"I am not a terrorist." That’s all a stunned Sanjay Dutt could say as he walked around the compound of the Terrorist and Disruptive (Activities) Prevention Act (TADA) court in Arthur Road Jail days after his arrest on April 19, 1993. He was desperate to prove he was not involved in the serial blasts.
That was 14 years ago, but his words keep coming back to me as the marathon trial progresses rapidly towards conclusion.
<b1>As Sanjay awaits his sentencing, the 16 months he spent in jail will be difficult to forget. His arrest and the media backlash almost ruined his career, but the moral support of his father, family and friends never flagged.
The irony that the son of Sunil and Nargis Dutt, used to opulence, had to spend his days in a claustrophobic jail cell was not lost on anybody. The arrest also cost Sanjay the goodwill his family enjoyed. Shiv Sainiks were the first to vent their ire at him, tearing posters of his film Khalnayak. It was only after Sunil contacted Sena chief Bal Thackeray that Sanjay got some respite. As the case progressed, Thackeray became one of Sanjay’s greatest supporters and the Dutts couldn’t be grateful enough.
In jail, Sanjay found himself clubbed along with those facing charges of terrorism and waging war against the nation. He never stopped asserting that he was no terrorist. Sporting long hair, Sanjay wore a white kurta and blue jeans in his cell. He killed time by writing to newspapers, explaining that he was a victim of circumstances. He spent most weekdays in court, returning in the evening to his cell in the same compound.
While he maintained the same schedule as other prisoner, Sanjay was spared the bad food in jail. While many prisoners complained about the food, Sanjay was allowed food brought by his father or his then girlfriend Rhea Pillai. His sisters, Priya and Namrata, and brother-in-law Kumar Gaurav visited him occasionally.
Sanjay was affectionately called ‘Sanju’ by fellow prisoners and mediapersons. He smoked heavily, somehow managing to get his favourite Marlboro Lights and lighting up in the canteen.
It was during one of these smoking sessions that he broke the ice with us journalists and spoke freely about his trauma. I remember him telling us it was difficult for him to face the terror charge. "I am not a traitor," he said often. Sometimes, he would break down and we would try and console him.
Occasionally, Sanjay’s tender side would emerge. Once, Rhea’s health deteriorated due to a heart ailment. Sanjay longed to meet her and requested then Judge JN Patel to let him see her at her Churchgate flat. The judge agreed but asked him to return to jail the same evening. Sanjay was overjoyed and the media went berserk.
Prison also made Sanjay religious. He prayed regularly, often requesting a reporter whose office was near Siddhivinayak Temple to bring him prasad on Tuesdays. Once Sanjay was seen wearing a red cloth wrapped around his head. He told everyone it was "Ma ka aanchal", a holy fabric from the Vaishnodevi Temple in Jammu.
<b2>But bail continued to elude him. His pleas were rejected thrice in a row. Finally, he wrote to the Chief Justice of India, who converted his letter into a writ petition. A one-line order on October 18, 1995, allowed him bail, subject to terms imposed by the trial court.
Sanjay was free, but the TADA court laid down strict conditions for his release: he would have to attend proceedings from 10 am to 5 pm on all working days. As a result, Sanjay could take on only night assignments. He worked hard and over the years, matured as an actor. Producers lined up after Vaastav.
Although the court convicted him under the Arms Act last year, Sanjay hopes he won’t have to serve more jail time. He urged the court to let him off under the Probation of Offenders Act, which allows a convict to stay out of jail as long as a probation officer certifies his good conduct.