Sanjay Dutt: What I fear the most is going back to jail and losing my freedom

He’s the original Rocky of Bollywood. He had it all — swag, super style, sexiness and stardom. Deadly, alright. More than three decades after his launch, and several tragedies and trials later, nothing seems jaded about Dutt — not his spirit, nor his stardom. Life’s been tough, but he’s gotten tougher. But now, that’s a heart-breaking story of the past. The actor has seen many comebacks, but this time, with his next, ‘Bhoomi’, coming up for release, Dutt displays the enthusiasm of a newbie, the super confidence of a star, and the readiness of an actor who wants to rock and reign, once again.

During those years in jail, did you spend a lot of time mulling over your comeback film? Everyone was anxiously waiting to know which filmmaker will clinch it. After all, it is a fresh beginning of sorts…

I don’t know if I thought more about it because it is my comeback film. As an actor, I believe that I give every film more than 100%. The premise of ‘Bhoomi’ is socially relevant. I believe in women empowerment, and the idea of beti bachao, beti padhao. I have been surrounded by amazing women all my life like my mom, cousins and my sisters, and I have always believed in them. When I was in jail someone told me, ‘Baba, ek taraf se hum Durga Ma, Kaali Ma, Lakshmi ki puja karte hai, aur doosri taraf hum stree ke saath aisa karte hai’. This is such a shocking contrast. Today, we wear modern, fashionable clothes, yet, our sanskaar within our families is still the same. The film has a strong message, at the same time, Omung Kumar (director) didn’t want to make it a docu-drama.

Talking about God, we believe that while in jail, you had immersed yourself in religious books and texts. Has the whole experience made you more spiritual?

I have always been spiritual, ab jail mein jaake I knew that I had to stay in there for those many years. Toh rono-dhona, aur sochna ki mere saath yeh kya ho gaya… is pointless. Instead, I thought that I should use the time to do something positive for myself. I am a big Shiv bhakt and I wanted to read what I believed in. So, I went ahead and read our Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayan, Mahabharat, Shiv Puran and Ganesh Puran. I read about our Vedas, and about Rahu and Ketu. I have become a pandit of sorts (laughs!). In fact, ab jab bhi panditji puja karne aate hai, I tell him… ‘Panditji aap iske liye yeh shlok bolo’.

A lot of people, especially celebrities, would be wary of talking about the dark experiences in their lives as openly as you have. You had no fear doing that?

I don’t know about others, but I feel that if I have gone through something and come out a winner, then I should talk about my story. There are few people who come out of drug addiction, but I have. Hence, I have no qualms in saying that yes, I have done it, so that I can help other addicts. Our future generation and our kids are being affected by drugs. I want to start rehab centres, talk to groups and tell the youth that if I could come out of drug addiction, anyone can. Well, I know that the way I have lived my life is crazy, and I wouldn’t want anyone to live that way. Instead, they should learn from my mistakes.

While ‘Bhoomi’ is your first film after your release, the moment you stepped out of those walls, your first shot in front of the camera was for Rajkumar Hirani‘s biopic on you? Tell us about that moment…

I don’t know what happened to me that day. I couldn’t sleep the previous night thinking about the fact that I will walk out a free man the next day. The sipahis (they are not policemen, they are rakhwalas) in prison were so amazing that I survived my jail time only because of them. Even they stayed up with me all night before my release. At 6 am, they told me to pack my bags and get ready. I did that and I walked out of my cell. I wanted to meet some of the other people with whom I had formed a radio station in prison. It was such an emotional moment. I couldn’t believe that when I was leaving the jail, I was crying. It was such a confusing emotion. When I stepped out, I was in a daze. I touched mother earth, kissed it and saluted the Indian flag (which was the shot Hirani captured). In jail, we would do that during Independence Day. We weren’t allowed to leave our barracks, but we would stand up in our cells and salute.

In the past, you have spoken about some of your jail experiences. Like you mentioned how you had daal with a makkhi floating in it. Has all of that changed your perspective? Do you value the little pleasures of life now more than before?

Well, all that didn’t make a difference to me — what I ate, and the floor that I slept on. That is the way my parents have raised me. I was in boarding school for 11 years and in the dorms, there was no air conditioning. My parents had trained me such that if life got tough, I could deal with it. I was raised like a regular child, not as Sunil Dutt aur Nargis Dutt ka beta. My dad bought me a second class train pass, and I would walk from home to Bandra Station to board a train to go to Elphinstone College. I would get off at Churchgate and walk to my college. So, being driven around was not even an option. Yes, while in jail, there was makkhi in the food…toh kya karen? Makkhi hai wahan. Bhookha rahne se better hai khana kha lo.

