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.
On 16 January 1993, Ibrahim drove a car filled with explosives and assault rifles from Gujarat to Bombay. This car made its way to Dutt’s tin-roofed garage, where accompanied by Dutt’s friends Samir Hingora and Hanif Kandawala, a man named Abu Salem handed the actor three AK-56s, ammunition and 20 grenades, altering the trajectory of his life for ever.
This life, by the accounts of many of those closest to Dutt, was already a troubled one. His parents, actors of almost celestial fame, had met while shooting for the iconic Mother India. Nargis had fallen in love with Sunil when he rescued her from a fire that had broken out on set. In Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, a collection of letters exchanged between the two, accompanied by entries from Nargis’ diary, she confesses that her disappointing romance with Raj Kapoor had left her contemplating suicide until she met Sunil. Finally, she had found someone who made her “feel normal”. Nargis, famous for her ethereal beauty as much as her temper and razor-edged tongue, said she confessed everything about her past “shamelessly” to him because she was certain that he would never abandon her.
She was right — Sunil never abandoned her, even as she drew her last breath at the Sloan-Kettering Hospital’s cancer ward in New York several years later. He did, however, like Kapoor, demand that she not work with other male actors. If Nargis resented this, she buried those feelings once Sanjay, the eldest of their three children, was born, spending all her time pampering her son. Indeed, so much did Nargis spoil him that by the time he turned 10, Zaheeda, Nargis’ niece, says Sunil began to worry “that his son was turning into a sissy”. “We would see him in the garden, having placed Sanju on a tall branch, telling him to leap off it — ‘Mamu kya kar rahe ho? Bachcha gir jayega,’ we would scream to no avail.”
Meanwhile, Sanju baba, who had taken to smoking the ends of cigarettes his father’s friends threw around, had also begun to show signs of the generosity everyone attributes to him even now. Being driven past a group of poor boys, Dutt would start wailing, until the driver stopped and bought the boys the same beverage he was drinking. In an interview before his death, Sunil recalled how Sanjay once threw a tantrum at a wedding, insisting that his mother give away his jacket to a young beggar shivering outside the shamiana. Finally, the senior Dutt decided, as irate parents often do, that his soft-hearted son should be sent away to a boarding school where he could be toughened into a man.
One of the reasons his supporters cite while asking for pardon for Sanjay Dutt is that while the law should not privilege a celebrity, neither should it punish a person for being one. In April 1993, a report found that several MLAs and politicians were also guilty of possessing arms supplied by Dawood Ibrahim. One of these was the Shiv Sena MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar. Sharad Pawar, chief minister then as he is now, revealed that suspects interrogated for the Bombay blasts had coughed up several names but that “charges hadn’t been pressed against everyone involved”. The book When Bombay Burned reveals that two months before the blasts shook the city, as riots broke out in Nirmal Nagar on the night of 11 January, Sarpotdar was detained by the Army and found to have two revolvers and several other weapons in his car. Although Sarpotdar’s gun was licensed, his son’s was not; besides, they were both breaking the law by carrying weapons in a ‘notified area’ during a riot. A man named Anil Parab also accompanied Sarpotdar that night. Parab turned out to be Dawood’s main hitman. Yet, Sarpotdar, who had committed the same crime as Dutt, was never tried in a court of law.
In an email to this reporter, Suketu Mehta, the author of Maximum City and the last journalist to have written about Dutt’s childhood, excused himself from providing details about his interview with Dutt. Mehta, who currently resides in New York, suggested that a mutual friend had been angered by his depiction of Dutt in the book and it would be uncharitable to exacerbate the situation further, especially at a sensitive moment. This polite stonewalling echoes the reactions of Dutt’s immediate circle. Unsurprisingly, his sisters, his closest colleagues and friends have refused to speak to the press, some on the advice of Dutt’s lawyer Satish Manshinde, and others at their own discretion. An investigative report published in TEHELKA in March 2007,
had captured Manshinde on a hidden camera, admitting that he didn’t “have an answer” should the Supreme Court ask him why his client did not deserve to be convicted under TADA.
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.
In 1993, Dutt was 33. He was too old, too buffeted by grief and experience to still be called ‘baba’.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, followed by the riots of 1993 had forced India to confront the question of its religious identity once again, and in horrifyingly brutal fashion. Did being Hindu mean causing harm to Muslims? Or did it mean extending support to those who needed help? Dutt’s father, as popular a social worker and MP as he was an actor, had decided in favour of the latter. Hindu-Muslim marriages were not too unusual, particularly within the Hindi film industry. At the time of the riots, Sunil Dutt, by then a widower for a dozen years, could be found helping violence affected families in the Muslim neighbourhood of Behrampur. He had the constant support of his youngest daughter, Priya. All three children were aware that their father was growing older, frailer. Priya spent more and more time taking care of him while he took care of others.
It wasn’t just Sunil Dutt’s health that was waning. He seemed to have lost the respect of his fellow politicians. In a particularly humiliating instance, Sharad Pawar made Dutt wait for him in a lobby for over three hours. Thugs, displeased with his pro-Muslim work, had begun to threaten the Dutt family. Following an attack on his person that January, Sunil Dutt asked for extra security detail to be posted outside his house. But Sanjay thought his father might not be able to do enough to protect the family. Threatening phone calls had been made; his sisters, he was warned, were targets for kidnap and rape. It was enough to make him want to buy another gun — a fourth, unlicensed automatic weapon to add to his three licensed firearms — one that, as Shanti Bhushan believes, would be “better suited to dealing with a mob”.
