The vastness of a star-lit sky finally reassured Sanjay Dutt that he was “free”. On the night of February 25, 2016, having been released from Pune’s Yerwada Central Jail after serving a six-year sentence, the actor went up to the terrace of Imperial Heights, his 14-storied family home in Mumbai’s Pali Hill. “I lay down on the terrace and looked at the sky above. That made me realise that there were no bars around me anymore,” says the actor. Dutt was embroiled in a long legal battle since his arrest on April 19, 1993 under TADA and the Arms Act for his alleged role in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts. He was convicted in 2013 for illegal possession of weapons.
With the 23-year tryst with law behind him, Dutt is making a “comeback” with Bhoomi, a film directed by Omung Kumar, which releases on September 22. The years spent in dealing with his drug habit, courtrooms, and prison life, he says, has brought about a big change. “I am a much more patient man. It takes a long time for me to lose my temper. I tell myself, jaane do (let it go). I was very short-tempered. Very rash. But I don’t want others to learn patience the way I have,” he says, when we meet in a glass-enclosed room in Imperial Heights.
The 58-year-old actor is wearing a pair of jeans, a black T-shirt and printed leather shoes. His well-toned body sports multiple tattoos, while his hair and beard are carefully clipped and dyed. Dutt chose Bhoomi, a film about a father’s search for justice for his raped daughter, because of its “strong message”. “Bhoomi is a story of a father and daughter from a lower middle-class background living in a small town. When the daughter is raped, it shows how the family deals with it,” says the actor, who is also father to six-year-old twins Iqra and Shahraan, and Trishala, from an earlier marriage. He claims to be “as protective as any father” can get. “According to me, a girl is a blessing not a burden. I’m all for beti bachao and women’s empowerment,” he says.
As an interviewee, Dutt is known to give short answers. He lives up to that reputation, even though he does not dodge any question or shy away from talking about his past. “I don’t want anyone to go through the same ordeal. One has to be balanced and focussed to be able to do that. However, the best part is to learn from it and forget about it.” Has forgetting been easy? “No. But you have to move on in life. I want to work. I want to spend time with my kids and family,” he says.
Actor Ranbir Kapoor, who is playing the character of Dutt in a biopic directed by Rajkumar Hirani, had called his story “inspiring”. “Sanjay Dutt is so controversial and yet loved. The biopic is an honest take on an ordinary man, his mistakes as well as his relationship with his father and friends,” he had said in an earlier interview. Dutt has gone through the script of the film and visited its sets a couple of times. “The film does not glorify me. It depicts the truth,” he says.
Dutt has an impressive line-up of releases in the next two years — Sanjay Leela Bhansali-directed Padmavati, Abhishek Varman’s Shiddat with Alia Bhatt and Sridevi as co-actors; and Hasmukh Pighal Gaya, directed by Sejal Shah. He is also supposed to feature in Malang, produced by his old associate Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Dutt is also likely to feature in the future projects of Tigmanshu Dhulia, Mahesh Manjrekar and Anubhav Sinha. “I believe in commercial cinema. I am here to entertain people,” says the actor. While choosing a film, he goes by the character, screenplay and script. “My choice also depends on who is directing the film,” he adds.
One of the key factors that has sustained Dutt in the industry for 36 years is the affection and goodwill he enjoys, and the strong bonds he has with directors. Hirani and Chopra swear by him while Kumar wants to do another film with him. “I enjoy working with them and they enjoy working with me. Till the time I have a good bonding with the directors, I can’t work. That is very important. My relationship with them goes beyond the sets,” he says. Kumar vouches for his affability. “Before the making of Bhoomi, I did not know him well. Today, I feel I have known him for years,” he says.
Both Kumar and Karan Malhotra, who directed Agneepath (2012), are impressed by Dutt’s trust in his directors; he never checks the rushes after giving a shot. According to Malhotra, he is like a “lamb” on the sets and does what the director wants. While shooting for Agneepath in the 40-degree summer temperatures of Diu, Malhotra was struggling to maintain Dutt’s bald look, created through prosthetics. Dutt solved the problem by shaving off his hair. “It is this accommodating nature that has sustained his popularity,” says Malhotra.
It has also helped that Dutt is his father’s son. Sunil Dutt was an immensely loved and respected actor and Congress politician, with friends across the political spectrum. “My father used to tell me, ‘Ultimately, you have to be a nice human being, whether you are up or down in life’,” he says. Dutt was 22 when his mother, the actor Nargis, died of cancer. His father became his biggest source of strength. Sunil stood by his side all through, whether it was when he had to check into rehab for his addiction or during the TADA trials.
Despite a rough ride, Dutt considers himself “lucky”. “People believed in my work and the directors believed that the role in Khal Nayak (1993) or Vaastav (1996) was perfect for me,” he says. The actor, who made his debut in Rocky (1981), directed by his father, also counts Naam (1986), Sadak (1991), Munnabhai MBBS (2003), Shabd (2005) and Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) as some of his best films.
There is another side of Dutt, which is rarely spoken about. He grew up in a multi-faith household; Nargis was a Muslim and his father Hindu. In jail, he says, he read texts of many religions. “I respect all religions. My parents never told me to choose any particular religion. However, I believe in Hinduism and my god is Lord Shiva. I love him. I follow Bholenath’s path,” says Dutt. His reading, he says, has led him to conclude that “all religions talk of peace”.
After being an actor and producer for over three decades, Dutt eventually wants to direct movies. “But not now. My dad directed some fantastic movies like Yaadein and Reshma Aur Shera.
But I would like to make commercial movies. I wish to entertain the audience,” he says.