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 don’t know this people and have no special knowledge, this is just commonly known information that might be useful if you are new to this film industry or somehow missed this story before.
By the time Sanjay came home from boarding school, he was a hardcore addict. As he would be the first to say. Well, to say now, when he has recovered. And like most addicts, he had lost some ability of empathy, of feeling the pain of others, of concerning himself with them. Not permanently, just that drugs served to soften and alter his experience of reality, and when he wasn’t on drugs, his whole being was focused on getting back on them. It didn’t leave a lot of time for being able to sincerely connect with the people around him.
At first his parents had no idea what was happening. How could they? Sure, they drank, everyone enjoyed a glass at parties. And they probably knew, even expected, that their teenage son would sneak a drink or too. But the idea of drugs that could completely change him, overwhelm his ability to function, cause that strange feeling of “not there” that they must have seen in his eyes, that would be impossible for them to imagine.
(Drug use as perceived by Indian culture in the 70s. Hippies, beads, bad company. Not drugs you shoot straight into your arm that are so addictive you become physically ill when you try to quit them)
Drugs in India were not a thing you saw in nice middle-class homes in the early 80s and late 70s. I’m not talking about denial or rose colored glasses, I’m saying they just weren’t there. Alcoholics, sure, loads of alcoholics. If you were an addict, there were substances you could get addicted too. But heroin, cocaine, the stuff Sanjay was doing, it wasn’t available in India the way it was in other places, not yet (now, of course, massive amounts of heroine, especially in the Punjab). You would be unlikely to have ever seen the symptoms before, to be able to understand the true extent of the addiction they could cause.
The only people who knew about these drugs were the Sanjay Dutts of India. The addicts who were already trolling dangerous waters looking for marijuana and harder liquor, who were easy pickings for salesman trying to get to try a new product and then spread it around to their friends. Sanjay describes his first experience of hard drugs as hearing that everyone else was trying it, and immediately wanting to try it himself, chase a new high. And soon enough, it was all he wanted in the world. He would fall asleep into his plate at the dinner table, spend hours locked in his rooms, and his parents had no idea what was happening to their son.
Well, not at first. They weren’t stupid, if they saw strange behavior they would investigate and look for an explanation and learn new things. His parents went from mildly puzzled and concerned, thinking he was staying up too late, not eating enough, should get a job, had bad friends, to starting to understand the reality of what was happening.
But then, even if they knew what the problem was, they didn’t know how to address it. Sanjay failed at school and just hung around the house, but he seemed vaguely interested in being a movie star. So they went with that. They made him take acting classes and dancing and all the other skills of an 80s movie star. And they made him do a screen test and showed it to friends who were all unanimous in their praise and excitement. On the basis of that, Sanjay was offered his first job.
I can believe that Sanjay gave a good screen test. His whole life, even as a baby, he has been arresting in photos. Somehow a combination of his father’s masculinity with his mother’s eyes. Never really handsome, or even “cute”, but you couldn’t look away from him. And he was Sunil and Nargis’ son, people trusted him because they trusted his parents, producers didn’t hesitate to sign him, if Sunil said he was okay then he must be. And so Sanjay went off to his first film, Rocky, and his first serious relationship, with his co-star Tina Munim.
Tina didn’t understand drugs either. She just understood love. She loooooooooooved Sanjay, and he loved her. They were both very young and innocent, he was romantic and passionate and “needed” her. It’s a heady thing, to be needed like that when you are only 22. And Tina fell into it, she followed him around everywhere and vice versa, she kept him happy and calm when he got upset, she tried to cure his demons.
Sanjay had a lot of demons. Stories were going around about hunting trips when he would beat the animal to death, angry fights starting out of nothing, a massive gun collection. He was not a happy young man. And it was about to get a lot worse.
But before we get into that, let’s talk addiction. There are as many different kinds of addicts as there are addicted people. But what can be confusing is that addiction is a bit of a chicken and the egg situation. You have some people with a genetic predisposition to addiction. It’s extremely easy for them to become addicted, their brain craves it. And you have other people who start out of excitement, rebellion, or often self-medicating some other problem (“drinking to forget”). And as they use their drug of choice, their brain learns to crave it. Many people have tried to analyze Sanjay as the second kind, the troubled sad case who drinks because he is sad, if only he had love he could have been cured, or avoided it in the first case. But after reading all of this about him, I just don’t see it. He was a little boy obsessively sneaking cigarette butts when he was 9 years old, before anything bad had happened in his life. He didn’t start drinking when he was a miserable homesick little boy at boarding school, he started drinking when he was an upperclassman happy and popular. All the sad things in his life, especially the super sad thing coming up next, were not a cause of his addiction; his addiction was just yet another sad thing that happened to him.
By the period I am getting to know, his first film and his first love, Sanjay was 22 and deep into addiction. Which meant his brain had changed radically. Many many studies in recent years have looked at the pleasure centers of the brain in addicts and discovered that when addicts say they have “forgotten how to feel”, it is the literal truth. Their brains have lost the ability to feel anything any more, their dopamine centers (which control joy) have turned off. The good news is, eventually they turn back on again. It just takes a loooooooooong time. That saying of “I am beginning to feel like myself again”, it’s a real thing that you can see in brain scans, very very slowly your brain relearns the ability to create joy for itself. That’s part of the purpose of talk therapy and talking things through as an addict goes through recovery, they are suddenly feeling all those things that they missed in the years of addiction.
