Sanjay Dutt on the set of Bhoomi at a Kandivli studio
News of Vijay Mallya's arrest is doing the rounds as we get on Sanjay Dutt's Bhoomi film set, with Dutt chilling with his entourage under an open-air, makeshift tent on a hot Tuesday afternoon, while rehearsals are on for a courtroom scene inside the Basra studio-lot in Kandivali.
"He's not been arrested in Scotland, yaar. Scotland Yard in London has arrested him," Dutt corrects his colleague. I ask him if he'd rather chat after he's delivered a four-page monologue for a major pre-interval climax to be shot later in the evening. "Let's get this over with first," he says. Omung Kumar's Bhoomi is Dutt's first film since he got out of jail over a year ago.
Looking at him — thick beard, dressed in beige Pathani suit, playing an oldish father — what I find slightly surreal is, as we speak, there is another actor (Ranbir Kapoor) who's walking, talking exactly like him, few minutes' away at Kamalistan studio in Jogeshwari, where Dutt's biopic is simultaneously being shot by director Rajkumar Hirani.
Ranbir Kapoor is unrecognisable in Dutt's garb on set
Surreal, no? "Hmmm… Right," Dutt mumbles. "It is really amazing. I've heard the script, and it is brilliant. I love the way it's being shot." Has Ranbir got the mannerisms right, though? "Yeah, he's pretty much there, man. It's unbelievable what he's doing." The last time Dutt visited his biopic's set, he says, they were shooting a 'radio-station' jail sequence: "It was done so well. I feel Ranbir's one of the best actors we have, and to top that, there's Raju Hirani."
Prodded to elaborate further on what a radio station scene in a jail could be about, Dutt recalls, "The DIG, IG, and the superintendent were kind enough to build the structure of an in-house radio station in (Yerwada) jail when I was there. We used to play music and have programmes. They put a few of us together. But out of 4,500 (inmates), we had to find out who were the good writers, engineers, and who could speak clearly. I was an anchor — I used to write, talk. The whole jail would listen. Every barrack had speakers connected. We'd play songs." Did he play tracks from his films? "Farmaish hoti thi. Whatever farmaish used to come, we'd play."
Give or take a few paroles, and furloughs — a word that entered popular lexicon in India, thanks to Dutt himself — the actor has cumulatively spent five years of his life in prison, which would be long enough, if you were to visit another city or country, to naturalise yourself as a local. What does being in jail do to you? Dutt has been to boarding school (in Sanawar), although that's not even close to complete physical confinement with just a few people you can meet and interact with — as if you were on a second-class compartment of a running train that won't stop for years!
Just watching Bigg Boss for three months sends shivers down people's spines. Does prison change you as a person? "Why should anything change you as a person?" Dutt shoots back. "In jail, there is too much frustration and negativity. And to change that into positive is very, very difficult. There is a lot of hope and expectations that you have to first eradicate from your life for that period. Which is again, very difficult. But you've got to do it."
Surely, the common experience shared among inmates creates a bond that's hard to match; has he made some close friends. Is he in touch with them? "Yes, you do find a couple of people who matter a lot, and who you start idolising, actually, because of how they've conducted themselves through so many years. They're there just for having made one mistake, and have to face 20 or 25 years (for it). To hear them speak about life. Or even about rules, regulations. To watch their behaviour, and respect for other people — it was shocking, and a lesson for me. I can't take their names, and I would definitely like to be in touch with them."
Given his profession, maybe Dutt could mine some of these stories to script characters worthy of film. An unverified information that I've heard for years relates to Bhiku Mhatre, inarguably Bollywood's finest gangster, played by Manoj Bajpayee, in Ram Gopal Varma's Satya (1998). The character, it is said, was based on a friend that Dutt had made during his prison term. Is that true? "Yes, there was (someone like Bhiku). And I told Ramu about him," Dutt confirms. His name was Bhiku? "No." Are you in touch with 'Bhiku Mhatre'? "He's doing life (serving life sentence)."
Only a year after Satya, however, Dutt had immortalised himself as gangster Ramdev Shivalkar on screen in Mahesh Manjrekar's Vaastav (1999). Did he know someone like Shivalkar as well? "Vaastav was totally Mahesh Manjrekar's baby, based on some other person. That film had nothing to do with me. That was only, and absolutely Mahesh," he says.
If you don't know this about the actor already, Dutt is a severely restrained, reluctant conversationalist — his responses are rationed and measured, if not monosyllables, while he waits for your next question. Or maybe this is how he's with reporters. Or ones he doesn't know personally. Dutt was arrested under TADA, which was repealed later, and for illegal possession of arms, after the 1993 Bombay blasts. To be fair, being under intense journalistic scrutiny over 23 years could make anyone cynical towards a profession, or its professionals. The last time I interviewed him, over a decade ago, my long questions were met with answers that went: "Yes." "That's right." "No." "Yes." "Maybe." Which is how we eventually ran that interview. Once bitten, I went this time with no questions at all. My notes, which I didn't bother opening either, simply read: "Films (something newsy, separate story). Jail. Drugs. Underworld." Of these, my hunch is that option three will get Dutt to open up. I'm not mistaken.
