Sanjay Dutt is the original bad boy of Bollywood. In the early 1980s, it was not uncommon to find him passed out over the steering wheel of his car on a suburban road of Mumbai from a night of drugs and alcohol. Sanjay's open love for guns and hard partying, his rippling muscles, long hair and many glamorous girlfriends, including the top actress of that time, defined machismo for a generation of Indian men.
But underneath the tough-guy image there were genuine struggles, too: both his mother and his first wife died tragically young of cancer, and Sanjay had to go through long and painful periods of de-addiction therapy. In this book, Yasser Usman, one of India's foremost Bollywood biographers, tells the uncensored story of San jay's roller-coaster life that is stranger than any fiction - from the time he smuggled heroin into the United States and went on a drunken shooting spree at his Pali Hill home after breaking up with his girlfriend to his curious phone calls to gangster Chhota Shaked and his role in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts.
Today, however, Sanjay is identified more with the character he played in his most memorable film, Munna Bhai MMBS-that of a reformed goon. There will thing is for certain: Sanjay Dutt, a simple straight shooter in image-obsessed Bollywood.
Yasser Usman is an award-winning TV journalist and the author of two bestselling biographies, Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India‘s First Superstar and Rekha: The Untold Story.
On an evening in 2017, talking with Sanjay Dutt about his life and times, I asked him, 'When you look back upon your life, what is it that you would like to change?' 'Kuch nahi! [Nothing!] ,'he replied immediately. 'Given a chance, I would like to live the same life again.'
Sanjay's life is a story of epic proportions. This book is an attempt to tell that story - the good, the bad and, at times, the disastrously absurd, the conflicts, the mistakes, the many heartbreaking tragedies, and the overwhelming triumphs. A life that is sometimes difficult to comprehend, full of moments of insanity, often stranger than any fiction. It's interesting, then, that Sanjay wouldn't change any of it.
Sanjay Dutt has always lived under the media spotlight. His life has been documented in print and on film right from his birth. Even his very name was the result of a competition held by a film magazine where readers sent in their suggestions to his superstar parents, Nargis and Sunil Dutt. He grew up in front of ever-watchful eyes, from a gawky boy to an alpha man-child, from a star kid mourning the early passing of his mother to a notorious undertrial and then convict, from an incompetent actor to an entertainer beloved by millions. So you could well ask: is there anything new to be said about him? But while researching Sanjay's life I came across a number of unknown anecdotes and forgotten episodes that even I, an avid Bollywood observer, had never heard of. How many people know, for instance, that almost a decade before the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case, Sanjay was involved in a shooting spree in posh Pali Hill for which he was even arrested? Or that he once smuggled heroin into the United States? That at the height of his addiction, one evening he hallucinated that his father Sunil was melting, and on another occasion that his sister Priya was a gurkha? What really happened during his drug de-addiction therapy in the US that changed his life forever? Did you know that it was a tape recording of his late mother Nargis that ultimately helped Sanjay turns a corner in his fight against drugs? Or that he once gave an interview denying his alleged marriage to Rekha, and in the process seemed to implicate a senior Bollywood actor? And then there are his many affairs and relationships. Did you know that Sanjay once apparently stripped and tied up a man for flashing his then girlfriend Tina Munim? Or that a director of one of his and Madhuri Dixit's films said, 'He was always following Madhuri around and whispering "I love you", totally ignoring the fact that there were others around'? These are only some of the stories that make up Sanjay's incredible life.
During the process of writing this book, I spent a considerable amount of time meeting people close to him: film-makers, co-stars and friends from Bollywood, school friends and teachers from Lawrence School, Sanawar, police officers and co-inmates from jail, and politicians.
Many were not comfortable with talking about Sanjay, saying he would not like it if they did. Some of them said they didn't want to give rise to further 'misunderstandings' about him or add to his legal troubles. But there were also many who opened their hearts and shared fascinating stories from Sanjay's life. It is these stories that appear in the pages ahead.
Sanjay was never a great actor in the traditional sense. Yes, he was good at projecting raw primal emotions but in a career spanning more than a hundred films, Sanjay only has around ten noteworthy movies, a poor average by any standard. Then what did people see in him? Why was he such a big A-list star for years? Why did even his bad films do such good business? I met a number of diehard 'Sanju Baba fans' - including a waiter at a restaurant in Goa who still styles his hair in a mullet like Sanjay from the 1993 film Khalnayak. I met trade experts, film-makers and Bollywood insiders to find out what made people adore Sanjay. It seems it was more to do with Sanjay's personal image and life story than his acting ability.
