Guarded conversations with Dutt’s dormitory mates and friends from Sanawar reveal that in boarding school at least his celebrity background was a liability. “It was like 10 of us would do something and he would be the one who got punished until he’d dislocated a shoulder,” a friend said on the condition of anonymity. “School teachers everywhere can be sadistic, but they really had it in for Sanju, as if they had to make a point of proving that they did not care who his parents were.” In Mehta’s book, a particularly grisly passage describes how Dutt was made to crawl up a gravel slope until his hands and knees bled. The next day, his bandages were torn off and he was made to repeat the exercise.
While Dutt is hardly unique in suffering corporal punishment, a form of torture school children across the country still undergo daily, one can imagine how far removed this world must have felt from the one inhabited by parents, cousins, aunts and helpers, in which he was universally adored and indulged. When he finished school, he described feeling a resentment he had not previously known. In 2007, speaking to family friend Simi Garewal on her talk show, he said, “When parents send a kid away to boarding school, he has to learn to be independent. When I came home to find that they wanted to tell me what to do, it irritated me.” Back at home; Dutt was soon hanging out with friends who took recreational drugs. What began as “a little bit of weed”, he told Mehta, turned into nine years of hell. Dutt tried “every drug in the book” but soon developed an addiction to cocaine and heroin.
Nargis chose Zaheeda — a natural confidante for Dutt because she was younger than his mother, but old enough to play a maternal role — to confront her son about his drug habit. He was still naïve enough to believe his family was unaware of his addiction because his parents had never seen drugs. But Nargis and Zaheeda had witnessed a distant uncle lose his son to addiction. “Apa would frequently say to our uncle,” Zaheeda says, “‘had this been my son, I’d have scratched his eyes out.’ When she started seeing the same signs in Sanju — he would sleep erratically, stay locked in his bathroom all the time — she felt as though she had failed.”
Zaheeda offered to take Sanjay for a drive and a treat. Sitting in an ice-cream parlour, she asked him if he was on drugs. Dutt denied it, but Zaheeda warned him, “Your mother knows. You think she cannot see it, but she knows what’s eating you up inside.” One day, Dutt woke up from a heroin binge and began looking for something to eat. Seeing him, a servant began to cry — “Baba, you have slept for two days straight. Everyone in the house has gone mad with worry.” Dutt took one look at his distorted face in the mirror and went into his father’s study. “Dad, I’m dying. You have to save me,” he said.
Sanjay was taken to Breach Candy Hospital’s detox centre in Mumbai and then sent to a rehabilitation centre in Texas. Not wishing to cheat the producers who had already invested money in his son’s debut, Sunil Dutt informed them that his son was an addict and that he would soon clean up his act to return to work. Once out of rehab, Dutt discovered that he didn’t want to return. He had struck a friendship with a cattle-rancher named Bill and invested in a longhorn cattle ranch of his own. Out in nature, living by himself, Dutt said he found a peace he had never known in Bombay. He began to construct a new life for himself: a down payment on a small flat in New York and a dream to run a steak house to rival the best in the city. Two months later, it was Sunil Dutt who went to his son with a plea.
“I didn’t want to return home, I didn’t want to do films,” Sanjay confided in an interview soon after his return, “but my father said, ‘Do it for me, do it for my name,’ and I couldn’t refuse. I promised myself I’d make some money and return to my dream.” Sanjay finished work on his debut film. Three days after Rocky was released to the world in 1981 and a new star was born, Nargis died of pancreatic cancer.