, nor did he ever claim status because of his background. He never behaved as if he were part of the Bollywood aristocracy, the child of two iconic film people who were also among the very few in the industry to demonstrate real concern for our world through their social activism. I do not think it is true to say that the albatross of his parents’ greatness weighed him down, though. That wasn’t the point. It was just that he was always a people’s guy, someone most at home with drivers and make-up men and lightboys.

We are very similar people, he and I. We share an addictive personality type — appropriately, it was Sanju who got me to give up alcohol after he came back from rehab, got me to see that alcoholism is a disease and that I was an addict. If I haven’t touched a drop for 18 years now, the reason is Sanjay Dutt and the way this reformed drug addict’s fervour rubbed off on people. The addictive personality is one completely obsessed, driven by whatever it gets into. For us, it’s everything or nothing. We’re never half-hearted. When we get into a relationship, it’s all-consuming; when we get into our movies, the ones we believe in, we completely give in to them. That’s why the films Sanju and I did were either brilliant or they were rank bad — either you give it all you’ve got or you give it zilch. It is constantly reinforced — you just go on and on and on.

The behaviour of the addictive personality is born of anguish, of a wound that festers deep within, whose pain is sought to be blunted either through substance abuse or through excessive work or through the search for applause and recognition. The shadow in the candlelight is a mystery we have to spend our lifetime trying to unravel, even if we die without finding the key. When I think of Sanjay, I see a man who cannot get out of his own nightmare. He is someone who is caught in a fortress of hell, he achieved whatever he did within its confines but he could never leave. Happiness comes only to give him more pain. Happiness and unhappiness as they exist for Sanju don’t come in serial order; they exist simultaneously in the same frame.

The day the Babri masjid was brought down was the day a new history of India began. Bollywood changed, like India changed. I remember how, as the news came in that evening, a growing uncertainty descended with the deepening night. We knew Mumbai would pay a heavy price. As expected, trouble began but was soon contained. We breathed easy — mob rage was something that happened in UP or Bihar, we thought, not in secular, cosmopolitan Mumbai. Then came January — a Hindu family was burnt alive in their home in Jogeshwari; Hindu dock workers in Crawford Market were stabbed. And hell descended at our doorstep. It’s a Mumbai I had never seen and pray never to see again.

When I met him in jail, he still had a smile on his face, but it was the first false conversation we had ever had. Both of us hid the fears clawing at us
When I met him in jail, he still had a smile on his face, but it was the first false conversation we had ever had. Both of us hid the fears clawing at us

Sunil Dutt became our hero, our secular icon in that time, and it was at his house that we would gather to organise relief for the riot-affected. Once Dutt saab got together a group representation to meet Sharad Pawar, the chief minister. I will never forget that drive. Mumbai was a ghost city. Terrorised faces looked out at you through barred windows, the streets were empty but for the remains of charred shops and the police patrols that were everywhere. We met the cm and various top Congress leaders. I think it was Murli Deora who told me then that Mumbai’s 38,000-strong police force was finding it impossible to cope with the situation, that we were on the verge of civil war. That was when what had till then only been rumour was confirmed — the police instead of preventing the massacre was orchestrating it. I remember spending hours in Dutt saab’s house, and Muslims would come from Behrampara, Bandra’s largest slum, telling us how the saffron brigade had taken away the loose stones from around the places where they lived so that even those would not remain as defence during an attack — it was all so well thought out. Dutt saab put in his resignation around this time. I remember his sense of helplessness, the growing feeling of impotence among us all. I discovered, during those weeks, how fragile are the claims to power that entertainers make. Even an actor of the stature of Naseeruddin Shah was so vulnerable. The day we met the cm, there were some very big names with us who did not want to share a car with Muslim actors for fear of being identified and intercepted on the way. Once, we were driving back from a prayer meeting and Naseer wanted me to ask Dutt saab, whom he considered a senior, whether he should stay on in India or think about going to Mauritius. He was a Muslim married to a Hindu and both sides would have their knives out for him. We were dropping Naseer off, it was near curfew time, and Dutt saab held Naseer’s hand and said, I know things are very bad, but all three of us will hold hands and put this country back together, we won’t let this happen. I won’t forget the sincerity with which he said that.

I spent most of my time at the Dutts’ house during those days. It was a bastion of refuge where people came looking for help, for money, for emotional support — and Dutt saab and the family gave it all.

