In honor of the release of Sanju today, I am reposting my entire series on Sanjay Dutt. If you can’t wait for the reposts, you can find the original posts in the index here.
Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge of these people and their lives, this is just the commonly accepted version of what happened. If you are new to the films, or somehow missed this particular story, it might be worth reading.
(Most of this post is based on THIS BOOK by Yasser Usman, it’s a super fun and very easy read, and remarkably well-researched)
Sanjay’s story starts long before he was born, with his parents. Everyone’s story starts with their parents, but in Sanjay’s case its not just his personal story, but also his public perception that was greatly molded by who his parents were to the public. His mother was Nargis, one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Nargis was raised in the film industry of Bombay, her mother was a composer and singer for the films and the top talents of the film industry were in and out of her house as a child. Nargis started acting at 14 and was a major star by the time she was 18. Which is also when she started a passionate public affair with Raj Kapoor.
(There first massive hit a few years after their relationship started, Raj at 27 producing and directing and Nargis at 22 adoring him)
The Nargis-Raj romance was something a little different from the usual affairs. They didn’t seem to be ashamed of it, for one thing. Raj had a wife at home and 3 kids, but his wife never made a fuss about him having Nargis at the office and with him on his publicity tours and everywhere else in his life. And Raj and Nargis went everywhere together, they didn’t bother to try to counteract the rumors, by their behavior they essentially confirmed them.
It also lasted a really long time, a decade of time together, this wasn’t a brief relationship that flamed out when the passion left. Because they had more than passion, they had a real connection on every level, were true life partners. Nargis and Raj together built up Raj’s studio, RK Films and made the movies that are still, to this day, the most successful films in the history of Hindi movies. To the public, Raj was Nargis and Nargis was Raj, the two of them were forever bonded.
(A few years later, playing cards on set, still in love but no longer the passionate youth of love)
Enter Sunil Dutt. An outsider. He came from a landed family in the north, his father had died when he was still a child thrusting him into the role of the head of the family with little money to help support them. He had a variety of jobs and experiences and landed in Bombay to try his hand at film acting. Nargis had grown up in the movies, knowing nothing else. And she had been in love with Raj Kapoor since she was a teenager, knowing no one else. Enter Sunil, who had been everywhere and tried everything, who had a certain confidence and calm about him, who didn’t care that Raj and Nargis were India’s sweethearts and everyone in the film industry knew they would be together forever.
It would take something big to shake the public’s love for Raj and Nargis, and Sunil provided that big thing. While he and Nargis were filming Mother India together (her first movie in years made without Raj’s permission), a stunt went wrong and Nargis was trapped in burning haystacks. Sunil rushed in and risked his life to save her, the story rushed around the city and the country within weeks, and the actual shot of him saving her was used in the final film. Nargis and Sunil were married 5 months after the movie released, and all of India (fickle India) was in love with them. Raj and Nargis were dead, long life Sunil and Nargis!
(Supposedly a photo of Nargis tending to injured Sunil after he saved her)
Nargis’ family had always been part of the film society, but on the fringes of the rest of society. She came from a courtesan family, she was Muslim, her father wasn’t around. Her relationship with Raj hadn’t really helped, they were King and Queen of the film industry, but he was never going to marry her, or give her children, in many ways he treated her like the courtesan her grandmother had been, better than a mistress but still not quite a wife. Sunil changed all of that without ever wanting her to change herself. After marriage, Nargis magically became a respectable wife recognized everywhere, she could have children, she could stop working for the first time since she was 14 years old. And she could also remain a Muslim, remain close to her courtesan-heritage mother and all her old friends. And a year after marriage, just to put the extra touch on her happiness, Sanjay arrived.
(Raj was so insecure, he never let Nargis wear heels while they were dating because he didn’t want her to be taller than him. She left him for 6 foot tall Sunil Dutt and wore heels the rest of her life)
Nargis went from a woman rushing from film set to film set, helping Raj craft the future of RK studios, staying up late having long intense conversations about art and life, to a woman pouring all of that energy into her son. She kept long detailed baby books detailing every part of his life, she kept him with her always, she was ecstatically happy with her baby and lavished him with all the love she had been denying for years (supposedly she broke with Raj partly because she desperately wanted children and she knew she could never have that with him).
And meanwhile, Sunil was simply besotted with Nargis. Until the day she died, his whole world revolved around her. He loved his children, but he could not be parted from his wife. He had loved her since even before they met, when she was a famous actress and he was merely an average man watching her onscreen, and his love just grew and grew after he got to know her in reality.
All of this fits within a very common universal template of male-female celebrity. Of course the famous successful woman would give it all up for the man who gives her a home and children. And of course she can find that only with the noble simple man who saves her from the corruption of her previous relationships. But in this case, every source also says it was just how this couple was. Nargis wasn’t putting on a false face when she talked about loving her children and her home and being happy just to take care of them, her private writings and conversations with friends and every other piece of evidence shows that as well. And Sunil wasn’t just pretending to be a “nice guy” who rescued her, he really was. He worked day and night so she wouldn’t have to, he supported her publicly and privately her whole life, he was proud of his Muslim actress wife and expected everyone else to be proud of her too.
