Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >Do we need to retell the Bollywood bad boy story?

Sanjay Dutt will most likely cherish 2018, the year before he turns 60. It’s a year that literally rewards him for being a “bad boy". For being a Bollywood brat, a junkie, a man who spent several months in jail for owning a dangerous weapon, for being an entitled son and a mediocre actor who used the innumerable shots he got at comebacks to muster a few riveting performances in an acting career of around 37 years, and a male chauvinist or “chauvi", as he calls himself in Yasser Usman’s biography Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy. 

This is the year a biopic comes out, directed by Rajkumar Hirani, a director known for turning comedic satires about Indian attitudes and aspirations into hits. Usman’s book, published by Juggernaut, one of two biographies coming out this year, is already on bestseller shelves in bookstores. An authorized biography is also in the works—the one I am least looking forward to. 

An abundance of "bad boy" chronicling, a different kind of "me too".

The Sanjay Dutt story has, no doubt, remarkable fodder for melodrama. As Usman pieces together in his book, it is a life of repeated mistakes, repeated repentance and second chances—usually what teenage is about. More pathos than tragedy, for the most part it is a life that proves that even with all the entitlement within the protective confines of Juhu and Pali Hill, you can screw up and screw up over and over again. 

Photo courtesy Juggernaut
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Photo courtesy Juggernaut

Like the Salman Khan story, men of a certain “chauvi" meter and predilection for bikes and Royal Stag whisky find this pathos attractive, even aspirational. Some women too, obviously, or Dutt wouldn’t have had so many girlfriends and three wives. Usman’s book has a lot on the women. Dutt and Khan are not heroes for the politically correct, straight-jacketed millennial. They are the Keith Richards of Indian pop culture minus the uproarious talent. They are playful and unequivocal about their sexism. 

Usman quotes Dutt: “I would not want my wife to be an actress ...I would not like to come home in the evening and find out that she has gone to a night turn ...if you just want to call me a Chauvi [chauvinist], I’m just one.’ …If you like a woman, then make her feel like your mother . . . become a little boy . . . let her feel protective about you. And you are scoring, buddy!" 

Usman has been a film journalist for several years and has earlier written a book about Rekha, in a similar way. After attempts to reach Dutt for interviews specifically for this book failed, he interviewed people close to or associated with him. He mines a lot from his own interviews with Dutt from the past and archival interviews from film magazines and other journalistic sources from the 1980s and 1990s. Besides Dutt's life story, Usman reproduces a portrait of those decades in Hindi cinema. Some parts are written like scenes from a schmaltzy 1980s’ film script, like this one, which recreates one of the days leading up to the launch of Dutt in Rocky (1981): 

“In typical Bollywood style, where deals are made within cosy clubs, Amarjeet went straight to meet Gulshan Rai, a successful producer of films like Deewaar and Trishul. Amarjeet was all praise for the ‘munda [son] of Sunil Dutt’ and asked Rai to launch him in his next film. Rai immediately agreed and set off for the Dutt mansion to seal the deal. 

"Favourite whisky in hand, Sunil called Sanjay and gushingly introduced him to the producer. 

"Gulshan sized up Sanjay carefully. He went through the pictures of his training and smiled. ‘Okay, done. I give you one crore rupees [for making the film]. Let’s do Shri Ganesh. [Let’s start.]’ The film, Rocky, was to be made under Amarjeet’s banner, Nalanda Productions, directed by Sunil Dutt and marketed as a father–son project." 

Image courtesy Juggernaut
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Image courtesy Juggernaut

After excerpts of the book were published in the media, Dutt objected to them and sent a legal notice to the publisher. On Twitter he said he had not authorized the book and most of the information was based on heresay and tabloid publications.

The relationship between publishing companies and Bollywood actors or celebrities is fraught with issues of ownership and offence. Both need each other, and finally publishers usually give in for authorized accounts. Even someone like Dutt known for his little mutinies against the Bollywood establishment and his father, a respectable Congress politician, by virtue of being a junkie and being close to murderous underworld dons, is careful to protect his image of a poor bad boy who didn’t know what he was doing. 

It is an image that his Bollywood friends and family have perpetuated ever since his adolescence. His awkward debut in Rocky rested on this image. His droopy eyes worked towards cementing it. So has the film media’s sympathy for him. Usman’s book has numerous examples of it—-Stardust and Filmfare magazines have run interviews with Dutt that read like long incoherent soliloquies. Usman quotes some parts of one in which Dutt and one of his girlfriends, also an actress of that time, psychobabble on about how they need not prove their love to each other. 

Salman Khan, known to be Dutt’s close friend and the other pillar of the bad boy canon in Bollywood belongs to the next generation of star kid transformed to a star, and he and and his team of publicists have professionally crafted a brand and entity around this image. Directors and writers have created roles for them specifically to keep the bad boy image alive, until the man and the roles are one and they become pop culture mythology. 

So do we need three biopics and a movie on the 59-year-old bad boy? Not if they are gushy inside jobs.

It is impossible to write a biography of Bollywood figures impartially or with the writer’s own views on her subject if her subject gives her time for the project. Usman takes the next best way out. His own voice is sorely missing in the book, but it isn’t fanboy writing. Through the interviews he has done with Dutt’s family members and colleagues and the information he has garnered from other journalists, he lets the ugly speak for itself.

Bollywood is not political in the kind of movies it produces, what instead rattles and excites its insiders and fans alike, and which is celebrated and mythologized are the carousels of its male stars. The market is always open for a Sanjay Dutt story. 

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic.

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