Born on July 29, 1959, Sanjay Dutt will turn 60 tomorrow. He’s the only still-working actor to have a successful biographical film (Sanju) made on him so there are very few corners of his life that have not had the spotlight flashed on them. But whether you are a fan of the actor or not, one recurrent theme of his four-decade-long career worth exploring is his phoenix-like ability to make professional comebacks.
Though his first tryst with the camera was for a qawwali scene as a 12 year old in father Sunil Dutt’s production, Reshma Aur Shera (1971), Sanjay Dutt made his official debut as a leading man at 22 with his father’s film, Rocky (1981) opposite Tina Munim. The critics were not enamoured of Dutt’s debut performance but there was something endearing about his floppy hair, droopy eyes and loopy grin besides his characteristic swagger.
The film was a moderate success; but Dutt was heralded as an upcoming star and he landed many films including biggie Subhash Ghai’s Vidhaata (1982) which did well though Dutt’s sloppily rendered ‘Abu Babu’ drew a few chuckles from the audience.
Then came the downturn! Half-a-dozen flop to average films including Bekaraar, Zameen Aasmaan, Mera Faisla, Do Dilon Ki Dastaan through which Dutt sleepwalked like a zombie in his drug addiction phase, resulted in Dutt’s career hitting the skids. The nadir was reached when he was allegedly offered a supporting role.
At this stage, Mahesh Bhatt’s Naam (1986) came like an oxygenating breath of fresh air for the freshly de-addicted Dutt. The film was ostensibly made to revive the fortunes of his brother-in-law Kumar Gaurav whose career was sinking too at the speed of the Titanic despite a superhit debut in Love Story. However, Dutt cornered the hosannas in Naam with an intense performance and found favour with the producers again while Gaurav’s career languished.
After this affirmative comeback, Dutt slid into a bland middle-level stardom with an occasional success like Thanedar (remember the foot-stomping dance with Madhuri Dixit in Tamma Tamma loge?) and a critically appreciated performance like Hathyar giving him the impetus to continue. At a time when his career seemed to be just drifting aimlessly, 1991 saw a sharp reversal of his fortunes.
Five years after Naam, Mahesh Bhatt once again dragged him out of the cesspool of mediocrity with a display of edgy histrionics in Sadak. In the same year, Saajan proved to be a musical money-spinner. Dutt’s performance as a physically challenged poet who is willing to sacrifice his love for his brother, Salman Khan, won him the first nomination for the Filmfare Best Actor Award.
Two years later, he scored another big success with Khalnayak in which he was tempted to play the bad guy as it was the titular role in showman Subhash Ghai’s film. Sanjay approached the role in a manner that evoked memories of Jack Nicholson in Batman and won his second Filmfare Best Actor nomination.
It was the best of times for Dutt professionally. It was the worst of times for him in real life. His legal troubles and arrest is all too well documented, and in the mid-1990s it was assumed by many that his acting career was conclusively over. Dutt made a tentative return to the screen with Ram Gopal Verna’s whacky Daud (1997) but the film bombed.
I remember meeting Sanjay at this stage and he was passionate about building his new all-muscular body. Finally, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vaastav (1999) capitalised on Sanjay’s rebellious image, and scored a thumping comeback for the actor. As Raghu, the man who wanted to sell pao bhaji but is forced by circumstances to pick up a gun, Dutt was in peak form. Dutt deservedly won his first Filmfare award for this film.
While the new millennium saw Sanju retain his stardom, he still needed that one definitive superhit playing a wildly popular character...It came his way with Munna Bhai MBBS (2003) and he quickly followed it up with Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). As the underworld don with a mile-wide humane and comic streak, the character rejuvenated Dutt’s career and sent his stock soaring. But the actor’s troubles were not over. The judgement on his legal case sent him back to prison.
Dutt went missing from the big screen for three years between 2014 and 2016. But when he came back he was once again flooded with film offers for lead as well as character roles. His recent efforts like Bhumi (2017), Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster (2018) or Kalank (2019) may not have broken the bank but he has a clutch of films like Panipat, Bhuj: The Pride of India, Prassthanam, Torbaaz and Mahesh Bhatt’s Sadak 2. Don’t be surprised if Dutt returns for yet another spin in the spotlight...he has been known to do that before.