On Tuesday, actor Sanjay Dutt made a public statement through a Twitter account, accusing publishers Juggernaut Books and author Yasser Usman of publishing a book on his life without his authorisation. Released on March 13, Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy, written by film journalist Usman, charts the course of his life through relationships with his “many glamorous girlfriends”, his struggle with addiction, love for guns, and his embroilment in the 1993 Mumbai blasts and the city’s underworld.
Taking umbrage at the details that have emerged from the many excerpts that have been published since the book came out (mostly focused on his relationships), Dutt said they were based on “hearsay, 1990s tabloids and gossip magazines, most of which are figments of imagination and not true”.
Dutt said his lawyers had sent a legal notice to Juggernaut Books before publication, to which the publishers had responded with a reassurance that the contents of the book were based on “information available in the public domain from authentic sources”. While threatening further legal action, Dutt said he hoped “there will be no further excerpts that will hurt me or my family”.
Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Juggernaut Books said they still stood by the book and echoed the statement released by the publishing house on their Facebook page.
Defending the book and its sources, the publishing house stated that Usman had “relied extensively on direct quotes from Mr Dutt, associates such as Mr Mahesh Bhatt, and members of the Dutt family” in addition to widely-reported and uncontested stories in the public record.
Juggernaut Books is no stranger to legal controversy. In August 2017, a Delhi district court, in an ex-parte order, restrained them from publishing From Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, after Ramdev filed a petition against the book for “irresponsible, false, malicious content”. The case is still being fought in court with the publishers defending their book as factual and thorough.
Unlike Ramdev’s biography however, in the case of Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy, the publishing house has promised only to refrain from putting out any more excerpts from the book in “short-form media” to “pay respect to Mr Dutt’s wishes”. Without an order from the court, a route Dutt appears not to have availed of yet, the publisher is under no compulsion to stop the sale of the book. With excerpts already in the public domain and the book widely available in stores and online, the promise of restraint remains a placatory measure.
A deluge of Dutt books
Dutt has, by any account, led a far from ordinary life, the details of which are scandalous to anybody who isn’t already familiar with them. The actor has been the subject of intense media scrutiny for years, with several lengthy profiles written on him, many of which Usman lists in the footnotes to his book. Until now, however, there has been no book on the notorious superstar, and therein lies the rub.
In the text of the tweet accompanying his statement, Dutt informed readers that his official autobiography will be out soon – “authentic” and “based on facts”. Publishing insiders say final negotiations are still underway for such a book, which predictably comes at a high price – for the would-be publisher – and will be written by a Mumbai-based journalist. A book that promises to tell his “crazy untold story” before Dutt himself gets a chance to put out his version is bound to compete with any other book on the subject. The story doesn’t just stop at these two books, however.
Another major publishing house is planning on releasing a book on Dutt in a matter of months, once again without the authorisation of the actor, and is keeping it under wraps until publication, for obvious reasons. Why is there a mad scramble among publishers to put out books about Dutt’s life at this moment? While the fascination for a star child who went on to attain unparalleled levels of notoriety is evergreen, the release in June of Sanju, a biopic on the mercurial actor, might be the answer. The film may lead to a spike in interest in its subject, and a juicy book about the man in the news will be well-timed.
Assembling the story
In an interview with Scroll.in before Dutt tweeted his statement about the book, author Yasser Usman said that he had approached Dutt’s manager to speak to the actor for the book but was turned down. “I got a long interview with him at the time of the release of Bhoomi [in 2017],” Usman said. “The book was half done by then. I have used bits from that interview and relied a lot on archival interviews. Of course, I always believe that if he had spoken to me, it would have been better. It’s a research technique that Usman has down pat, employing the same strategy when he wrote Rekha: The Untold Story, which was also published by Juggernaut Books, in 2016. The book was criticised by some for being a “quickie” – a neatly assembled patchwork of existing material, since he did not have access to the subject he was writing about.
With Sanjay Dutt’s biography, once again the same questions arise. If you are writing about a living celebrity and they refuse to talk to you or grant access to information, how much of a story will you be able to tell? “We know most of the episodes from Sanjay Dutt’s life,” Usman said. “The untold story is in revealing the lesser-known anecdotes from his life and seeing them all together – the complete story.”
Legally, Usman should be on solid ground, as long as his sources check out. In an interview with Scroll.in last year, lawyer Dahlia Sen Oberoi, who has been representing publishing houses for almost 18 years, said “Anyone can write about anything or anyone as long as you are not violating any laws. Basically, in a biography people want to bring up dirt and for that, yes, your sources have to be impeccable. Our courts say that if you want to talk about a person’s private life, either get their permission or write only that which is part of public records – there’s nothing ambiguous about this law.”
Dutt’s contention seems to be precisely about these sources – “tabloids and gossip magazines” which the publishers defend as “leading film periodicals”. While Usman said he also spoke to several people off the record, a large chunk of the book relies on these magazine archives.
A Catch-22 situation
Even as Dutt chastised the book for being “unauthorised”, Juggernaut and Usman are far from the only ones publishing books about Indian film stars without their involvement. Entertainment journalist Aseem Chhabra is reportedly writing an unauthorised biography of Priyanka Chopra to be published this year. His last book, on Shashi Kapoor, published by Rupa Publications, was once again written without the actor’s contribution, owing to his illness at the time.