Talk was made during those days of ethnic cleansing. Whispers reached us: Don’t say anything about a secular India, don’t speak up for Muslims because Bal Thackeray is keeping an eye on who is with them and who is not. This was also when some of the city’s so-called secular faces revealed their fangs. I was talking once to a well-known author and socialite about what practical options there could be for our Muslim friends, and she said: They should get out because if they don’t, they will be pushed into the Arabian Sea. It was as stark as that. There was another time I was shooting for Sir with Naseer at a place in Andheri and one of the unit boys came up and gave me a note in Hindi: Mussalmanon ki madad mat kijiye, achcha nahin hoga. It had apparently been sent to me because I had tried to organise Army assistance for a lightman of ours who had been trapped in the slums. I freaked, I was screaming, who is this f***** who dared send me this, all I’m trying to do is protect one of our own, one of our lightboys; if it’s one of our Hindu boys who’s in trouble tomorrow, I’ll do the same.

And then came the blasts. The enormity of the attack was staggering. My wife was just about to deliver Aaliya, our youngest daughter and I had to take her for a check-up that day. When it was over, the doctor told us: Two hours ago, I was picking up amputated limbs with these hands, it’s so strange now to feel the heartbeat of life. The peace of the graveyard descended on Mumbai — a balance of terror had been achieved. The whole drama of arrests followed — the police went into aggressive mode, Muslims were picked up, paraded before the press, Dawood was named the architect of the whole thing — and any chances of bringing the right-wing Hindutva forces to book completely disappeared. The blasts obliterated all their misdeeds. That’s what happens when the quest for justice is overtaken by a thirst for revenge — the enemy is strengthened, the ones who made your home into hell. I would stand shocked when I heard some Muslims saying they were actually happy the blasts had taken place — now they will know to treat Muslims differently, they said. It was as shocking for me as when I heard the Hindus saying, they had it coming, they should be pushed into the ocean. Both sides would horrify anyone who was not a victim of religious belief. As I learned indelibly, non-believers don’t kill, the believers do.

I was shooting in Mysore when I heard that the police was bearing down on Sanju who was then in Mauritius. I came to know of it through a newspaper report — how the police had revealed that Sanjay Dutt was the recipient of a huge consignment of arms, and that he was in possession of grenades and an AK-56 rifle. It was unreal, the kind of stuff we write about in the movies. Just when everything is going fine for the hero, we decide we want to change his fate, and that’s the kind of knock at the door we introduce. But there was something about the news which made me stiffen. An animal clairvoyance told me that things would not now be well for Sanju, or for us who were close to him.

When I came back to Mumbai, the drama had enlarged. Almost everyone connected to Sanju and to the film industry was talking about it and all kinds of stories were told — how he had allowed Dawood’s men to park their vehicle in his compound during the days of the riots, how the vehicle had rdx, the same that was subsequently used in the blasts. And then Sanju was arrested and the worst had happened. Most of the film industry rallied behind Dutt saab, but he remained a solitary man, brave but alone. All I could say to anyone who would listen was, Sanju could have done something foolish, he’s very capable of being an idiot, but he can’t be a criminal. He can’t possibly have had knowledge about the serial blasts. There were those who made big of the fact that the gun he was said to have asked to be destroyed had in fact been found. To them I would say that I am willing to concede that he may have taken a gun from paranoia, or from some Rambo-like attitude that comes out of his delinquent mind. But if you’re suggesting he was waging war against the nation, committing heinous treason, planting rdx to kill innocent people — over my dead body. That is not Sanjay Dutt, not a cell of his could have had anything remotely to do with a deed like this.

One day, Dutt saab asked me to accompany him to the Crawford Market lock up where Sanju was being held. I do not know why he did so — I was not a favourite of his because Dutt saab never had favourites, but he felt for some unknown reason that he could lean on me. We arrived at the Crawford Market police headquarters, all around us were cops, we were the only outsiders. Dutt saab looked frail but walked in with his chest out and chin up. As it happened, the police were very generous and treated us with the utmost dignity. Sanju was called down. He still had a smile on his face, he still looked fresh and warm. I will never forget that conversation — our attempt to downplay what had happened, make it seem that the trouble would soon pass. It was the first false conversation we had ever had. Both of us hid the real fears that were clawing at us and covered them instead under a this-too-shall-pass blanket.

