Phoenix of the Bollywood: From Strength to Strength

By Parminder Singh

Parminder Singh

Mumbai was rocked by serial bomb blasts on the ill-fated afternoon of March 12, 1993 leaving over 250 people dead and more than 700 injured. As the names of filmmakers Hanif Kadawala and Samir Hingora of Magnum Video were printed in newspaper reports following their arrest in connection with the blasts, ripples of unease appeared in the form of sweat-beads on Sanjay Dutt’s brow while he was shooting for director-friend Sanjay Gupta’s venture Aatish in Mauritius. All he could yearn for was a way to undo the fact that he had bought a gun from the duo arrested in the connection with the blasts, but the arrow had already left the bow.

As things transpired, the director duo of a forgettable dud titled Sanam with Vivek Mushran and Manisha Koirala in the lead and Sanjay in a guest appearance, confessed their role in the blasts and told the police that they had provided arms to the actor as well. As per Sanjay’s statement to the police, it was during the shooting of Sanam that he had casually talked about the threatening calls that he and other members of his family had been receiving from the communal groups exasperated with Sunil Dutt’s endeavours to restore harmony among people from the Hindu and Muslim communities during the communal riots. When the proprietors of Magnum Video proposed to Sanjay that they could arrange an automatic weapon for him, he accepted the offer. With three licensed firearms already in his possession, what made Sanjay fall prey to the offer of this gun has something to do with his inclination toward the forbidden – mostly, the things that fall on the other side of the “right” and law. He was allured by the idea of having it, without bothering about the consequences that it would have. A false notion that nothing would happen to him was strong enough to blur his vision of a foreboding truth. His father understood the gravity of the situation and made sure that Sanjay was back in India without any delay and would face the course of events that awaited him. A 23 year-long turmoil began for him on April 19, 1993 when he was arrested under TADA and Arms Act.

Having lived life on his conditions till he was 34, it was hard for Sanjay to accept the fact that he had lost his freedom to an act of foolishness. During his first stint in jail, Sanjay used to spend time watching a sparrow that came to meet him every day. Mails from fans gave him strength and hope of a bright tomorrow awaiting him at the end of the dark tunnel that he had to trudge, making note of every tick of the watch. It was for the first time that he realized what it means to be free when he was released on bail in October 1995. Law took its course and innumerable hearings until he was acquitted of the charges under TADA. That was a big relief for Sanjay and his fans as others arrested in the case were not very lucky and are still languishing in the jails. Sanjay was finally a free man on February 25, 2016.

Early 1990s was the time when everything was going in favour of Sanjay. If Amitabh Bachchan was the Angry Young Man of 1970s and early 1980s, it was Sanjay who had worn Bachchan’s shoes after mid-1980s. Sanjay’s performance in Mahesh Bhatt’s Naam won him laurels from all the quarters – critics and populace, alike. Jaan ki Baazi, Jeeva, Khatarnak, Krodh, Hathyar, and later, Sadak were the films which defined action in 1980s and 1990s. Early 1990s witnessed Amitabh Bachchan declare from the stage at a Filmfare award function that it was time for him to step back and the stars such as Sanjay Dutt to take the center-stage. Bachchan indeed invited Sanjay on stage after he received the Best Actor Award for Hum and announced that he would like to share it with Sanjay Dutt who had been nominated for his performance in Saajan where he played the role of a handicapped poet, shunning his image of a deadly action hero. Even though the likes of Mahesh Bhatt, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgan, Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan came out in the open to support imprisoned Sanjay, carrying posters titled “Sanju, We’re with you” printed along with the actor’s sketch, within a span of a few days after cancellation of his bail in July 1994, a lot of things changed for Sanjay. Madhuri Dixit, then considered his girlfriend, gave a statement to a Hindi film magazine that may be translated to “I pity Sanju a lot.” Producers changed the star-cast of their films overnight. Many dubbed and released the films in the voice of a voiceover-artist called Chetan. How apt this couplet from Saajan would have been:

Falak ke teer ka kya dekhta nishana tha           
Udhar thi bijli idhar mera aashiana tha
Pahunch rahi thi kinare pe kashti-e-ummeed
Usi waqt is toofaan ko bhi aana tha?

