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, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it looks based on publicly available information.
I gave all of the last section to Richa. Because she is someone who tends to be a footnote in the Sanjay story, someone it is easier to forget than deal with. To the point that basic facts about her and their romance are often misquoted, for instance the common story that they met in rehab, which seems to have come out just because she is American and he went to rehab in America. So Richa got a whole post to herself, dedicated to her story start to finish. Which means some of what was happening with Sanjay during those years was ignored as I looked to America instead of India.
A lot was happening to Sanjay during those years. Not just externally, but internally. Sanjay was growing up, growing slowly and in starts and stops and ways he should have grown long ago, but didn’t because the drugs insulated him.
If you think about what it means to grow up, how you yourself grew up, it wasn’t simply a matter of growing older. It was about making mistakes, and learning how to live with the consequences. Taking on new challenges and succeeding or failing. A whole complicated start and stop until one day you woke up and realized that the world is a little less terrifying, a little less impossible, and you actually feel as though you know what you are doing in it.
(Sanjay, standing like someone who isn’t really sure how to be in the world yet)
Sanjay didn’t have that. When he was an upperclassman in school, he started drinking. And then soon after, drugs. Everything that happened to him in those years was softened by a coating of substances. His first job, his mother’s death, even his first relationship, none of it really served to help him grow up the way it should have, he didn’t feel pain and learn how to get past it, he didn’t feel triumph and learn not to let it overwhelm him, he didn’t feel the satisfaction of success due to his own efforts. Things just happened to him, without effecting him.
Until he went to rehab. Where the hardwork of waking up his brain took place, and he cried for his mother’s death and started trying to grow up, to make plans and succeed for himself. He went home and continued that hardwork. In his career, he found a movie (Naam) that he truly loved and worked hard to give a good performance in it. He supported his sister as she got married. And when he fell in love, instead of leaving it as a teenage back and forth romance, he wanted a genuine marriage and all that came with it.
When Sanjay married Richa, his body was 30, but his mind was closer to 18. Which wasn’t necessarily doom to the marriage. Plenty of people get married at 18 and grow up together and into their responsibilities and had a wonderful life. And for an 18 year old, Sanjay was a pretty good husband. He worked hard to support his family, he was an involved father, he came home every night, it was good. And, like the traditional 18 year old marriages in India, they were living in a combined household with his younger sister and father to help ease the rough patches. They were on a good path.
(Sanjay with Richa, and his best friend/brother-in-law Kumar. They had plenty of support to get them started on the right path)
But then Richa got sick. And she couldn’t stay in India in Sanjay’s family home with his father and sister to help them, she had to go back to her parents’ home. And Sanjay had to struggle and do what he could, but he just wasn’t capable of doing everything that was needed.
When Nargis got sick, Sunil stopped his career, stopped everything, and moved to be with her, was her strength and the strength of the rest of the family. But Sunil was over 50. And his career had been strong for 20 years, and he had been married for 20 years. And, hard though it is to say, Nargis died fast and sometimes that is a blessing.
If Sanjay had done the same for Richa, done for her what her parents did instead, it would have meant choosing a marriage of 2 years over everything else in his life. Which, yes, in many ways would have been the “right” thing to do. But it would have had difficult consequences. Richa was sick for almost ten years. Those same years were the ones when Sanjay’s career bloomed, still the most important and successful years of his acting life. The money he made and the roles he had in those years are what is keeping him working now. And Sanjay didn’t have many options besides acting, a college drop out with no experience in the real world, his only skills are in front of the camera.
(He had to do silly photo shoots with movie stars like Sridevi instead of sitting at his wife’s hospital bed, because that was his job, his only job)
And Richa was sick in New York, Sanjay would have needed to move there. He would have had to say good-bye to his father and sisters, missed out on time with Priya before her marriage, with Namrata and her young children, with Sunil as he slowly aged. He would have come home 10 years later with no career, and no ties to his family, and no wife either.
Of course, Sanjay didn’t know that at the time. He only knew Richa was very sick, they didn’t know if she would recover fast or slow or at all. So all he could do was make decisions day by day. And day by day, he had to work, he had to build a career so that she would have something to come back to, he had to pay his family back by being there with them as they had been with him through the drug years. And while doing all of that, he grew up just a little more every day.
If you read Richa’s interviews from this time, they are heartbreaking. No matter what happened, she still had a simple faith that someday her marriage would start over again, her life would start over again, and it would all work out. In a way Richa’s complete focus on her illness had that same frozen in time effect that Sanjay’s drugs had had. When they married, they were the same. Sanjay was 30, but had the mental age and experience of a 20 year old. Richa was 22, sheltered and spoiled and dreamy. And then Richa got sick and stayed frozen at 22 and young and in love. Sanjay stayed in the world and kept growing up, growing away from that marriage and what it represented, the perfect ideal youthful simple love. He wanted something different now.