As we were leaving, Dutt saab suddenly said, let’s go to Sharad Pawar. We did so, and at one point Pawar asked me what I thought of the whole thing. I told him what I had already been saying everywhere. Sharad Pawar agreed and said his men were coming to a similar conclusion. Dutt saab should not worry, he said, Sanju would be out in a day or two, it was something that had to be gone through because it was too big a case. Dutt saab agreed and said, of course, there was no way that Sanju should not be put through the crucible of suspicion, let him come out clean. When we came out, Dutt saab specifically told me not to talk about the meeting with anyone; we’d just keep our fingers crossed. And then Sanju was brought to the tada court and was sentenced to jail, contrary to all the promises made. Everything came to an end. The industry’s attempt to rally behind him died. The bjp and the Shiv Sena were up in arms. It was life imitating cinema — Sanju was like the character in Naam, looking at Kumar Gaurav and saying, get me out, get me out of this hell.

Over the next months, we heard heartbreaking stories of Dutt saab going again and again to Arthur Road and stories of Sanju inside jail. Over time, with the repeated rejection of his bail applications, we also came to hear that the proud Sunil Dutt, a man who never succumbed to any pressure, was finally breaking down and doing something unheard of — going to Bal Thackeray, the architect of the post-Babri masjid bloodshed. Circumstances had reduced Sunil Dutt to the point where the father in him got the better of the political icon that we knew.

By then, the right-wing Hindu party was in power in Maharashtra. Bal Thackeray was king and the writing was on the wall — orchestrate communal frenzy and you get to the citadel of power. The question on the lips of every Muslim boy in Bhendi Bazaar, the question they couldn’t dare whisper, was: How can a group of people engineer the murder of a thousand people and get to form a government, and how can another set of people mastermind the blowing up of buildings and the deaths of 350 people and be labelled terrorists? On what basis do you discriminate between them? Neither the media nor anyone in politics, not even the Opposition, dared to articulate this: How was such fierce action taken against the perpetrators of the blasts while nothing was done to bring to book the perpetrators of the massacres in Mumbai’s streets? And that is the curse of India and of humankind — unless you are willing to put Dawood and Bal Thackeray in the same dock, you will not get justice.

One day, our friend Yash Johar, with whom we had done Gumrah, in which Sanju had starred, arranged for me to meet Sanju in jail. This was a few days before he was released. What I saw was heartbreaking — his hair was much longer, he was unshaven. He had a lot of malas around his neck. I was told he had become very religious. I felt terribly guilty, it was the guilt of a survivor for just being alive after a catastrophe. He understood that. He had come to terms with his state.

Then came the reprieve. The Supreme Court finally, through the support of Bal Thackeray, agreed to grant him bail. The State played an important role in his release, for which the Dutt family is very grateful. It is true Thackeray did prevent the State from taking a very hard stance. But, for me, it only made the scenario darker. Assuming Sanju took the gun (though he has backtracked and said he did not), this is a situation where you first whip up a paranoia in people to such a point that a man feels the need to arm himself. When he does so, you arrest him for it. Then you play god and get him off. So you win in both situations. You inflict the wound and you are the one who salves it. Coming or going, there is no exit.

Sanju made good after his release, with a stellar comeback. The audience welcomed him — his simplicity endeared him to them. Ultimately, the audience loves you for what you are and Sanjay Dutt is a simple person, he has an endearing core, he is a generous man. Audiences have the capacity to see that. And the people of the nation have the intelligence and the intuitive capacity to gauge that this man could not possibly have been the architect of the blasts. Let’s be very clear: Sanju is only accused of being in possession of arms, which is something that has to be proved in the court of law. His audience doesn’t find what he has been accused of to be so terrible a crime. Nor do I think that the common man is blind to the truth of what Mumbai was in those days.

Sanjay’s other run-ins with the law, however, have been worrying — the revelation of his continued social links with the underworld was something that embarrassed us all. One is ashamed when Sanju’s detractors confront us: Here is your Sanjay Dutt who’s out on bail and talks to the underworld. I can never pretend for a moment that I’m not blinded by my affection for Sanju, but I don’t have a leg to stand on when they say that. The only thing I would offer, as Ram Jethmalani argued in the Bharat Shah case, is that nexus is different from communication. Unless a communication translates into a criminal activity, it doesn’t make a nexus. Other people sometimes make the point that the terror of the underworld is real in Bollywood. After the killing of Gulshan Kumar, the message went out loud and clear: the capacity of the underworld to get you is far more than that of the State machinery to save you. If you want to be safe, keep on good terms with the dons. I personally do not subscribe to that way of thinking. You cannot make a philosophy out of your fear. It is possible to live your life with dignity. Fear is the most demeaning thing, it does terrible things to people. But you cannot use it to rationalise wagging your tail in front of the dark powers. If Sanju has maintained what are called “social ties” with the underworld, he cannot be legally stigmatised. Whether he should have chosen to do that is another issue. Whether he wants to have friends in the underworld is something he has to account for.

