Hindustan Times February 10, 2007
What a life
One night before 24-hour news channels were invented in India, Sanjay Dutt stepped out from a plane at Mumbai’s international airport.
His car raced though the city’s silent streets, past emptying-out dance bars and pavements crowded with the sleeping homeless. The jetlagged Dutt enjoyed a quiet moment of personal triumph – after a year-and-a-half in a United States rehabilitation centre, he had overcome a nine-year addiction to heroin, cocaine and other drugs that nearly killed him. He was headed home, to his close-knit family, and a new beginning.
He had barely rested two hours at home when the doorbell rang. The servant knocked on Dutt’s room and said there was someone to see him. It was six am. Dutt sleepily stumbled to the door to find a man he had known well for more than ten years — his longtime drug peddler.
Pleasantries were brief.
“I have some new stuff for you,” the peddler said. “I don’t know how he came to know I was back. It came down to that one second – either I had to take the stuff, or tell him to get lost,” Dutt says, looking me in the eye, sitting in the fire-gutted hall of a former textile mill during a shooting break, as he narrates the events of that dawn a decade and a half ago.
“And I told him to get lost.” Defiance. Death. Defeat. If someone were to lay down the massive jigsaw of Sanjay Dutt’s life before him, there are moments he would recognise instantly – years and continents apart, the moments that changed his life.
The evening when his father, the acting legend Sunil Dutt, sat him down with his two sisters and told them that their mother, the family’s other acting legend Nargis Dutt, had cancer. The day he decided he would give up studies and become an actor. The morning when he finally begged his father to help him fight his drug addiction. The phone call that made him decide against buying a ranch and settling down in the United States. The telephone ring in faraway Mauritius that announced that he had been named a terrorist by the government. And the words his father craved to hear in the final decade of his life, words finally spoken by a young judge: that Sanjay Dutt was not a terrorist.
Dutt, 46, has tap danced with darkness and sunshine for decades, in a life that out-Bollywoods Bollywood.
It is a battle with shadows that he hopes got over in a packed courtroom on November 28 last year when he stood leaning against the wall, and then walked forward nervously when his name was called out. Judge P D Kode found him guilty of illegally possessing arms, but said: “I have found him not to be a terrorist.” A tear lines Dutt’s tired bloodshot eyes as he relives that moment, dressed in a black shirt and trousers, sitting on a plastic chair in a vast, empty hall. He is shooting for his company’s new film Dus Kahaniyan, directed by his friend and business partner Sanjay Gupta.
“Those were the best words I had ever heard in my life, bro. My dad waited for this, just to hear these words – that his son was not a terrorist. I had tears in my eyes right there,” he says, leaning forward, before he walks off to give his next shot.
We are in one of the many dilapidated halls at Mukesh Mills, a sprawling textile factory, now shut down, sitting on the edge of the sea in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood. Years ago, the Mukesh Mills complex was gutted in a devastating fire whose cause was never known. Only film and television crews come here now.
Around me, the gigantic walls are blackened with soot. Thick iron girders running along the ceiling are rusted. The brickwork is coming off, burdened under creepers. Somewhere behind the wall, I can hear hostile shouting from Dutt’s dagger fighting scene. The factory seems like a reflection of much of Dutt’s life – a vast, empty palace, once beautiful and buzzing, but often resonating with battle cries.
As he walks back after a shot, drenched in fake rain, I ask him: his life has just been one step forward, two steps backwards, hasn’t it?
“I hope this case was the last step back in my life – and God willing, this will be the last,” he says. As he dries himself with a towel, my mind travels to the time when Mukesh Mills – my immediate, quick fix metaphor of Dutt’s life – had not been gutted, when he had barely started the turmoil-full journey of his life.
In their childhood, Sanjay and his sisters Namrata – or Anju – and Priya gleefully struggled with what came with being the children of India’s top movie stars. Sanjay was born on July 29, 1959, two years after the huge success of the iconic Mother India that starred both Sunil Dutt and Nargis.
“My mother dropped her career at the peak – after Mother India – and never looked back. She used to take care of her kids and the family – I was very pampered by her. But we were never brought up as Nargis and Sunil Dutt’s children,” Sanjay says.
He went to Lawrence School in Sanawar as a boarder for almost 11 years. In the holidays, the Dutt family went for vacations to far-off places, from Kashmir to England.
“All of us had a beautiful childhood... with the best parents any one could have,” Sanjay says. “They were strict but gave a lot of love. The only thing they asked of us was that we be good human beings in life. And everything follows after that.” But if the shy Sanjay had gone to Sanawar thinking he would be first among the rest for being the son of superstars, he was soon proved wrong.
“Initially for the first two years, bloody hell, I had to polish 30 pairs of white shoes daily. All because I was Sunil Dutt’s son. I used to make 15-20 beds for the seniors every day,” he says, smiling for the first time in the interview.
“There were girls, you know how it is when we are growing up – crushes and love letters. I wrote many love letters,” he says, and adds quickly – “but I was rejected most of the time. I used to write for others also. We used to sneak out of the school, run down the hills, go and eat bun-samosas and come back, go down the hill to Jhabri and get some country liquor, stuff like that.” He had to manage with pocket money of Rs 10 a week. And when back home, discipline ran strong in the close-knit family.
