On June 29, Sanjay Dutt’s eventful life will be immortalised in Rajkumar Hirani’s biopic Sanju. The Ranbir Kapoor-starrer has generated tremendous buzz ahead of its release, in no small part because of the actor’s precise recreation of Dutt’s persona and appearance.
What makes Dutt’s journey fit for a biopic, more than his professional accomplishments, is the off-screen drama that has characterised it: the combination of substance abuse, numerous affairs, flirtations with the law and a staggered stint in prison.
Sanju’s promotions suggest that the film will wear that tumult like a badge of honour. A key feature of the biopic will be Dutt’s younger days, much of it passing in a haze of intoxication, a phase that coincided with the making of his debut film, Rocky.
Rocky was released on May 8, 1981, five days after the actor’s mother, Nargis, died of cancer. The death left an indelible mark on Dutt’s life and career. “That tragedy forged a strange kind of connection with audiences,” Yasser Usman Khan notes in his 2017 book Sanjay Dutt The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy. “From his first film onwards, viewers seemed invested in his life. Tragedy and drama have always stalked Sanjay.”
At the film’s premiere, an empty chair marked Nargis’s symbolic presence.
Rocky, directed by father Sunil Dutt, was a carefully planned launch vehicle, giving Sanjay Dutt’s character an elaborate back story, an introductory song and a larger than life personality. It packed action, comedy, romance drama into an unwieldy 2.5 hours, even though the debutant was yet to acquire the versatility needed to encompass that range, as several critics noted at the time. Usman writes that while “Sunil Dutt was leaving no stone unturned in his quest to direct a power-packed debut film for his son”, the debutant had other interests: “Acid would give him an amazing high after which his mind would get slow and fuzzy and at times he would start to hallucinate.”
Roping in RD Burman for the soundtrack and Rakhee Gulzar as his tragedy-stricken mother, the film incorporated two strong emotional draws – music and mother – that have often worked their charm on audiences. Despite the negative reviews, the film did decently at the box office.
Early on in Rocky, Sunil Dutt’s character, a union leader, is killed. In a movie that believes in laying it on thick, the family encounters a series of tragedies. The villain, Jagdish, tries to sexually assault Rakhee’s Parvati, which is witnessed by Rakesh, her son. Rakesh loses his memory and becomes hysterical each time he sees the mother, whom he no longer recognises but associates with trauma.
The doctor’s solution is that Rakesh be kept away from Parvati. In steps Amjad Khan’s Robert D’Souza, who takes in Rakesh and pretends that he and his wife, Kathy (Aruna Irani), are his biological parents. Rakesh becomes Rocky and lives a life of abandon, racing on the streets of Mumbai with his friends and planning elaborate vacations to Srinagar. His carefree life is punctured when he falls in love with Tina Munim’s Renuka. This sets the stage for past and present to collide: Renuka is the daughter of Ratanlal, the man who ran the company for which Shankar worked, and both men were killed by Jagdish, who now runs said construction firm.
The real action only comes in the last half hour or so. Miraculously, while giving Hindi cinema the dance anthem Aa Dekhe Zara, the film also manages to mask Dutt’s two left feet in a bid to showcase him as an actor who can pack a punch, shake a leg and also be a hearthrob.
While Dutt’s career would go through many ups and downs after Rocky, one aspect of the film’s cultivation of his persona stuck – the idea of him as someone who is reckless but, ultimately, lovable. “After every tragedy, every upheaval, Sanjay managed to make smashing comebacks,” Usman wrote in his Dutt biography. “It was as if no matter what he did, no matter how serious his misdemeanours, his fans retained a soft spot for this ‘bin maa ka bachcha [motherless child]’ and were always ready to forgive him once he had expressed guilt or atoned for his mistakes.”