Despite the immense difference in the magnitude of their crimes, an uncannily similar instinct had spurred the two men at either end of this supply chain of weapons into action. Dawood Ibrahim too was goaded by the ostensible desire to protect his sisters. Hussain Zaidi, the crime reporter and author of Black Friday, described a package Dawood had received full of red and green bangles. The tinkling glass came with a note —“jo bhai apne behno ki hifaazat na kar sake, use yeh tofha mubarak”.
On 16 January 1993, Hanif Kandawala and Sameer Hingora, proprietors of Magnum Video and Dutt’s friends, arrived at his house with a man named Abu Salem and told Dutt they would bring him new weapons. The next day, the three men returned with another companion. From their car, which they had parked in Dutt’s tin shed, they produced three AK-56 rifles, magazines and about 250 rounds, with some hand grenades. Accounts of this meeting differ among the men who were present. Hingora alleges that when they reached Dutt’s house, the actor was on the phone with Dawood’s brother, Anees. He further claims that Dutt enquired about the arms concealed in the car, showing knowledge of the plot to smuggle weapons into Bombay. Dutt’s lawyers have denied both these counts. However, TEHELKA’s earlier investigation unearthed that Dutt had in fact admitted to calling Anees, a confession that the CBI inexplicably decreed irrelevant, erasing the MTNL call records from Dutt’s landline to a number in Dubai.
From the safe harbour of the present, however, it’s easy to forget just how plagued Bombay was in the 1990s by gang violence, kidnapping and extortion. Film journalist Rauf Ahmed describes the atmosphere that had gripped the city as a “fear psychosis”. “You’d wake up and hear that Gulshan Kumar, whom one met at all the parties, had suddenly been shot dead outside his office. Manisha Koirala’s brother was killed. Hrithik Roshan’s father was shot at. It was all to show the royalty of Bombay who really was the boss.” That said, it couldn’t be denied that the film industry and the underworld were dancing a particularly intricate pas de deux.
Film makers mined the lives of gangsters for material. For them, Sanjay’s stories from jail — he served 18 months — of how the underworld recruits shooters from the children’s barracks were gold. As late as 2000, seven years after Dutt had first been implicated in the Mumbai bombings, shortly after he had served time and had been let out on bail, he was back in touch with gangsters. The transcripts for a drunken exchange involving, among others, Dutt, Mahesh Manjrekar and Chhota Shakeel are available online. Dutt has little to say to the gangster beyond such banalities as Govinda being a “chutiya”. Shakeel probes listlessly, “Aur kya chal raha hai?” Sanjay responds, “Bas chal raha hai bhai.” Neither wants to hang up, both star struck in their own ways.
In a section in Maximum City, Mehta describes how Sanjay, close to Abu Salem, had managed to get a friend, director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, off the extortion hook with a single phone call. In his call to Salem, Dutt had allegedly said of Chopra, “This is the one man who stood by me when I was in jail. You can’t touch him.” In a text message to TEHELKA, Chopra, who is currently in London, said he was “not qualified” to comment on the man who saved him from Abu Salem. Mehta’s description of Dutt as “brontosaurus-sized” and overly fond of “guns and muscles” and the masculine image of the Marlboro Man appears to fit in snugly with the impression from that drunken phone call: of a troubled, immature movie star playing with dangerous toys for kicks.
Amateur psychoanalysts would keep turning to Nargis’ death, in the days after what should’ve been the high point of her son’s triumphant return home, drug-free and on the verge of bona fide movie stardom. When Dutt has been down, life has rarely refrained from kicking. In 1987, nearly six years after his mother’s death, he married Richa Sharma. “It was nice to come home to someone,” he told Garewal. Two months after the birth of their daughter Trishala, Sharma was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died in 1996 and their daughter moved to the US to live with her grandparents. Dutt had already been found guilty by then of illegal possession of arms.
Three years previously, he had been shooting in Mauritius when he heard he was going to be indicted under TADA and the Arms Act. He had asked a friend, Yusuf Nulwalla, to remove his AK-56 from his house, and Yusuf together with another friend, the steel manufacturer Kersi Adajania, saw to it that the gun was melted and thrown into the sea at Nariman Point. The police recovered the spring and some cartridges from the rocks. In the end, it was Sunil Dutt who had the moral courage to turn his son over to the police. He tipped them off about Dutt’s return from Mauritius and on 19 April, he was met at the airport by 200 commandoes.
When he saw his father again, Sanjay was in police custody. Sunil Dutt must have felt his back pressed to a wall when he gave Sanjay up to the police, but he still hoped his son was innocent. Had he done what the police accused him of, he asked. His son’s answer must have bewildered his already aching heart. “I have Muslim blood in my veins,” Sanjay said, “I couldn’t bear what was happening in the city.” It was a dramatic and, frankly, strange declaration. Dutt belonged to a thoroughly mixed family and his religious identity was equally mixed.
After his conviction, he was seen with his forehead daubed with a giant red tilak, his Muslim identity now in abatement. Was this tactical, an attempt to distance him self in the public eye from a dark event? Or was it a tribute to the support of the Thackerays and the Shiv Sena? (Support that has now been reversed.) It might just have been neither. Having grown up around Zaheeda’s love for Sai Baba, Dutt spent four hours each day of the 18 months he spent in jail praying to God. Which god he prayed to and what kind of deliverance he asked for is unclear. Later, he spoke of time spent befriending the sparrows, ants and rats that would appear in his 8×8 cell. He was also angry, self-recriminating. In a fit of rage, he banged his head against the bars of his cell until he had to be removed from solitary confinement for fear that he would kill himself. He could not have slept easy knowing the fates of the other accused — Zaibunissa, Manzoor, Yusuf — all tried under TADA, unlike Dutt.
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 withKhalnayak, 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.