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 these people, this is just general knowledge and common wisdom about them combined with my own interpretation.
In 1984, Sanjay Dutt was 25 years old and had been a serious addict for almost 10 years, since he was an upperclassman at boarding school. It had been the main focus of his life, the largest part of his life, that whole time. The death of his mother, the start of his career, his first love story, it was all drowned in a haze of addiction. He was ready to stop now, to save his life, but that meant turning around and facing everything and feeling everything that he had been avoiding for the past 10 years.
I don’t think Sanjay became an addict because he had a sad life, I think he became an addict because that’s what he was always fated to be. But like all addicts, by the time you reach the point of being willing to face your demons and try to overcome them, you will discover that the life you started with, happy or sad, is now gone. Drowned in a sea of drugs, and it is up to you to realize that and accept your new reality.
Sanjay did that over the course of 6 months at a rehab center in Mississippi in America. For those of you who aren’t American, Mississippi is one of our poorest states, there are no large cities, there is a lot of agriculture and people living below the poverty line. It’s not the “fun” part of America. I was surprised when I read that Sanjay went there for rehab, but then I started thinking about it, and it was probably the best thing for him. It was also probably why there was a rehab facility there. Because there is nothing else to do but be in rehab, no distractions, no real world to bother you. Just the earth and sky and the people you are with.
(Mississippi. Not a lot there)
And so Sanjay had to do the work. All day they gave the residents outside labor as a distraction from cravings, and then they forced them into group therapy to confront their demons and help work through all the feelings of the past years of addictions that they had never truly felt thanks to drugs altering their brain chemistry. For Sanjay, it was his mother’s death that was paramount, the biggest thing he was running from. And he finally faced it one night, thanks to a cassette tape his father had given him.
When Nargis woke up from the coma, she knew she didn’t have much time left. She spent her time talking with her husband, long long talks covering every part of their lives and what she wanted for the future. The two of them were partners in everything for 20 years, and this was their last chance to plan together the next 20 years. Sunil recorded their conversations, a reminder of his beautiful wife. He had 100s of hours of movies he could watch of Nargis, see her age from 14 to 40 onscreen. But he wanted something that was his real wife, tired and sick with a weak voice, but herself, gently and lovingly talking about their life together and what it might be in the future, and so much more important to him than any beautiful onscreen image.
Sunil went to visit Sanjay a few months into rehab. And he could tell he was wavering. The drugs were gone, but alcohol, his first and strongest demon, was coming back. Sanjay has always struggled with admitting that his alcohol dependency is part of his problems. Drugs are bad, drugs are strong, drugs ruined his life. Alcohol is his old friend, in good times and bad, since childhood. What could be wrong with that? Sunil knew his son now, knew him better than anyone else, and he knew rehab wasn’t enough to kill that craving. He knew he himself, Sunil, Sanjay’s father, wasn’t going to be enough. And so in a last desperate attempt, he gave Sanjay the Nargis tapes without telling him what they were and hoped and prayed he would listen and understand.
And one night, months in, when he didn’t think he had the strength to continue, Sanjay put in a tape. And heard his mother’s voice, advising him, saying how much she loved him, how high were her hopes for him, how much faith she had in him. Sanjay finally cried for his mother, finally felt the grief he had never been able to feel before. And moved forward, cleansed. A last gift of mother love.
6 months of rehab, and Sanjay was ready to go home to India, and afraid to go home to India. What was there for him, after all? His career had been dying, his first movie had done well enough for him to sign further films, he had a mixture of minor hits and flops, nothing that would make the audience clamor for his return. His relationship with Tina was over, as was his rebound relationship with Rati Agnihotri. Sanjay considered staying in America, starting a ranch with one of his friends in rehab who he called “Bill” in interviews (I assume following the tradition of AA by using an alias and naming him after Bill W.).
This is something Sanjay talks about, as he talks about all things, in a very filmi way. It’s natural for movie stars to turn stories into movies, to give them a natural flow with surprise twists and dramatic moments and so on and so forth. But it’s a dangerous thing when you lose track of what is real in the story and what is just part of how you like to tell it. Sanjay talks about the temptation of staying in America as though it was a dramatic moment in his life, he had the option of being a “normal” person and living in a different country, and then he had stardom thrust back on to him against his will. He sells a story of losing a life that might have made him happier in the long run as his movie star life swept him back into the world of India.
That’s a lovely story, but there is another story. Of an aging father and two sisters who needed their brother. Who had supported him financially and emotionally through all his struggles, who had grieved his mother as much as he had and without the luxury of rehab life to give them space to grieve. Sanjay, with the selfishness of the recently recovered, was only considering what would be best for him, what he wanted to do with his life that he felt he had earned back, without considering what were his responsibilities to others. Sunil had to beg him to come back to India for just 6 months, just to be in their home with them again for a little while.