I am the research
How long was he under the grip of drugs, I ask him. "Ten years or so… '79-'80 onwards," Dutt says. Ever since he quit, he has been an active anti-drugs campaigner, speaking strongly on the cause. The argument he's made about drug addiction is that an introduction to a drug in itself is invitation to a dark tunnel that you will inevitably keep going deeper into. This is in line with popular wisdom on the subject, which has, in fact, been challenged through researches lately, that now suggest that the key issue is not the substance — but personal circumstance. And that an individual once reconnected to a normal, satisfying life, would see himself weaning away from drug-addiction, with no external help.
Around 20 per cent of the US army in Vietnam, for instance, consumed heroin like chewing gum. About 95 per cent of them overcame that addiction automatically when they returned home —'from a terrifying cage to a pleasant one' — with very few of them having to go through any rehab. Dutt is visibly unimpressed: "These guys who do researches are never on the field. All you're telling me is basically excuses for addiction. There was no Vietnam for me, and that's why I did drugs. There is no this, or that. I knew I was doing heroin. I know this is cocaine. Why am I doing it? Because my mom is ill? What the f***. It's because I want to do it. There is no 'I wanted to connect, disconnect'. I'm bull-shi**ing myself. You've got to cut the bullsh** out. Drugs, or addiction, in any form, is wrong, whether it's over-eating, over-working, over-drinking — anything in excess is an addiction. These guys make excuses: 'Maine khana khaya itna, kyunki mere ko depression ho gaya'. You have to be counselled."
No excuse for addiction
Surely, there's got to be some good side to drugs, even if momentarily, for so many to voluntary be hooked to it at some phase or the other in their life? "No. What is so enjoyable about anything mood-altering, when you can get the biggest high, from life, family, or your work? There's something natural called adrenaline — there is no drug in the world that can replicate it. But that is the best high that anybody can get. Smoking marijuana, dope and all, is just mood-altering. I've heard guys say, 'Maine do joint maara, and what a performance I gave'. When your mind is altered, how are you going to make decisions?"
My feebly posed submission emanates from how recreational drugs — and progressively more so alcohol — is either wholly demonised, or celebrated. There is rarely middle-ground on the subject. "Here this," Dutt argues: "Eight out of 10 people in this world are addicts (addictive personalities). So, only two out of 10 are not. A guy can say, 'Okay, I'll have a joint on Saturdays, and he sticks to it. Or I'll have one drink a day, bas'. And he does it. I've seen many people like that. But that percentage is too small. I wish I could be like that — enjoy my two to three drinks, and feel, 'Arrey mazaa aa gaya'. Woh hota nahin hai, bhai. Toh bandh hi kar do, better hai. Are you ready to take that chance, of being (among) that 20 per cent? No."
It's a strong point. Hard to argue against. Maybe we could talk about something more fun. A piece I've been meaning to write, I tell Dutt, is on Bandra in the '80s/'90s — the 'bhaigiri', the party scene, the pop-culture… "No pop-culture; it was rock culture," Dutt cuts me off, having opened up now, and offering to extensively chat on this subject over a long evening soon.
The original Bandra boy
I'm not sure how much of this would get encapsulated in his biopic, but both filmy kids and his contemporaries who were around in Bandra in the late '80s have regaled me with stories about Pali Hill's Sanjay Dutt — long hair, motor-bike, leather jacket — as the posh neighbourhood's patron saint of ultimate cool, that everyone, including Salman Khan, looked up to, in awe and reverence: "Arrey, Salman? Where he will look up to me (sic)," Dutt dives into his characteristic sarcasm, admitting though that "there was an image that I had, and I wasn't pretending. It was a different zone."
Underworld also flourished within Bollywood during the same decade, something that did him in eventually. "But the best part is, I have never done a film where they were (involved). But yes, they used to be part (of the film industry), and the whole industry was scared (of them). You had to be," he says.
What Dutt, 57, misses most from back in the day, is the bonhomie in Bollywood: "It's become competitive, cut-throat. The bonding between people has died. There used to be a family atmosphere, which is gone. It's pretty shocking, but that's the way it is, and that's the way it's going to be. "It was beautiful before — bonding, meeting once a month, being on the sets… Outdoor shoots were all so different. We'd all sit and hang together. The last time I can really think about (doing this) was on the sets of (JP Dutta's) LOC (2003), where there were a whole bunch of artistes in one film, one hotel. How much we enjoyed — without any egos, doing dinners, drinks, going out together. It was unbelievable. There was no fighting. Where were these (vanity) vans before? Now, nobody steps out of their van. I've been here (on set) since you've come," says Dutt, indicating that maybe he should go back to his friends waiting for him, sitting around in a circle at the other corner of the tent.
"Vijay Mallya's got bail," he announces at the end of the interview. That was quick.