One night before 24-hour news channels were invented in India, Sanjay Dutt stepped out from a plane at Mumbai’s international airport.
His car raced though the city’s silent streets, past emptying-out dance bars and pavements crowded with the sleeping homeless. The jetlagged Dutt enjoyed a quiet moment of personal triumph – after a year-and-a-half in a United States rehabilitation centre, he had overcome a nine-year addiction to heroin, cocaine and other drugs that nearly killed him. He was headed home, to his close-knit family, and a new beginning.
He had barely rested two hours at home when the doorbell rang. The servant knocked on Dutt’s room and said there was someone to see him. It was six am. Dutt sleepily stumbled to the door to find a man he had known well for more than ten years — his longtime drug peddler.
Pleasantries were brief.
“I have some new stuff for you,” the peddler said. “I don’t know how he came to know I was back. It came down to that one second – either I had to take the stuff, or tell him to get lost,” Dutt says, looking me in the eye, sitting in the fire-gutted hall of a former textile mill during a shooting break, as he narrates the events of that dawn a decade and a half ago.
“And I told him to get lost.” Defiance. Death. Defeat. If someone were to lay down the massive jigsaw of Sanjay Dutt’s life before him, there are moments he would recognise instantly – years and continents apart, the moments that changed his life.
The evening when his father, the acting legend Sunil Dutt, sat him down with his two sisters and told them that their mother, the family’s other acting legend Nargis Dutt, had cancer. The day he decided he would give up studies and become an actor. The morning when he finally begged his father to help him fight his drug addiction. The phone call that made him decide against buying a ranch and settling down in the United States. The telephone ring in faraway Mauritius that announced that he had been named a terrorist by the government. And the words his father craved to hear in the final decade of his life, words finally spoken by a young judge: that Sanjay Dutt was not a terrorist.
Dutt, 46, has tap danced with darkness and sunshine for decades, in a life that out-Bollywoods Bollywood.
It is a battle with shadows that he hopes got over in a packed courtroom on November 28 last year when he stood leaning against the wall, and then walked forward nervously when his name was called out. Judge P D Kode found him guilty of illegally possessing arms, but said: “I have found him not to be a terrorist.” A tear lines Dutt’s tired bloodshot eyes as he relives that moment, dressed in a black shirt and trousers, sitting on a plastic chair in a vast, empty hall. He is shooting for his company’s new film Dus Kahaniyan, directed by his friend and business partner Sanjay Gupta.
“Those were the best words I had ever heard in my life, bro. My dad waited for this, just to hear these words – that his son was not a terrorist. I had tears in my eyes right there,” he says, leaning forward, before he walks off to give his next shot.
We are in one of the many dilapidated halls at Mukesh Mills, a sprawling textile factory, now shut down, sitting on the edge of the sea in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood. Years ago, the Mukesh Mills complex was gutted in a devastating fire whose cause was never known. Only film and television crews come here now.
Around me, the gigantic walls are blackened with soot. Thick iron girders running along the ceiling are rusted. The brickwork is coming off, burdened under creepers. Somewhere behind the wall, I can hear hostile shouting from Dutt’s dagger fighting scene. The factory seems like a reflection of much of Dutt’s life – a vast, empty palace, once beautiful and buzzing, but often resonating with battle cries.