“We had to be home before sunset, all the kids, and we had to eat food together every day by nine o’clock – Dad, Mom, Anju, Priya and me,” he says, as he sets off again to give a shot, and is given a lethal-looking dagger and a black jacket.
When he returns,his black shirt is gashed with a knife as part of the scene.
Studies would never become his strong point. And if concrete proof were needed, he offered it on a platter on returning to Mumbai, when he joined Elphinstone College to pursue an Arts degree. In an entire academic year, his professors saw him in class for just one day.
“I used to hang out at the Jehangir Art Gallery with my friends, stuff like that – and I realised that that was not my cup of tea,” he says.
The hide and seek continued for the first year, and one day in 1978, Sanjay decided that enough was enough: he would have to have an honest conversation with his father about his future.
“So I went to my father and I said ‘Dad, we are just wasting our money and I can’t study’,” Sanjay says matter-of-factly, taking another puff of his cigarette. “He got damn upset with me. He said ‘you have to get a degree. You have to graduate, I don’t care.’” So he told his father: “I can’t. I want to be an actor.” As Sanjay might have expected, that made the elder Dutt even more upset.
“You think it’s a joke or what, being an actor?” he asked Sanjay.
That, it seems, is exactly what the son thought. So when he insisted, Sunil Dutt decided to respect his wish but only after a test of fire.
“He put me in that grind for two years, for training, diction, acting school, horse riding, fighting, swimming, this, that – and I realised that it was better being in college!” Sanjay says.
Finally, he stepped into Bollywood, with Rocky – a film directed by his father. Filming was going well. At home, there was a minor concern: Nargis Dutt had come down with jaundice. Treatment to heal her liver began, but her condition did not improve. One day after shooting, Sunil Dutt told his children what they were least prepared for: their mother had cancer.
“She was flown to America. We shut Rocky down. That phase was terrible,” Sanjay says. The family stayed there for months, but Sanjay had to return to finish the film, even as his mother struggled for her life thousands of kilometres away. Close family friend Raj Khosla had come to the Dutts’ aid, directing the rest of the film.
Meanwhile, things began looking up slightly for Nargis Dutt.
“My mom was in coma for threefour months, and when she came out of coma, the first thing she asked was: ‘Where is Sanju?’” His father made up an excuse, but Sanjay took the first flight out.
“I still remember, he went and told her that I have a surprise for you, close your eyes. She closed her eyes and I walked in, and I just said ‘Ma?’” Sanjay says. “You know, her face just changed. She was so happy – she was crying and she held me.
“The doctors said, give her more time, but she was adamant. She was feeling better … I don’t know why she was so adamant to come home.” Nargis Dutt was flown home. The homecoming would be shortlived.
“We got her back, and in one of her routine checkups at Breach Candy, she went into a coma again and was gone,” he says.
The twang of sadness comes across clearly in Dutt’s voice; he seems trying to wish it away in another whiff of cigarette smoke.
Rocky was a big hit, but it did not give Sanjay Dutt the stardom he sought. And even as he struggled with the aftermath of his mother’s death, another old, familiar enemy was creeping up on him: his drug addiction.
He had signed up a few more films, but his addiction, earlier the subject of just Bollywood whispers, was beginning to show.
“I didn’t lose films but if you look at those films, I was not in a proper state of mind,” he says candidly.
What started as a fad had become a killer disease over the years – watched in helplessness by his father. Sunil Dutt began to study journals to find ways of coping with narcotic addictions, and did not hide the truth from producers who came to sign up Sanjay.
“I think those were the worst nine years of my life. It was too dark. I was running away from everybody. I used to be alone, I used to be with just those people who were doing drugs,” says Sanjay. “It was very tough – I was on heroin and cocaine. I had reached a point where either I died or did something about it. I had realised that I just could not go on like this.” It was time for another heart-toheart with his father, also his friend.
“After nine years of trying, I went to my father and I said ‘Dad, I have to get out of this, please help me’,” he says. It was the moment of tough will power that the father had been waiting for.
The senior Dutt took his son to Mumbai’s Breach Candy hospital for 21 days, and then to the United States. They went to a rehabilitation centre in the town of Canton near Jackson, Mississippi. Sanjay was a part of a group of 30 men and 30 women, many of them doctors, lawyers and professionals.
“It is such a beautiful programme where they go down to the core of your addiction. It is in a group. I cried for hours, just talking about my life and talking about my mom. They used to take us to the swamps and the lakes for barbecues, and I used to see people laughing and having a blast without drugs. And I said ‘man, this is my life. This is what it is. This is what I want to be’,” he says.
The programme began to heal Sanjay – so much so that he decided to settle down in America. The person partly responsible for that was a man he remembers only as Bill, who became a good friend.
“He was from Austin, Texas, and his father was a rancher. He had a lot of longhorn cattle and he used to supply beef all over Texas – it was pretty huge,” he says. So when he got to make his weekly call to his father, he declared his verdict.
