In a different Bombay, in September 1959, a man was pardoned for murder. The man, Lt Commander KM Nanavati, admitted to shooting his wife Sylvia’s lover, a “rich, swinging Sindhi bachelor”, three times through the chest with a revolver he had procured hours before the crime. There could be many reasons why the governor of Maharashtra pardoned Nanavati — that he was a well-connected, highly decorated officer; that he had acted in the heat of the moment; that he had committed a crime men could understand and women could forgive. There was no question that Nanavati broke the law, but an urban elite abetted by a compliant, scandal-hungry media insisted that he deserved mercy.
Unlike Nanavati, Sanjay Dutt, 53, is no upstanding naval officer. Nor can it be argued that his crime — the illegal possession of arms in a TADA-notified area — was provoked in one blind, hot moment of rage. But, like Nanavati, Sanjay Dutt seems a character out of Shakespeare or the Greek epics. He was born a blessed child, one to whom the gods had seemingly given everything. Tragic heroes though are afflicted by a fatal flaw, a faultline that brings an entire edifice down. In the end, it was himself that Sanjay Dutt could not escape.
Was this why the chairman of the Press Council, Retd Justice Markandey Katju, felt moved to invoke Nanavati as an argument for why Dutt should be pardoned? In a recent newspaper editorial, senior advocate Shanti Bhushan agreed that given the facts — that Dutt’s father was helping Muslims in a riot-affected area, that Dutt himself had received threatening phone calls — it was evident that there was “clear danger of a mob attack on Sanjay Dutt and his family”; and since “an attack by such a mob could not have been deterred except by the threat of an automatic weapon”, Dutt should be pardoned for procuring and keeping just such an automatic weapon, unlicensed or not, by his bed.
The crowd of supporters outside Sanjay Dutt’s residence at Pali Hill is growing. The A-listers hiding behind dark glasses, emerging from cars with tinted windows, agree with Katju. MPs Jaya Prada and Jaya Bachchan are calling for clemency. Mamata Banerjee believes that Dutt, who has already served 18 months of his five-year-sentence, has “suffered enough”. Somewhat inexplicably, Digvijaya Singh has described Dutt as “a great man”.
According to his apa Zaheeda, star of the ’70s, “Sanju is no Khalnayak, he is the kind-hearted, bumbling fool from Munna Bhai. He is innocent and has a heart of gold.” This is a familiar version of Dutt, the infantilised ‘Sanju baba’ forever evoking maternal responses from the women in his life. Even as one section of Bombay, still singed from the riots, sees no reason why Dutt’s fate should be any different from others convicted for their roles in the blasts, to another, he is a pitiable figure. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, Dutt has lived life with his face turned towards the past. What we perceive to be a chain of events, he sees as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”.
But there is no denying his agency in causing that catastrophe.
Dutt first met underworld don Dawood Ibrahim in 1991, when shooting for Yalgaar in Dubai. Anees Ibrahim, Dawood’s brother, a former ticket scalper, soon became a frequent visitor to Dutt’s sets. Dutt, then 31, was tall, lanky, droopy-eyed and fast turning into Bombay’s new golden boy. His debut film, Rocky, about a Rambo-like youth who sets about avenging his father’s death, had done particularly well. For Dawood, Dutt held more star appeal than his co-stars Feroze Khan and Kabir Bedi. At a time before Bollywood finance had been san itised by banks, before the government had decreed it an industry, the underworld was a source of ready capital for filmmakers. The dons, living in their gilded cages in Dubai and Malaysia, enjoyed fraternising with the stars, and flying them out for Bollywood roadshows. Most of all, they liked turning their own black money white.