Sanjay was raised in this household of complete happiness for the first few years of his life. When he wasn’t being spoiled by his doting mother, he was sent over to his maternal grandmother’s house to be spoiled by that family. And the birth of his two sisters did nothing to stop the doting, although younger than him (Namrata by just 2 years, Priya by 5-6), they were raised with the understanding that Sanjay was the prized jewel of the family, the joy of the house.
Sanjay sounds like a remarkably charming little boy, and very hard to punish. He wasn’t mean or nasty, he was just “naughty”, all his little misbehaviors were innocent moments of childishness. He never tried to hurt others, or even make them unhappy. He just wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, and it was awfully hard to say “no” to him.
Neither Nargis nor Sunil had really had a childhood, in very different ways. Nargis’ life had been chaotic, moving across the country to Bombay, her mother working, strangers in and out of the house, and then quitting school at 14 to start working. Sunil had stayed in school and had a stable position in society, but after the death of his father when he was 8, he had never really been a “child” again.
Nargis seems to have reacted by wanting to lavish all that love and security and forgiveness she had not been able to have in her own childhood onto her firstborn. While Sunil, as Sanjay aged, was increasingly unable to understand this naughty boy who disobeyed rules and expected to be pampered and indulged, at an age when Sunil was already the man of his household. Neither of them were terrible parents, but Sanjay was a difficult child for them to have, especially being born first and the only boy. It sounds like a combination of his innate personality, his parents’ differing parenting styles, and his position as the beloved first born and only boy all combined to turn him into an impossible little boy.
What do you do with an impossible little boy? One who, at age 9, is already sneaking cigarette butts and smoking them just because you tell him he can’t. Do you just keep loving him more, do you try to punish him, or do you decide that the best solution is to change the situation, to break out of the pattern?
Nargis and Sunil went with the change the situation solution which, in hindsight, was not the best. But then I don’t know what else would have worked better? They sent Sanjay to the prestigious Lawrence School, the best boarding school in the country. In the British tradition, it did not believe on “coddling” its students. And so little Sanjay went from the indulged and beloved son, to the abused new student, forced to run miles of drills, serve his older classmates, be “ragged”, and all the tortures that are supposed to make better men. His classmates remember at the time a strong feeling that the teachers were trying to prove they didn’t care about Sanjay’s famous heritage, they would “treat him like anyone else” resulting in treating him even worse than the other students. He would be made to crawl on his arms up and down the hill behind the school until his skin was shredded, and any begging for mercy would be called just weakness of his movie star lifestyle.
(I wouldn’t send my kid there. Saif went there too, but under a different headmaster than Sanjay and hopefully had an easier time. Huh, Saif was there in the same class as Preity’s abusive millionaire ex-boyfriend Ness Wadia. Small world at the top I guess)
This was terrible, and meanwhile back in Bombay Nargis’ heart was breaking for her son while little Sanjay, missing his mother, tried to come up with reasons for her to have sent him away, sent letters promising to be good forever and ever if he could only come home. His sisters cried for him, the whole household was in misery. It was not a good answer to behavioral problems. But to give up would be weak, would be giving in one last time, and all the common wisdom would have told them that school would be the making of him, the best thing for him, they needed to just wait it out, after all The Lawrence School was the best in India.
And so Sanjay stayed and adapted and, inevitably, reached his real problem. The Lawrence School was indeed the making of him, because it was where he first became an alcoholic. By the time he was an upperclassman, still in his teens, he and his friends were going in to town and drinking constantly. He was already known for it. And he was known for flirting and charming the female students just like he had charmed his mother and grandmother as a youth. The torture of the school, ultimately, served to keep him young, not make him grow up. He learned to avoid punishment, to lie, to sneak, and to grab any enjoyment while he could. And also to have no fear of rules or punishment, he had survived the worst the world could offer, what else could possibly matter?
(Not quite the smiling little charmer they sent away to school)
Back home, his family was going through a bad time. Sunil’s films started flopping and they ran out of money. But Nargis never stopped smiling, she would cheerfully hunt through sofa cushions for change, ride in rickshaws, and never complain. Sanjay was kept away from this, while his sisters witnessed it first hand. The first of many times when the family pulled together to “protect” Sanjay and ultimately end up damaging him.
But really, reading about his life, it sounds like nothing was ever going to”save” Sanjay. He was born cursed by a bad combination of genetics. Nothing would ever change that, staying home or going to boarding school, or anything else his parents might have tried. He was born an addictive personality, alcohol was always going to find him and then harder drugs. And he was born a charmer, the type who would be able to talk his way out of anything and get whatever he wanted, even when what he wanted (especially when what he wanted) was terrible for him. If he had stayed home, he would have had a less miserable childhood, but he still would have turned into a teen that was addicted to alcohol and had the god-given talents that made it easy to hide.
His parents’ tragedy wasn’t that their happy ending was cursed by a “bad” son, or that his mother’s indulgence/father’s restrictions “made” him an addict. It was that, for whatever complicated reason of fate and genetics and everything else, their beloved baby arrived with a gift from an evil fairy attached to him. Sometimes it just happens like that, and there is no reason for it. Nargis and Sunil could have done anything and been anyone, and Sanjay was still going to end up a spoiled little boy turned into an alcoholic teen. The only thing that changed, because of who his parents were, is that the whole world was watching this tragedy instead of it staying hidden away inside the walls of their home, as it is hidden away inside the walls of so many other homes through out the world.
(Just a reminder that this story does have a happy ending, against all odds)