Over two decades ago, author Mohan Deep was severely criticised for his lurid portrayal of Madhubala in a biography published in 1996. He followed in quick succession with a book on Meena Kumari in 1998 and one on Rekha titled Eurekha in 1999, once again a gossip-heavy account focused on the sex life of the actress.
If some unauthorised biographies are dismissed for being quickly thrown together, authorised biographies, on the other hand, often tend to be sanitised, PR-driven accounts. Indian film stars are of course, famously obsessive about controlling their image – one that especially can’t be tinkered with when it reaches godlike status – and we’re yet to read a comprehensive biography of Amitabh Bachchan, for example.
“It’s a Catch-22 situation,” said Kanishka Gupta, founder of the literary agency Writer’s Side. “If a biography is authorised, it risks being a hagiography and might not generate as much attention, media interest and readers. If it’s an unauthorised biography, there’s a risk of facing legal action.”
Where then does the middle ground lie? There’s the conversation book, a format of interviews with film personalities pioneered in India by Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has done book-length interviews with the likes of Lata Mangeshkar, AR Rahman, Gulzar and Waheeda Rehman. But it remains a niche genre, with mainstream fans less interested in the craft of film as much as anecdote-rich personal stories.
That fine balance has been achieved most recently by two books that came out in 2017 where film stars told their own stories, supported by more than capable journalists. Karan Johar’s An Unsuitable Boy and Rishi Kapoor’s Khullam Khulla – co-written by Poonam Saxena and Meena Iyer, respectively – bucked the trend by being well-written and revelatory with a healthy dose of scandal. “With Rishi Kapoor, even we weren’t expecting the kind of material he wrote, he surprised us,” said Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, Executive Editor at HarperCollins India, the publishers of Kapoor’s autobiography.
Even when a writer is on board, however, things can go awfully wrong. Nawazuddin Siddiqui famously withdrew his autobiography An Ordinary Life, a few days before its launch, after his Miss Lovely’ co-star Niharika Singh and former girlfriend Sunita Rajwar criticised the actor for misrepresenting their relationships. In an highly unusual move, copies of the memoir, co-written with the US-based journalist Rituparna Chatterjee, were pulped.
“It’s a difficult time for books on film stars and I’m definitely wary of taking one on. At least one publisher has told me they aren’t publishing any books on Bollywood at the moment,” said Gupta, adding that most publishing houses now want a No Objection Certificate from everyone who has been quoted in a book about a celebrity. It’s a highly restrictive move, reflective of the paranoia in publishing about costly legal cases or injunctions that leave them unable to recover the hefty advances and marketing costs involved with high-profile books. “This is likely to spook publishers even more,” Gupta said, referring to the threat of legal action by Dutt.
He added: “There’s too much risk involved. Even when stars have given permission for biographies, they can sometimes change their mind halfway through the writing process and withdraw their support. Or in the case of a celebrity who is no longer alive, their family members might take up the matter in court.” Gupta has represented several books on or by celebrities, including Pooja Bhatt, who is supposed to come out with a book detailing her battle with alcohol addiction this year.
Despite the legal risks, Ray Chaudhuri, who has built an enviable list of books on cinema at HarperCollins India, admits that apart from the rare Rishi Kapoor, most authorised biographies or autobiographies tend to be sanitised. “As long as the information being used is in the public domain, I don’t see anything wrong with unauthorised books about film personalities. But even then, we use the information with caution, even when prefixed with ‘allegedly’,” he said. “And the focus should remain on the person’s work, not on gossip,” he added.
A chequered tradition
The unauthorised biography, while still a nascent form in India when it comes to film personalities, has a long but chequered tradition in the US and the UK. Several writers have made a name for themselves as the go-to authors for books whose subjects are less than excited about their publication. Not without a fair share of a backlash, however. British journalist Andrew Morton has written books about everyone from Princess Diana to Tom Cruise, criticised along the way for his sources. When he tackled the story of Angelina Jolie in a biography, several mainstream media outlets ignored the book and refused to engage with it.
Oxford professor Jonathan Bate was famously derided by The New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm for writing a book on Ted Hughes even after his widow withdrew support. Back in 1993, she wrote about the form: “The biographer at work is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.”
Most writers, however, believe in their right to present the facts in an unfiltered manner. “It’s not my business to decide what it is the reader should or should not know,” said Christen Andersen, author of books on Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Kennedy family, among others, in an interview with CNN in 2010. “I’d be cheating them otherwise. I’m a journalist, not a censor.”
Back in India, underpinning all the friction is the uneasy compromise between the worlds of film and publishing. Books about, or by, film stars sell more than the average non-fiction title, with publishers vying furiously with one other for the rights. Yet they can often be reduced to slim gossip volumes lacking nuance and analysis. The most crucial consideration for an author in such a situation then, as with any story you tell that is not your own, is to ask repeatedly why, other than the sales, you’re writing it. And of course, make sure you’re really assiduous about maintaining that list of sources.