Archive for August, 2007

Poor, privileged boy

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

It was inevitable, but a lot of Indians — perhaps a majority of them — preferred to believe it wasn’t. Even after the verdict was passed and Sanjay Dutt had been escorted to the Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, SMS polls conducted by television channels showed that 9 out of 10 respondents believed he should have been pardoned. Film industry people, disoriented and shocked, kept protesting that Dutt was a good man and that six years in prison was a punishment totally disproportionate to the crime he had committed. Some pointed to the fact that the judge himself had said — in the slightly off-kilter English that our judges are prone to — that whatever Dutt had done was not “anti-social, ghastly, inhuman, immoral or pre-planned” and did not cause any harm to the general public. So why this awful retribution?

The core fact of being a celebrity, and much more so if you have also been born to celebrity parents, is that millions of people have seen you as you grew older, made your mistakes, turned your new leaves over, matured (or not), had children, changed your views — millions of people have seen you go through life. Millions of people have believed that they have known, if not you, then at least bits of you; they have invested in you their emotions, their moral judgements, and when it comes to Sanjay Dutt’s impossibly tumultuous life, their vast powers of forgiveness. We have seen him lose his mother, an iconic filmstar, at a young age, read about his drug abuse problems, commiserated with his father — another filmstar and to all accounts an exceptionally upright and admirable man — as he nursed Sanjay through his anti-addiction regimes, cheered as he grew in stature as an actor, culminating in that extraordinary turn in a film that brought Gandhi and his ideas back to awed recognition, if not fashion.

Every love affair of his has been painstakingly documented, as has been the death of his first wife, his bitter custody battle for his US-born daughter, and his second marriage and its breakdown. Much of middle-class India disapproved when his lady love of the time forsook him when he was sent to jail for the first time as much as they saw his 16 months in prison as an unfair and malicious fallout of the political establishment in Delhi wanting to teach Sanjay’s father a lesson. Throughout the 26 years Sanjay Dutt has been acting in films, the media has steadfastly maintained that in spite of all his built-in design flaws, he is a wonderful human being — gracious, generous, humble and uncomplicated.

There is no reason to doubt that reading. Anyone who has watched Sanjay Dutt’s interviews on television would agree that the man comes through as someone who is a simple happy-go-lucky spirit, though perhaps not particularly stacked in the cranium department. No wonder India looked at him as a wayward child, given to getting into trouble, but good at heart and always wanting to mend his ways. Naturally, he garnered immense amounts of affection — most people can’t but look at such a man without feeling motherly, brotherly (whether elder or younger), or motherly-masquerading-as-lustful.

On Monday night, a television channel was rerunning a years-old talk show featuring Sanjay, his father and his sisters. Sunil Dutt spoke of his son’s childhood pranks and drug addiction and his bruised but unwavering faith in Sanjay. It was touching — the rare dignity with which the father spoke, the way the son tried to fight back his tears. Sanjay’s sister Priya showed a bunch of two rupee coupons that he had saved up for his sisters as a rakhi gift because, in prison, there was nothing else he could get his hands on.

Viewers wept. And that’s why it’s time to realise that Sanjay Dutt is extremely lucky — a blessed man. Men unknown to anyone but their families and friends go to prison for offences lighter than Dutt’s. Many of these men are even perhaps innocent, found guilty due to some strange combination of circumstances or the indifference of their court-appointed lawyers. Their stories will remain unheard, their fathers’ grief anonymous, and tales about the rakhi gifts they scrounged for, possibly laughed at.

These men did not have the benefit of an exalted family, substantial wealth or access to a top-class education. They were not born famous and rich or with the power to bend their destinies at their will much more than the vast majority of humanity can dream of. Above all, they did not have millions of people following them on big screen and small, in print and on radio, with all these people thinking they know them, and setting aside a little corner of their hearts for these guilty or innocent men to reside in.

There is nothing wrong with feeling sad for Sanjay Dutt, in empathising with his family or grieving for his daughter, who has seen her father little but loved him a lot. But we need to temper this sadness with the knowledge that he had good fortune bestowed on him as a birthright while hapless thousands are facing every day the same fate that looks him in the eye today. There is no one to listen to their tales, no one allowed to hug them as they walk away through the prison gates. In his bumbling way, Dutt has collected more love and sympathy than any other man in his place, and he quite possibly knows that.

However long he spends behind bars, his place as a legend in Indian film history is now assured, and there is no reason why, when he serves out his term (whenever that may be), he will not return even more popular, his star potential at an even higher acme. One should not grudge him that, yet doing so without recognising the privileges that inherently define him will be a great injustice to all the people you didn’t see on screen.