(National Institute of Drug abuse. The red color is happiness. Notice how the ability to feel it slowly grows back the longer you are off drugs)
One more thing to think about with addiction as it relates to Sanjay’s life. When someone becomes addicted as an adolescent (as Sanjay clearly did), it stunts your mental and emotional growth. A study from 2014 confirmed by looking at 3,000 twins. Despite having identical genetic and social factors, the twin who began drinking at 18 or younger had significantly greater problems later in life. Such as:
- High addiction rates (up to 80 percent)
- Inability to learn, plan and make decisions
- High crime rates due to an “inhibition against violence”
- High unemployment rates
- Higher rate of imprisonment and early death
Every single one of those is true about Sanjay Dutt. And so as I get into the next section of his biography, I want to put all of this forward, so that we are not looking for inevitable tragedy and the cruel ironies of fate in how his life plays out, but rather the inevitable result of addiction, especially in addiction that starts adolescence.
In 1981, Sanjay’s first movie was about to come out. When his mother Nargis went in for a medical check and learned she had cancer. Sunil immediately organized for her to be taken to Sloane-Kettering in New York for treatment. He flew out with her, and Sanjay came later along with his two young sisters. On this trip, responsible for two teenagers, going to join his father and visit his dying mother, Sanjay had one very important overriding concern: would he be able to get drugs in New York? He wasn’t sure, so he hid a stash in his shoe just in case. He was smuggling drugs into America, risking arrest not just of himself but of his two young sisters traveling with him. But nothing was more important than the drugs.
Sanjay has no memories of his mother’s sickness. His sisters were devastated, his father was lost, the family spent the days traveling from temple to mosque to pray and then return to the hospital. Sanjay was with them, but not really with them. He felt nothing, he was in his own world. He flew back and forth, Bombay to New York, trying to finish his film while Sunil and the two sisters set up a home in New York. The only time he felt something was when he checked his bedroom in the New York apartment and discovered his heroin was missing. He knew his father had taken it, and went to Sunil and ordered him to return it. Sunil, broken with grief over his wife, did.
(Poor Sunil. When he needed to lean on his son, his son was just one more place of pain)
And then, the miracle! Nargis had been in a coma for months when she suddenly woke up. Her first words, “Where’s Sanju?” He flew back to New York, finally talked to his mother again, and still felt nothing.
Nargis somehow got stronger and stronger. Until, finally, she was allowed to return to India, just in time for the release of Sanjay’s first film. Sanjay was excited, swore he would do everything she wanted as soon as possible, get his sisters married, become a big star himself, everything. But he wouldn’t quit the drugs. Wouldn’t even admit to taking them, swore to family and friends on his mother’s life that he didn’t have a problem. To which Nargis in her sick bed privately told her friends “He’s a liar. Don’t believe him”. She loved him, but she wasn’t blind any more.
Nargis took a turn for the worse, after a few happy months back home. The release of the film was moved up in hopes that she could make it, but it was too late. She died suddenly just 5 days before Sanjay’s film was scheduled to come out. Sanjay’s sisters dressed her again in her wedding sari and Sunil helped them lovingly prepare the body. Sanjay was there, but not there. He stood in the back in a drug haze leaving his family alone. He and his father were the only ones to go to the cemetery and say prayers over the body, following the Muslim tradition, and Nargis was buried in the same grave as her beloved mother. But Sanjay has no memory of it. Sunil was, essentially, alone in his grief.
On the day of the release, Sunil and Sanjay got dressed in suits and went to the grand first show along with all their industry friends. They kept the seat between them empty, and turned to it as the film went on over and over again. When people came over to ask about it, Sunil would say “no, that seat is taken, my wife is sitting there.”
Somehow, Sanjay’s addiction was now known and accepted by the family, just part of their life in this terrible time. Nargis was dead, Sunil was broken by grief, and Sanjay was a drug addict. He would disappear for days until his friends would find him passed out in front of a drug den and drag him home and leave him for his family to clean up. He would sit in his room alone and shoot up, not even bother to hide it from his father or his sisters. Sunil took to calling up producers when they considered signing Sanjay, feeling he had an obligation to warn them as to the situation. Tina had had enough and ended their relationship, sending Sanjay deeper into drugs. This would be a pattern for him, a passionate love that sweeps away the object of his affection, she forgives all and understands all and is devoted only to him. And then, eventually, it is all just too much. She drifts away, and Sanjay is heartbroken and out of control. Until he finds a new obsession.
Everything came to a head with shots fired. Sanjay, high and with guns, lead to an inevitable conclusion. The neighbors heard shots and came running out, to find Sanjay sobbing and clinging to the barbed wire fence with bleeding hands, asking why everyone left him. Sunil was traveling, and returned to find Sanjay in jail. He was humiliated and ashamed, but he stood by him.
That’s the thing with addicts. There are only two choices, you can stand by them no matter what, or you can save yourself and walk away. Tina was able to walk away, with a lot of heartache, and start life anew. Move on to become Tina Ambani, married to one of the most powerful men in the world, whole and happy. But Sunil couldn’t walk away. He loved his son, and he was responsible for his son. So he waited it out, he was heartbroken but he was there. And, eventually, the change happened as it always has to happen, from within. Sanjay woke up one day, feeling hungry and called for a servant to bring some food. The servant came in, crying. Sanjay was confused. And only then learned that he had been sleeping without waking for 24 hours. The family and household was sure he was going to die. Sanjay looked at himself in the mirror and realized, finally, that they were right. He was going to die, unless he changed something. And so he went to his father and begged for help, breaking down and crying. The empty space between them that Nargis use to fill had finally gone away, they were united.