If there is one man in the Hindi film industry across decades who holds the record for the maximum number of knocks faced in life, it has to be Sanjay Dutt. He has answered the doorbell for any number of tragedies and troubles, that have persistently knocked at his door, breaking the threshold time and again. Today, his smile hides a visage permanently etched in pain.
At 61, the star has just been diagnosed with stage three Cancer, and will shortly be flying to the US for intensive treatment. The C word is not new in the dictionary of the actor. In fact, it seems to be a recurring pattern every few decades in the life of Sanjay Dutt.
Since his debut in 1981 with Rocky (directed by his illustrious father Sunil Dutt), Dutt has travelled a long way as an actor. And there is no denying that for four decades, irrespective of all his troubles, he has remained one of the most popular heroes, with the love of the people and the industry. Dutt’s first brush with the dreaded cancer came in the form of his mother, actress Nargis’s illness, and her subsequent death. Sadly, she died the same year her son was launched, she was already gone when Rocky released. Already flirting with drugs, Sanjay’s life went spiralling downwards in grief over his mother’s loss, and which was to shape the tormented actor in the years to come.
Dutt's striking personality and limpid veiled eyes, his carefully sculpted physique, and his unique ‘care-a-damn’ manner of speaking endeared him to the public. His growth as an actor began later, with time, experience and wisdom honing his later performances. Rocky (1981), Vidhaata (1982), Naam (1985), Saajan (1991), Khalnayak (1993), Vaastav — The Reality (1999), Mission Kashmir (2001), Munnabhai MBBS (2003), and its sequel, Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), were some of his noteworthy films. He also did a number of delightful two-hero films with Govinda, Sunny Deol, Salman Khan and Jackie Shroff.
Dutt was also known for his many tumultuous relationships over the years. His first was with his co-actress Tina Munim. When that ended, he married actress Richa Sharma in 1987, with who he had a daughter Trishala. Richa separated from Dutt soon. She died of a brain tumour in 1996. Their daughter still lives with her maternal family and Dutt’s relationship with her, at best, is strained and awkward.
Even as his performance in Khalnayak brought him accolades in 1993, when Mumbai city was rocked by a series of bomb blasts, Dutt was named as one of those involved, and arrested under the TADA and the Arms Act. He was convicted for possession of illegal weapons, which were linked to other accused in the bombings. He had overnight turned into a real life khalnayak. His case went on for over two decades, in multiple chapters, and though he was acquitted of TADA, and was out on bail, he still had to serve his sentence for violation of the Arms Act, which he eventually did six years for, in Pune’s Yerawada jail, gaining freedom in February 2016. Those were not easy years.
One thing in his favour was the fact that despite his arrest and case, it did not affect his fan following. Some believed it was his father’s politics that led to his arrest. Sunil Dutt died in 2005, leaving Sanju bereft of the umbrella of his care, even though they always had a troubled relationship. Some of Sanju’s best films were post his first release from jail in 1995. Kartoos, Khoobsurat, Kaante, Haseena Maan Jayegi, Munnabhai MBBS all brought him fame and fortune as well. Many of Dutt’s films were top grossers in India and internationally.
In 1998, he married model Rhea Pillai, but even this marriage did not see forever. They divorced in 2008, the same year he married Maanayata who came from nowhere and took over his heart and life. She was earlier Dilnawaz Shaikh, a one film wonder, named Maanayata by Prakash Jha when she danced an ‘item-number’ in his film Gangaajal. Dutt was always a trusting guy and invested emotionally and financially in his so-called friends unwisely, leading him to make many foolish and wrong decisions. Maanayata took the reins of his scattered, chaotic life and finances and brought stability and some semblance of order in his life, much to the chagrin of Dutt’s sisters Priya and Namrata who considered her a gold digger. Dutt and Maanayata had twins in 2010, a boy and a girl, Shahraan and Iqra.
When Dutt was in jail in 2013, there was a hue and cry about his many parole outings. It was apparently because of his wife’s ill health. Maanayata was diagnosed with a benign tumour in her lungs (some reports say in the liver) and an unspecified heart condition. An ugly illness had reared its head up again in his temporary cup of happiness. The shadow of sorrow seemed to always lurk on the horizon of Dutt’s clouded life, offering no silver lining.
His trips in and out of jail yo-yoed over the years. He seemed like a hapless pawn. A failed attempt at contesting elections (he was never cut out for politics), threats to his life whilst in prison and out of it, his own attempts at cleaning up his long term drug and alcohol issues and rebuilding his life, numerous failed relationships, four decades in the life of Sanjay Dutt were the stuff films are made of. And so Rajkumar Hirani made a biopic in 2018, with Ranbir Kapoor playing Sanju. The much loved film was more fiction than fact, the truth is always harsher and more unbelievable than scripted drama.
Through all of this, Sanjay Dutt the actor kept at it. He has currently coming up Sadak 2, Shamshera, Bhuj: The Pride of India, and KGF: Chapter 2, making his debut in Kannada films, as an antagonist.
But, Sanjay Dutt the human being has weathered typhoons and storms, and come out stronger for it all. Today, all that the public wants is for him to heal- physically and emotionally. He will always remain Sanju ‘Baba’ to those who love him. Battle worn, but beloved!
(The writer is former Editor for Stardust, and CineBlitz magazines, and has been writing about Bollywood for two and a half decades now.)