In India, Sanjay struggled to face his life old and new. His father and sisters were still there, and so was Kumar Gaurav. Kumar had always been there, his whole life. Kumar was the son of Rajendra Kumar, his parents’ costar in Mother India. And Kumar and Sanjay were best friends at least since teenage years, and a few years earlier Kumar and Sanjay’s sister Namrata had fallen in love. Not in love like Sanjay and Tina were in love, not passionate and wild and obvious, but quietly and patiently in the background. Kumar was with Namrata, and not just Namrata, but her whole family. He picked Sanjay up at drug dens and helped clean him up. He supported Sunil in his struggles and his grief, he was Priya’s big brother while her real big brother was sunk in a drug haze. Namrata and Kumar got married in 1984, after Sanjay’s return from rehab, making official a relationship that had been unofficial for a long time.
That same year, for the first time, Sunil Dutt took an official step into politics. Sunil had been an unofficial politician for years, he and Nargis together had campaigned and worked for the Congress party, close friends of the ruling Gandhi family. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi asked Sunil to officially stand for elections. Sunil won, and started a career as the one honest man in Indian politics.
(The Dutts with India back in the 70s before Nargis died)
Sanjay doesn’t seem to have realized it, but it wasn’t a coincidence that all of these things happened the same year he came out of rehab. For years all the energy of his family had been poured into him. And now, finally, they were able to move forward in their own lives, moving away from him. Sanjay doesn’t like it when people move away from him. He was happy for his sister’s wedding only because Kumar was already his best friend and became even more involved in his life afterwards. But he was not happy about Sunil entering politics. It took time away from him, made Sanjay no longer the center of all Sunil’s energy and ambition.
And so Sanjay looked for a new place to get that attention and love, a new place to focus all his energy. In a strange way, he was finally growing up. Looking for something just for himself, something no one could take away, something that wasn’t a gift of his father.
And he found it in a film called “Naam” and two men who believed in him, his new brother Kumar Gaurav and the radical director Mahesh Bhatt. Mahesh wanted to make a story of a tragic tale of a lost boy, written by Salim Khan father of Salman who would become another of Sanjay’s good friends, it was the perfect role for Sanjay. Mahesh knew how to direct it, because he himself had felt lost in his life. Although at this point, he still had not acknowledged it, Mahesh was also an addict. For once Sanjay got to be the wise one and the mentor, through the filming of the movie and their long friendship, Sanjay gently pushed Mahesh to acknowledge his own problems and get better.
Sanjay fell in love with this script and this role, the way actors sometimes can. But Sanjay had never experienced that before, being in movies was just a job, a thing he did because it was a thing to do. With Naam, Sanjay discovered that whatever else he was, he was also his mother and father’s son, two actors who really loved to act, to put on the guise of different characters and feel their pain and their joy and make the audience feel it too. Sanjay had fallen into making movies, but he had never really acted before, completely lost himself in a role and loved it. But Naam was the role that could do that for him, and he wanted it more than anything he had ever wanted before in his life. And for once he had to work for it, at least a little bit. He had to audition, he had to convince people he was ready for the role, and then when he got it, he had to study and prepare and learn and finally give the performance of his career.
(Mahesh Bhatt on the left, and Kumar Gaurav and Sanjay standing on either side of Sunil to the right)
After Naam, Sanjay was back. For the first time he found a role that really brought out what was unique about him as a performer. His earlier parts, they were the same carefree young love stories with a hint of action that everyone was doing. But Sanjay had never really fit in those roles. He pushed against the edges of them, his eyes and his voice hinted at a personality that was too large for just a love story. There was something inside him that was struggling to get out, looking for an escape, and it was so strong it overrode all the common sense and logic of those around him. Kumar Gaurav sacrificed his career for Sanjay to be in Naam. He took the smaller part, the boring “good” brother who would be overshadowed inevitably by Sanjay’s “bad” brother. His father warned him against it, but Kumar didn’t care, he knew Sanjay had to take this role, it was destiny. Mahesh Bhatt, he took a risk as well, putting his struggling production house and career on the line for this actor just out of rehab. But he had to do it, Sanjay was made for this role, it would have been a sin against Art to deny him. And so Sanjay took the role, made the movie, and changed his life. He was no longer just “Sanjay-Sunil’s son” in the minds of the public and the industry, he was himself, “Sanjay-the boy from Naam“. The film titled “name” served to give him one.
And for a while, everything was happy. Sanjay was clean and healthy and successful all on his own. Sunil had moved on to a new phase of life, finding fulfillment serving the people as an elected official. Namrata was married, and Priya was finishing school. Everything was good with Sanjay, and so everything was good in the Dutt household. Their prince was content, they could move on with their own lives. For a little while.