By Anand Holla
Outside the tall, grim, grey stone walls of the Arthur Road Jail, Sanjay Dutt’s star was on the ascent. He was riding on the enchanting wave of Lage Raho Munna Bhai’s success. Inside the walls though, Baba, an everlasting allusion perhaps to the child in him that never grew up, lumbered on an alien planet oblivious to his celebrity. Baba was being officiated upon by men in black-and-white spouting unintelligible legal patter for hours that seemed like days, and for months that had indeed been some years.
Dutt was tired of it all. Bole toh… poora khallaas, maamu. Yet he almost never let it show. Not even this day in early 2007, when he was only weeks away from being sentenced for his role in the 1993 serial blasts case. Somewhere between the metal detector outside the prison gates, and the long, lonely walk through the eerily expansive open-air corridor leading to the special TADA court, below which he now stood, his joy and verve, on every nagging visit, would be sucked out.
As a court reporter with Mumbai’s leading newspapers, I got a ringside view of this crucial period in Dutt’s life – and India’s judicial history.
In a quiet corner by the discoloured metal stairs that swirled upward, Dutt, dapper in his staple attire of a full-sleeved blue shirt with three buttons undone, denims, tapering boots, a fistful of gold chains, and hand-swept hair, grew mildly animated upon my mention of his blockbuster. “You know, kids love Circuit way more than they love Munnabhai. I have a live example in my family,” he said, chuckling, his head tilted to the side. “My nephew just stopped talking to me after he watched the movie. Eventually he told me the reason: You should not have slapped Circuit,” he recalled, referring to the film’s scene by the sea.
In Dutt’s relentlessly turbulent life, that’s probably one of the few “should not haves” he wouldn’t regret. “It is strange,” he continued. “I am obviously happy about Lage Raho’ssuccess, but I also have no idea what the judgment will be. It’s a different world here,” he told me.
Eventually, Dutt was found guilty under the Arms Act for illegal possession of weapons but acquitted under TADA. He would be sentenced to six years imprisonment by Judge Pramod Kode, which the Supreme Court would reduce to five. The judgment day had to generate the most dramatic and cathartic moment in Dutt’s trial for he had dodged the draconian TADA charges. Judge Kode handed out an emphatic clean chit straight out of a simplistic movie sequence — “You are not a terrorist” — and a cascade of sweet relief swept over Dutt’s sweat-speckled face.
Dutt’s rank casualness and exceptional obedience in court was interpreted by observers in two ways: Either he is a genuinely humble man, or the artist in him is putting up an act knowing full well that he will get away easy. All through the trial, Dutt sought and got tons of exemptions from appearance, often citing film shoot compulsions. His lawyer always had a barrage of applications ready: During his incarceration between 1993 and 1995, a special coconut oil was called for, to nourish his long mane; regular coconut water in polythene pouches to soothe his damaged kidneys. The fact that he would pour the latter in a steel glass and take endless little sips from it while munching on packaged snacks convinced at least some reporters that the coconut water was mixed with something more robust… like vodka.
Part of the myth-making was Dutt’s easy banter with court reporters.
During breaks at hearings, Dutt, at times, would regale us with all sorts of small talk. “Dancing is tough for me,” he once told me, shaking his head. “Plus, when David (Dhawan) asked me to do these ridiculous dances abroad, like in Europe, it got so embarrassing!” He’s referring to songs like the cringegasmic “Teri Bindiya” from Jodi No. 1. “I’d tell David,” said Dutt, folding his hands, “Ab bas bhi karo, Sir!” If talk veered to music, Dutt would reveal his firm grasp on rock and metal discussing his favourites like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, AC/DC, and Jeff Beck. “Did you know that when AC/DC’s guitarist Angus Young duckwalks all over the stage, he covers some four kilometres by the end of the show?” he once exclaimed.
Any other celebrity wading through the hostile waters of a grievous criminal trial would know better than to play into the hands of prying journalists, but not Munnabhai. Dutt, long past the point of caring, could throw caution to the winds. He often strode to court the way only he does — famously bent shoulders, semi-robotic steps — unmistakably inebriated, his heaving breath betraying whiskey. He’d empty sachets of Manikchand gutkha, and if you caught his eye, he’d just wink at you and chomp away.
Of course, with the intoxication came the risk of random bouts of paranoia, as it did in the wee hours of October 19, 2006. I was then with Mid-Day, working the night shift. My friend and I, at Juhu’s JW Marriott, were awaiting the West Indies cricket team headed there to celebrate their win over Australia in the Champions Trophy. At about 3 am, we noticed a flurry of activity and fervent screams of “Baba” at the entrance.
In sauntered Dutt, wearing the same shirt and jeans he had to the court, not many hours prior. As the gaggle of journalists now turned to Dutt, he happened to spot me in the crowd. Walking up to punching distance, he instantly blew his fuse for some reason. “G****u, tu mujhe subah se follow kar raha hai na (Fucker, you’ve been following me since morning)?” he growled, almost grabbing my shirt. Think Sadak, think Khalnayak, think Vaastav, think anything but the loveable Munnabhai. Before I could even figure out what was happening, Dutt’s friends dragged him away with the classic underling rejoinder: “Bhai, bhai… rehne do bhai”. As he disappeared into Enigma, I knew it was the alcohol.
Dutt’s in-court behaviour was rather placid, save for a rare outburst. His demeanour unpretentious, his follies reckless, his naiveté touching, he certainly exuded more humanness than most of us are used to.
Inside the packed courtroom, Dutt would always sit next to his clique comprising the more cultured of the convicts. The day Abu Salem was brought to court following his momentous extradition from Portugal, a throng of journalists were seen hanging on to his every word and move. The judge, subtly addressing Dutt in the far back, remarked in Marathi, “Clearly, the media has forgotten about the star today.” Dutt just looked at the sea of journalists and smiled, delighted to surrender all attention, even if only for a day.
One couldn’t be sure if he actually respected the court’s cast of characters — the chief among which was special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam — or just feigned it. Because when given a chance, Dutt liked to put people in their place.
The day’s proceedings had long ended. Dutt, though, was chatting up with his co-accused in the corridor below the court. Startled to see Dutt hanging around, Nikam, notorious for his insatiable appetite for the limelight, asked “Sanju” to leave 15 minutes later. “Else the media will abandon me and run after you,” Nikam said, rather audibly, mock laughing. Dutt nodded dutifully, sticking out a goofy grin for effect.
But just as Nikam exited, Dutt too made his way out. The buffet of microphones and cameras that lay spread out before Nikam, suddenly dissolved into thin air. Just as Nikam had feared, the media ran after and swarmed around Dutt, who quietly got into his waiting car.
Even at the worst of times, the courts could accommodate only one star. That star was always going to be Baba.