It's Valentine's Day, February 14, 1998. I nervously make my way to Madh Island on the outskirts of Mumbai where Sanjay Dutt is shooting Vaastav. I'm nervous because it's the first time I'm meeting a film star in the flesh and my agenda is different to most Bollywood journalists.
My brief from the office is to get a "reaction" from Sanju Baba, as he is affectionately called, about a hike in entertainment tax that had been announced by the ruling government the day before. Sanjay's opinion is more pertinent than others because his actor father, the famous Sunil Dutt, is from the entertainment industry and a big part of the Congress government that passed the budgetary provision.
He walks off in a huff
Assembled journalists each get five minutes to talk about the film. I have just one question as I approach the imposing frame of Sanjay, accentuated by the spotless white Pathani suit that he is wearing for the film in which he plays a commoner who unwittingly becomes a gangster-don while trying to keep his family happy.
The moment I finish my question on what he thinks about the tax, given that his father is party to an unpopular policy decision, there is a chill in the air. Sanjay freezes for couple of seconds, and then says tersely: "I don't want to talk about it." Rookie reporter that I am, I rephrase my question and ask again. This time, he just walks away in a huff.
Suddenly I am the villain on the set and end up spending the rest of the day in misery, feeling guilty for the other journalists too who missed out on a good soundbite. But the headlines the next day announced that Sanjay Dutt had surprised long-time girlfriend Rhea Pillai by popping the question and had married her on the spot overnight.
Who is Sanjay Dutt?
That is Sanjay Dutt for me: a brat from a clean, image-conscious family who bloomed late but failed his family by making wrong, impulsive, choices. The harder he tries, the more he causes blushes.
So now, on the eve of the release of his biopic, I wonder how much of his roller-coaster life will get screen time, with Ranbir Kapoor depicting Dutt. Director Rajkumar Hirani doesn't need to add fictional elements to make this biopic interesting, as is the trend many directors resort to nowadays. There's plenty in Dutt's life to go on.
Here are a few things on what to expect from the film Sanju:
1. It is not a biopic in the strict sense
From the trailer alone, it's evident that Kapoor and his makeup artist have stolen a march to get the looks right. But in all the excitement to know how Sanjay Dutt became the man of controversies, Hirani has one simple objective: to show his relationship with his father Sunil. Remember, Hirani's 2003 film Munnabhai MBBS is the only one in Sanjay's 150-plus long filmography where both father and son appeared together.
As we know, Sanjay had a complex relationship with his father, even as he tried hard to emulate him. "I did not always share an easy relationship with him," Sanjay once said. If the award-winning director, known for his sensitivity, can flesh out something that showcases their screen union, that will be mission accomplished. Paresh Rawal portrays the senior Dutt in the biopic.
2. The Father-son relationship, and the mother too
Sunil Dutt died on May 25, 2005, and in one of his last interactions he told Manisha Koirala she reminded him of his wife Nargis. Sanjay was closer to his mother than his father. It's thought that it was his depression when mother Nargis died of cancer, months before his first movie (Rocky) as an actor in 1981, that led to his drug addiction. Coincidence or not, Koirala plays Nargis in the biopic.
3. No time for romance
The role in the movie of Dutt's ex wife Pillai, we are shown in the trailer, is the girlfriend who stood by Sanjay when his ordeal with the law began after he was caught possessing an AK56 rifle soon after communal riots broke out following serial blasts in 1993. But barring the most-important women in Sanjay's life, there is not much that can be squeezed in. Expect nothing on Madhuri Dixit and their rumoured affair in the early 1990s.
4. No smoke without fire
Those well versed with the complexities of the legal case against Sanjay Dutt will tell you it was not a mere case of possessing an AK56 rifle or a 9mm pistol as it's sometimes made out to be. (Dutt was initially accused of accepting a delivery of weapons at his house that were connected to the Mumbai bombings in 1993). The case was in and out of court for more than 20 years before the matter got whittled down from terrorism and other serious charges to a five-year sentence which he completed with short stints in jail and frequent paroles citing poor medical health of his third wife Manyata. Will the movie go deeply into all of that? Most probably not.
5. Happy endings
After Vaastav, Munnabhai MBBS gave a second major boost to Sanjay's career. The film even had a scene where his real father says, "You lied to me... But I am proud of you."
Both films got him official recognition and rewards. He is married now with three kids from Manyata – another controversial aspect of his life, but the least of his worries. In a recent interview, Sanjay said his only regret was that if his father was alive, he would have been a happy man to see him and his family in bliss. Torn between his past and present, is the purging nature of Sanju, a sign of a bright future ahead for Dutt, or is it just a spoke in the ever-grinding wheel of his life? Maybe Hirani can give us a clue.