Sanjay was the original bad boy of Bollywood - in fact before there was Salman Khan, there was Sanjay Dutt. Sanjay is, in a sense, the template, the pioneer; others have followed in his footsteps. He was a model of masculinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and perhaps the only star in the Hindi film industry to have become synonymous with drugs, guns, leather jackets, rippling muscles, long hair, drinking, smoking and partying. He was open about his many girlfriends and was extremely popular in small-town India. His staunchest fans were men who imitated his macho personality. Sanjay's image inspired directors to cast him in roles that mirrored his real-life personality. If you scrutinize his most iconic films - Naam, Sadak, Saajan, Hathyar, Khalnayak, Vaastav and Munna Bhai MBBS - you see that the characters he was playing on screen were actually an extension of himself.
Then there were his tragedies: Sanjay's career began with a terrible blow. His mother died of cancer just a few days before the premiere of his debut film, Rocky. That tragedy forged a strange kind of connection with audiences. From his first film onwards, viewers seemed invested in his life. Tragedy and drama have always stalked Sanjay: he went through a self-destructive phase of drug addiction that lasted many years, his first wife, Richa Sharma, also died tragically young of cancer, and then in 1993 he became embroiled in a serious crime: the Mumbai serial blasts. Through all these storms, his emotional bond with audiences and fans kept growing and has endured for almost four decades. After every tragedy, every upheaval, Sanjay managed to make smashing comebacks. It was as if no matter what he did, no matter how serious his misdemeanours, his fans retained a soft spot for this 'bin maa ka bacbcba [motherless child]' and were always ready to forgive him once he had expressed guilt or atoned for his mistakes.
That's also what made Sanjay such a rare bird in Bollywood: he is unhesitatingly honest and forthright about his mistakes and goof-ups. Unlike most film stars, Sanjay has always been an open book. He's been very forthcoming, for instance, about his addictions: 'Whatever drugs there are in the book, I've done it. But I preferred cocaine and heroin. You sniff cocaine, you smoke heroin, you can inject it, 'he once said. (Indeed, his doctors at rehab in the US were surprised that Sanjay was still alive given the extent of his addictions.)
Sanjay seems unconcerned with people's reactions and is transparent on controversial matters such as his view on women working after marriage. When he married Richa, he said, 'I wanted her to give up her career ... [for] me, our children and our home. She agreed; she was not of the ambitious kind anyway.' Later he would say, 'I would not want my wife to be an actress ... I would not like to come home in the evening and find out that she has gone to a night turn ... if you just want to call me a Chauvi [chauvinist], I'm just one.'
About his love affairs and philandering, he said, 'I was in three relationships at one point of time.' When asked how he managed this, he said, 'You need to be clever ... one shouldn't know what is happening with the other.' On another occasion, Sanjay gave an unorthodox answer to the question of how to impress a woman. He said, 'If you like a woman, then make her feel like your mother ... become a little boy... let her feel protective about you. And you are scoring, buddy!' Can you imagine other Bollywood stars saying these things, especially today, when Bollywood is an altogether more guarded place? It's controlled by image-makers and public-relations representatives. Actors are presented to the press in highly controlled environments. They follow carefully choreographed scripts and are not allowed to deviate in any way.
PR agents are particularly good at dramatic rebrandings. For instance, there was a time when Salman Khan's image was taking a serious beating in the press thanks to the hit- and-run and wildlife poaching cases against him. But then, all of a sudden, the press around him became all about his charity, Being Human. Coincidence?
Sanjay is one of the last of the freewheeling, straight- shooting film stars. He means what he says and says what he means.
Sanjay's artlessness and naivety make people believe that he's genuinely good at heart. Even on the unpleasant issue of his involvement with the underworld and in the 1993 serial blasts, most Bollywood insiders and several policemen give him the benefit of the doubt. They say that he was just too foolish to realize what he was doing. Shatrughan Sinha summed it up best: when it was alleged that Sanjay knew beforehand about terrorists planning to blow up the Bombay Stock Exchange, he retorted, 'Don't be ridiculous. He doesn't even know what a stock exchange is!' Sanjay was ultimately acquitted under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and was convicted under the Arms Act, but in many minds, deeper questions linger.
When I set out to write this book, I wanted to try and explain what makes a bad boy bad. I looked everywhere: I explored Sanjay's childhood for clues - his boarding school days, his relationships with his mother, father and sisters, his early years in the film industry. But there are some things you just can't explain. I can't rationalize this bad boy. He just is one. Or maybe the answer was always staring us in the face: in the final analysis, Sanjay seems like the boy who never grew up.
This is not just Sanjay Dutt's story. It is also the story of his iconic parents: Nargis for whom nothing was more precious than her son, and Sunil who fought for Sanjay at every stage. It's the story of parents who never gave up on their child.
Sanjay's life has a film-like quality; there are so many twists and turns. His last few acts remain to be seen. Don't be shocked if they throw up a few more surprises.
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