In ‘Bhoomi’, you are playing father to Aditi Rao Hydari. In our movies, we often see that male protagonists don’t play their age. So, I guess you are not someone who is in denial about his age. Or the characters that you can suitably play onscreen?

I am not in denial about my age. I want to play roles that suit my age, like they do in the West. I love the roles that actors like Denzel Washington (The Equalizer), Mel Gibson (Blood Father) and Liam Neeson (Taken) play in their movies. These are such superb parts and that is the genre that I want to get into. I want to tap some genres that are not there in our film industry. On one side, we have the younger actors like Ranbir Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, Ranveer Singh and Sidharth Malhotra, and on the other side there is Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan). Then there is Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan who are in a different zone. But today, there is no one in the mature, 50+, tough guy zone — and that’s the space I want to get into.

‘Bhoomi’ is about a father-daughter relationship, and your real-life daughter, Trishala has been through a rough ride along with you. She stood up for you during those tough times. How is your relationship with her today?

Ab woh badi ho gayi hai, so she has become like my mother. She checks on me all the time, and asks me, ‘How are you doing, Pops?’ She has seen me go through ups and downs and has been like a rock in my life. I don’t think I could have raised Trishala the way her grandparents and aunt did. I will always be thankful to them for raising her so beautifully in America, with all our Indian values.

In contrast, given that your twins, Shahraan and Iqra, are so young, they have been oblivious to all this…

I am so happy that I went to prison when Shahraan and Iqra were only two years old. I never want them to see me that way. It broke my heart, but I had to tell Maanayata (wife) to never bring them to see me in jail. I would never want my kids to stand on the other side and see me in those jail clothes, topi and beard. I didn’t want that image to stay with them ever. They always knew that papa is on a hill shooting somewhere. Luckily, now the jail authorities allow a phone system. So for 5 minutes (I think once in 15 days) you can talk to your family. Whenever I talked to the kids, I would tell them that I’ve come down the hill to talk to them because my phone doesn’t work on top of the hill. I missed out on some years of their childhood, so now I am making up for lost time. Maanayata has also been like a rock in my life, I couldn’t have asked for a better wife. The way she raised our kids without me during those years, it was tough. Our mulaqats were once a month. During one of her visits, while talking to me she collapsed on the other side. Fortunately, she was accompanied by my lawyer, and he told me that she was running high fever, but she didn’t want to miss the slot given to us for our meeting. I know how that feels because for a person living in prison, we long for that one day of the month.

It is very rare to see a biopic being made on an actor, while he’s still being sought after for roles. How does that make you feel?

I don’t know if it has happened before, and I feel humbled by it. Only Rajkumar Hirani could do this. When he asked me about the film for the first time, I was surprised and I said, ‘Huh, what’s so interesting about my life?’ Those few days, when I was out on parole, were one of the best days of my life. Raju, Abhijat Joshi (writer) and I would sit for hours and talk about my life and record it. That period was amazing because while letting them into my life, I was able to reflect on all those years that have gone by.

You have been in the film industry for over 35 years; do you feel that the dynamics of the industry —whether it is business or personal — have changed drastically over the years?

The relationships within the industry are becoming more professional. People don’t have time for each other. Earlier, we would interact a lot more, there was togetherness and a personal connect. All that has changed now. A few days ago, I was talking to some industry people about how a movie’s success has now become a matter of three-four days. It wasn’t like that before. In our days, we would celebrate silver and golden jubilees of our films. We had lavish premieres and celebration parties. How is it that the Tamil and Telugu film industries are flourishing so much? They are making movies that we can’t even think of making. I recently saw Ajith sir’s (Tamil superstar) movie trailer, and I couldn’t believe the way they have shot the film. Even a film like Baahubali was unbelievable. Why can’t Bollywood do something like that? We call ourselves the biggest movie industry and all that, but there is something which is going wrong. I don’t know what it is. I think as a film industry, we should support each other more and be like a family, so that we can make good cinema. Only then can we survive and flourish.

A movie release after three years, are you very anxious?

Well, every release makes me anxious. I think that having a hit on hand is great, but if you have a flop, you have to be a man and face it. But don’t try to change numbers and do all that. The best policy is to not look back and move on to the next film quickly.

Today, after having survived those terribly trying times, what do you fear the most?

What I fear the most is going back to jail and losing my freedom. Sometimes, freedom is taken for granted, and only when you lose it will you know what it truly means. You can get everything in life, money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy you a piece of freedom.