[What an aim of the arrow from the skies!
My abode was where the lightning fell.
The hope-yacht was about to kiss the banks,
And a storm has broken loose the hell.]
     (Trans. mine)

When Sanjay quit study in 1977 and joined the film industry, he had a dream-debut, with Rocky becoming an instant hit. He couldn't relish the taste of this success due to the death of his mother Nargis of cancer, especially when the family was very optimistic about the treatment upon positive signs in her condition noticed by the doctors. Father Sunil Dutt was never again the same man. He was broken, and even Sanjay had lost the person who he was closest to. An account tells that Sanjay lay unconscious in his clothes soiled with excretion after hearing the news of his mother’s demise. He somehow started standing up on his feet and learning something that he had never done before – managing his own life. But in this effort, Sanjay faltered, and took refuge in drugs. This was a bad period for the Dutt family. Sanjay was badly caught in the clutches of drugs but right at the threshold of self-destruction, he broke down in front of his father and appealed to him that he wanted to come out of that black phase of his life. Sunil Dutt gave him the much needed hand and took him to a rehabilitation center in USA. Sanjay himself revealed during an interview that he had ticked all the options, accepting that he had tried all the drugs mentioned in the form that he signed at the center. This was the phase that taught Sanjay valuing relationships – professional as well as personal, and he reinvented himself as an actor.

Subhash Ghai had signed Sanjay for the star-studded Vidhaata (1982) under his banner Mukta Arts. Vidhaata was a blockbuster, the highest grossing Hindi film of the year. Ghai declared that he would never ever work with Sanjay again due to the unprofessionalism he had displayed during the shooting of Vidhaata. Sanjay surely knows how to take corrigible measures and win back the trust of people. Ghai would go on to sign Sanjay for Khalnayak that gave Sanjay a new niche among his fellow actors and boosted his career once again. Ghai’s banner signed Sanjay again for Trimurti (directed by Mukul Anand). It was during the period when Sanjay was incarcerated after cancellation of his bail and he wrote to Ghai from jail that he may be replaced by someone else. Anil Kapoor was cast and the film proved to be one of the biggest flops of the year. Upon Sanjay’s final release from jail in February 2016, Ghai announced that Mukta Arts would be pleased to sign Sanjay for the next project.

Whenever Sanjay’s career showed a downward graph, a Jeeva, a Jaan Ki Baazi, a Naam, a Vaastav, or a Munnabhai happened to Sanjay, and his position in the industry strengthened with time. While the industry wrote off his contemporaries including Mithun Chakraborty, Govinda, Jackie Shroff, Sunny Deol, and to some extent Anil Kapoor (in lead roles), Sanjay kept going from strength to strength. He earned some good friends in the industry. He worked for goodwill, earned admirers in crews where everyone from spot-boys to assistant directors vouched for the large-heartedness of Sanjay. He fell out with Sanjay Gupta but re-bonded with him. He never shared screen with Anil Kapoor due to their differences in the early years but buried the hatchet as soon as the latter threw an idea of working together, and Musafir happened.

Sanjay, to some extent, was arguably made a scapegoat upon failure of the country’s judiciary in bringing to book the real culprits. I personally believe that the actor has been more sinned against than sinning. The years in incarceration have made Sanjay a much stronger, wiser man who would stop following his instinct in taking decisions. He has started thinking with his brain, and started keeping under cover the heart that he used to wear on his sleeve.

I remember the imprint of an eagle-like bird on a poster that I found as a freebie along with a white pair of sports shoes I bought when I was about ten years old. This was my first encounter with the word ‘phoenix’. Whenever I think of Sanjay, I imagine him as the incarnation of phoenix among the Bollywood stars. He has tasted the dust, more than once, more than twice, but he has always made a strong return. He fell after death of his mother, faltered again during his drug phase, was broken by death of his first wife Richa Sharma, repented for what led him to prison, and faced the continuous sword looming over his head for 23 years. A life full of challenges has made him tougher.

After a void of over three years, Sanjay is making a comeback on screen through a father-daughter emotional drama Bhoomi, initial promos of which look promising. At the release of the film’s trailer, Rajkumar Hirani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Ranbir Kapoor – wished the Dutt scion yet another great innings. Sanjay, this time though, is not worried about any problem impending over his head. With a loving wife in Manyata, a grown up daughter in Trishala, and two young kids in Shahran and Iqra, Sanjay is somewhat different than before. Being politically correct in the general milieu of the country currently, and in that breeze blowing, he seems to have turned a little more religious, more patriotic, more mature, and stronger, at least visibly. We await yet another on-screen blast from the actor who has been in the industry as lead for the longest time, next only to Amitabh Bachchan, with his latest outing Bhoomi. Dutt (working title), the biography on the controversial life brimming with ups and downs is due to release in March 2018 where Ranbir Kapoor portrays the actor’s life on-screen. The third installment of Munnabhai series, Sahib Biwi aur Gangster, Shiddat, the next films of Anubhav Sinha and Mahesh Manjrekar and many other films of prestigious banners are some upcoming projects featuring Sanjay. His hands are full and this phase seems to be Sanjay’s best. The phoenix is yet again ready for resurgence, this time hopefully not to be turned to ashes.


  1. Very well written. I also am of the opinion that Sanjay Duty was more sinned against than sinning because of his father's political alliance. But a lesson for all about acting on crazy impulses without a care for repercussions. Good job, Parminder. Must share.


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