“I told Dad, ‘I don’t want to come back, I want to have a life on the ranches.’ He said ‘I will come there and talk’. I said, ‘Yeah, but how much money do I have in the bank?’ He said about 50 lakhs. That was too much money then. I said, ‘You bring all that money and I will invest it and buy land.’ He came down, and he said ‘Son, for my sake, you come back’. He said, ‘I need to show you, that you are not in hiding’. I said, ‘Dad, I will come, but for a year.’’’ Within hours of his arrival, he had overcome his first great challenge. He had rebuffed his drug peddler.
The other challenge was getting work, but Sanjay did not care – he was still determined to return to the United States.
“I didn’t even bother to go to any filmmaker. I just played squash, and I was waiting for that one year to pass,” he says. Eight months into his visit, he was offered Rs 10 lakhs for a film that the producer said would be over in three months.
“With the money, I bought my dad a pen, and my sisters a couple of things. And that was it, I never went back. And here I am,” he says.
Eight years ago, Dutt was on a US tour and having lunch at a restaurant in Dallas, Texas, when a stranger walked up to greet him.
It was Bill.
“He said, ‘You want to see what you lost’? He picked me up in his Rolls Royce, took me to his private jet, we flew to Austin, Texas; then went in his limo. He has got about 700-800 acres, he has a mansion of 12 bedrooms, pools, a helicopter, thisthat – and I said, ‘Oh my god! If I had invested 50 lakhs at that time, this would have all been ours!’” Meanwhile, once he had decided not to return to the United States, Sanjay had to start over. “I had to bloody hell start from scratch and my father said ‘now I have made one film with you, now you go and struggle’,” he says. “There were a lot of ups and downs, a lot of movies that did not work. They used to say ‘he is not serious about his work’. There were many films about which I asked myself: ‘what have I done’?” With success, came love. Sanjay met Richa Sharma, who was then working with Dev Anand’s company. They swiftly fell in love, got married and had a daughter – Trishala – in 1988. But when the baby was four months old, Richa began getting severe unexplained headaches.
One afternoon, Sanjay was at the airport in New Delhi, where he had left Richa at a relative’s. His name was announced on the public ad dress system, and Sanjay discovered in an hour that Richa had a brain tumour.
She was rushed to the United States, where tragedy had taken the family once earlier in similar circumstances. Her first surgery went well, but the tumour kept coming back.
But something far more explosive was brewing. Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in several parts of the country in December 1992 after the razing of the Babri mosque.
The worst was to follow. On March 12, 1993, multiple explosions rocked Mumbai in one of the worst-ever terrorist bombings in India. Hundreds of people died.
A month later, Sanjay was shooting in Mauritius when a phone call triggered the next, and most dramatic phase of his life. He was detained by the Mumbai Crime Branch at the airport on arrival on April 19 and arrested within hours. Sanjay was charged with terrorism-related offences, as well as for illegal possession of weapons.
He was granted bail on May 5, 1993. Meanwhile, his wife Richa’s condition was worsening.
“I want to tell you something. I have never seen a stronger person in my life than her. I mean, with that kind of pain, and to know you have got cancer, and yet live your life and yet smile and yet make people laugh – it never got the better of her. She always fought,” he says.
“That condition of hers used to bring tears to my eyes. Her skin had changed colour, she had lost all her hair. And she was very particular about the way she looked. But yet, she used to tell me, ‘I am coming back home’,” Sanjay says wistfully.
Sanjay was arrested again on July 4, 1994. He spent 15 more months in prison, a period that would transform him. The Supreme Court released him on bail on October 18, 1995.
“Prison changed me. It suppressed my anger. I have become more forgiving. No really, it is a big thing to forgive people,” he says. “Forgive but never forget.” There were inmates he never forgot: “There was a bunch of Sikhs with me, they were accused of being terrorists. They kept my morale up. They used to cook for me, joke around, they sang Punjabi songs for me,” he says.
He tried to rebuild his life in a second marriage with model Rhea Pillai, but they later mutually agreed to separate. Through his years of unending turmoil, Sanjay has clung to his two main sources of strength: his family and his closest friends. His daughter Trishala is 18 now, studying forensic sciences at the John J College of Criminal Justice in New York, and goes to crime scenes with Federal Bureau of Investigation experts.
His father passed away before the trial could end, an absence Sanjay Dutt has not gotten used to.
The media’s fascination with Sanjay’s life never seems to ebb; alongside the trial, the attention now is on a huge guessing game: whether or not he has married Maanyata, who is being described as the new woman in his life. He was quoted as acknowledging so in one media interview, but he later issued a denial.
“Why do these people speculate? I had to come out and clarify that I am not married. And if I was, what is wrong? It is the most pious, most beautiful thing to be married and have a family. If I have got married why should I hide it?” he says.
With a chessboard life of smiles and agony behind him, Sanjay Dutt says, “I don’t know if the worst is over. I am convicted. I have cried a lot. I feel lonely. I just hope and pray that things work out for me, and I don’t have to go back. I want to be a free man.”