(Two very different people, just a few years apart)
Looked at that way, what happened was inevitable. Sanjay grew up and grew away from Richa. It wasn’t just the sickness, not exactly, it was their whole way of life. And Sanjay had to let himself grow up, he couldn’t just stop and become only a husband, not just then. Maybe if Richa had been sick in Bombay instead of New York, maybe if she had gotten better in 6 months instead of 2 years followed by a relapse, maybe if her family had been less involved and Sanjay had no one to fall back on, maybe it would have been different. But as it was, Sanjay made a small decision, to keep up his career and leave his wife in New York with her parents while he traveled back and forth, and that set them on inevitably different paths.
So, what was Sanjay’s path in those years? It was a confused one. His career was at it’s peak, he had found a new identity, the sensitive action hero. After his recovery, Sanjay had turned from drugs to physical fitness, not an uncommon or unhealthy trajectory. He became the manly muscle man onscreen, but the one with torment in his eyes. The public ate it up and came to truly love Sanjay, not just tolerate him for the sake of his parents, but love him for himself. Sanjay worked a lot in those years, 28 movies between 1988 and 1993. He earned that love, through difficult performances and long days on set.
At the same time, his personal life was perhaps in the worst state it had ever been. Rumors were flying of a romance with Madhuri and it seems likely she was not the only woman in his life during this era. At least his romance with Rhea Pillai seems to have begun before his romance with Madhuri fully ended and while he was still married to Richa. Sanjay himself acknowledges that at unnamed points in his past he had juggled multiple woman, and it seems likely that this was one of those times.
It was also well known that Sanjay was back to drinking heavily. Which meant he may have aged in some ways, but he had chemical assistance in staying in youthful denial in other places. For instance, his choice of associates.
One thing that becomes clear when reading about Sanjay is that he is not intelligent. Not in the same way as his parents. He has a big heart and good natural instincts. He is a great intuitive actor, able to really get under the skin of a character if it is the right kind of a role. But while his parents wrote and read and talked philosophy and politics and great art, and his sisters did as well, Sanjay wasn’t the same. He naturally gravitated to a different kind of friend group. Even on film sets, he would always seek out the lower class workers, prefer to play cards with them during breaks rather than talk with his fellow artists. It was related to his drug addiction, he was comfortable with the dealers and fellow addicts and others in that world. Not that this is why he became an addict, just to make friends, but that it made it easier for him to disappear into that world because he genuinely sincerely liked the people in it.
But now Sanjay was “just” an alcoholic, a legal drug which was certainly in wide use in the general film community, no reason to seek out any particular group to drink with beyond personal preference. And, in the film world, Sanjay’s preference ended up being gangsters.
Sanjay was first introduced to the underworld through work. Another common assumption along with him having met Richa in rehab is that he met gangsters through his drug addiction. It wasn’t that at all, he met them through his film work. In the 1990s, the gangs ran Bombay. Specifically Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company. And they were big into the films, starting up little production houses and offering to fund films and you could not say no to them. And so as part of his job while filming Yalgaar in Dubai, the star/director/producer Feroze Khan introduced Sanjay Khan to Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees. And through them, he met many other members of the D-Company.
Sanjay had a natural affinity for these men. They were of the type he liked to befriend, lower class and straightforward. And the gangster lifestyle was something that intrigued him, his obsession with guns, with hunting, his quick temper and incidents of violence (for instance, beating up a man who insulted Tina Munim while they were dating), all made him likely to accept the kind of lives these men were living. And one final small thing, they were also all Muslim together. Sanjay was raised in a duel religion household, his mother remaining Muslim while his father was Hindu. Sanjay spent his childhood running back and forth in the home of his maternal grandmother, doted and spoiled by his Muslim relatives there. It would be natural for him to connect the religion with the mother and grandmother he missed, for it to be an essential part of his identity.
Sanjay is always a complicated combination of factors, as are all human beings, but it was the early 90s when his life is the most confused. On the one hand, he was growing up as a father, making an effort to spend time with his daughter, to talk to her, to do whatever it took to stay in touch. And he was growing in his work life, going from an actor no one really relied on and the audience didn’t notice to one who worked hard and the fans loved. He was growing in his personal life too, in a way. This is the era when stories started coming out of his big heart, his generosity, his kindness to friends. All of this came late, in his 30s instead of his 20s, but at least it was happening.
(Looking ahead a bit, Sanjay had a diverse group of young friends in the industry who proved their loyalty when his life was at its lowest point. A testament to how loyal he had been to them before, what a good friend he was)
At the same time, this was the era of his great failure as a husband, leaving his wife to dream of a future together when he had already moved on. When she arrived back in India after completing treatment, he didn’t even meet her at the airport. And this was the era when he began to slip back into drinking. And to womanizing, light relationships again instead of the serious marriage relationship he had tried. And worst of all, the era when he slipped into bad company, making connections with some others in the film industry, yes, but also with many men that common sense should have told him to keep at arms length.
But overall, Sanjay was growing up. In his own way. And that process was about to be accelerated as the worst time in his life, and the worst time in his family’s life, was about to come to him and he would have to find a way to survive it.