As we looked out at the sea of humanity gathered for his father’s funeral, I saw what I had never seen in him before. He was humbled, dwarfed by the emotion of the crowd
As we looked out at the sea of humanity gathered for his father’s funeral, I saw what I had never seen in him before. He was humbled, dwarfed by the emotion of the crowd

Sanjay is someone who makes me feel enormously protective. After so many years of my association with him, I can feel anger at him bordering on rage, I can at times feel perturbed by what he may say or do, but if I were to sum up what I feel about him, I’d say he makes me smile. You look at him and you feel like hugging him, you feel like whacking him on the head and hugging him again. He evokes nothing but warmth. He’s a friend who’s stood by me and I’d stand by him. He does have a reckless streak. He has always remained a schoolboy — the way I see him, the clock stopped for him in school. He can seem at times as though he is built to drive to his own doom out of his own volition, with his near and dear ones able only to helplessly watch. With Sanju in the present situation, I can only say that I oscillate between dread and hope. One can only cry for him, cry with him.

To know somebody intimately is to know his tragedy, and I have known the tragedy of Sanjay Dutt. The tragedy is that there is an overwhelming loneliness which consumes him and which no fire, no success, no fame will ever be able to satisfy. The only way he can get out of it is by touching other people’s loneliness — in the real world, not the virtual one.

I would count three of Sanju’s roles as being quintessentially him: Naam, Vaastav and Munnabhai. With Munnabhai, I only wish that Dutt saab were here to see it, how after his wife’s role in Mother India, it is their son who has captured the imagination of the country with his articulation of the Gandhian spirit. After Nargis, only her son has achieved the same status in the virtual world. Now it is time for Sanjay Dutt to achieve in the real world what he’s achieved in the virtual one, to build brick by brick what Sunil Dutt built in real life. Because at times your contribution on screen is not enough. You need to invest in reality. That, I think, is the path that lies ahead for Sanju. It’s only when he embraces the pain of others the way his father did, that he’ll be able to rid himself of his own pain.

I was with Sanju after Dutt saab died. As we got into the hearse which was to take Dutt saab’s mortal remains to the crematorium, the car turned and we saw this sea of humanity before us, people of all kinds, from all classes, there to bid Dutt saab farewell. Sanju and I exchanged a look and I saw something I had never seen in his face before. It took the death of Sunil Dutt for Sanjay Dutt to realise the kind of contribution his father had made to the lives of people. And he was humbled, dwarfed by the overwhelming emotion that was coming his way from the crowd. He did not feel that way when the prime minister came, or when the Congress president came — I did not see that look in his face at all. I saw it then, as we were going to the crematorium. I looked at him, and I said, Sanju. And he said: This is what he was. Oh my God.

I think something was ignited in him that day and maybe that’s what he’s brought to playing Munnabhai, which is why Munnabhai has become more than a film, it’s become an experience. An experience that Sanju had that he was able to translate for his audience.

For a man whose life events have seemed to parallel his screen characters, I can only hope that his life now imitates Munnabhai. Maybe you’ll see the birth of a new Sanjay Dutt then, you’ll see a new man emerge. A saner, sadder, more generous man, more driven to serve in the real world, not just in virtual life. Driven to build with his hands a future for the country to which his mother and his father gave so much and which has given him so much. It could be that this is where he delinks himself from acting out the criminal who meets a tragic end, and puts the Naams and the Vaastavs behind him, to become a man who goes through a metamorphosis, allows the caterpillar to become a butterfly and learns to fly.

With Shyama Haldar


  1. Its a lesson to all those people who consider macho to be something very sexy…..especially girls out there…who go gaga over these drooling bodies and looks of a star…Fact is, physique is the last thing that makes a real man….if u can’t be sensible enough to know how to handle a situation at the age of 34..better live your life in a cradle….you never deserved to be out from there…and the last one to actually become an “icon” of the film industry..!!!


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