Dutt has described his lowest moment as the day he was in jail and his father informed him that there was nothing more he could do to help him. Unknown to Sanjay, Sunil had prostrated himself before Balasaheb Thackeray, a man whose divisive politics he had always despised, to ask for his help in getting Sanjay out of prison. Each time Sanjay has crawled out of a hell of his own making — drugs, or prison; he has worked harder than before as if to prove each time to his father that he could take pride in his son. “He came back from his junkie phase with Saajan and Sadak,” says Rauf Ahmed, “he came back after the initial trial with Khalnayak, then there was Daud, Dushman, Mission Kashmir. Except for Sanju, only Amitabh Bachchan has faded so far from the limelight and been able to come back with a bang again and again.” After Mission Kashmir was screened at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mehta quoted Dutt, shortly after the President shook his hand. “I will sleep tonight like I have never slept before, India loves me,” he had nearly wept.
In the 20 years since Dutt first left prison on bail till today when he is about to return, he has been to jail thrice, been married twice, had two children, shown up for innumerable court proceedings and lost his father. In 2008, he married his present wife Manyata Dutt (then, Dilnawaz Sheikh) at a private ceremony in Goa. So private that he failed to inform his sisters that he was getting married. Rauf Ahmed, who was working on Dutt’s biography with Random House, a highly sought-after project, gave up on the book when Dutt informed him that Manyata would now be handling all his creative dealings. Off the record, his friends speculate about her chequered past, gossip about her political ambitions, how she convinced him to join the Samajwadi Party instead of the Congress, how she was allegedly a bar dancer. Perhaps, as Nargis felt with Sunil Dutt, Manyata feels she too has found the man who makes her feel normal, to whom she can speak “shamelessly” about her past. Dutt appeared to have found a new lease on life. He was once again a box office success and happy to let his new wife control the finances as the CEO of Sanjay Dutt Productions. At 50, he became a father again, of twins.
Now Dutt stays up nights to complete unfinished projects before he goes to prison. Trade estimates say he has about Rs 250 crore worth of projects riding on his shoulders. He is driven by the thought of a lasting legacy, a film he will be remembered for, one that might dwarf his enormous mistake. His most spectacular success, earned in recent years, came with the Munna Bhai films. In Hirani’s candy-glazed world, Dutt was Munna, the lovable ‘bhai’, unacquainted with the cruel ways of the world, solving problems with a generous dose of love, laughter and jhappis. The irony is incandescent.
Amid the emotional clamour for Dutt (or is it Munna?) to be pardoned, his old friends, the Bhatts, stay loyal but also clear-eyed. Pooja, who acted opposite Dutt and whose brother found himself bizarrely linked to David Headley, is phlegmatic. “We were shooting for Tadipaar in Mysore one day when dad came up to us and said, ‘Baby, Sanju is in big trouble.’ We laughed. It was funny because Sanju had always looked out for me and the idea of him being in ‘big trouble’ was ridiculous. But it’s been 20 years, and we’re still talking about his troubles.” Mahesh, who is inordinately fond of Dutt, has struggled to find ways to help his friend cushion the blow of the Supreme Court’s verdict. Should I fuel him with hope of pardons, he wondered, or should I help him reach deep into himself with great calm and seek atonement. Face the flaw and redeem the man. See this as time to recover his best self.
Maybe Dutt can be sustained by that knowledge too, the understanding that if this time he does not chase the easy road —the urgent interventions; the uneasy pacts — at the end of these three years he will, for the first time in a very long time, enjoy an uninterrupted view of his future.