The biopic based on the hardships of Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt remains a crowd puller.
Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, Sanju is focused on Dutt's struggles with the justice system and a hostile press for possessing a gun, as well as his fight with drug addiction.
The film is a good attempt to educate people about the sufferings of an actor who had to face police brutality and an unfair trial by media. This was for keeping a weapon for self-protection in the aftermath of an anti-Muslim pogrom in Bombay (now known as Mumbai) and subsequent bomb blasts blamed on Islamic extremists.
However, Sanju fails to situate his story in the broader context of the persecution of minority communities under draconian antiterror laws in the world’s so-called largest democracy.
Dutt was detained under the infamous Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA) for possessing an unlicensed AK-56.
The law was passed in 1985 to deal with militancy in various states, including Punjab where Sikh extremists had launched an armed struggle for a separate homeland of Khalistan.
The TADA gave sweeping powers to the police, making people of minority communities, such as Sikhs and Muslims vulnerable to forced disappearances and arrests for indefinite periods of time. The law was taken back in 1995 following widespread criticism and tireless campaigning by human rights activists.
Sanju reveals that Dutt was forced to keep the gun due to threats from Hindu extremists. This was around the time when Hindu fanatics demolished an ancient mosque in the town of Ayodhya in December 1992.
These extremists continue to claim that the mosque was built by Moghal rulers at the birthplace of Lord Rama, a revered Hindu god. They wanted to build a huge Rama temple at the same spot.
This incident led to Hindu-Muslim violence in different parts of the country. Bombay also experienced violence against Muslims carried out by the Hindu fundamentalists with the backing of the police.
Dutt’s father, the late Sunil Dutt, was an actor turned political activist with strong secular credentials. A Hindu married to a Muslim actress, he tried to save Muslims during the violence.
This enraged Hindu extremists who threatened to kill the Dutt family and rape Sanjay Dutt’s sisters. Later, Bombay was rocked by serial bombings that left many people dead.
The blasts were blamed on the Islamic extremists. It was then that police came to know about the gun in the possession of Dutt.
Dutt was arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail by the police. The media also portrayed him as a terrorist without listening to his side of the story, mainly because of the hysteria created by the bombings.
The speculative media stories suggesting his complicity in the explosions not only ruined his career for some time, but also his social relationships.
This went on even after the court never found him guilty of terrorism or being involved in the bombings, and punished him with several years in prison for possessing a gun.
It became difficult for Dutt family to change the perception that was created by hawkish politicians and the media.
The whole affair also left Sunil Dutt in a pathetic situation as his own political colleagues turned their backs on him.
Though Sanju is worth watching to see how the Indian system works when dealing with people after a court judgement, it must be borne in mind that Dutt is not the only victim who deserves our sympathy.
He was still very privileged to have the film made and his story heard. On top of that he survived several years of difficulties.
Think about the many unknown Sanjus, who were kidnapped, tortured, or even killed by the police in staged shootouts under the TADA.
In Punjab, ordinary Sikhs became frequent targets of police violence.
Dutt still had a gun, whereas in Punjab, men and women whose only fault was their failure to refuse shelter to armed extremist—for fear of their lives—were detained and tortured by police with impunity.
Nobody in the mainstream was bothered as they were seen as “anti-nationals”. The media too willingly obliged by publishing the police version of the events, branding them as “terrorists” without even waiting for a fair trial.
Father objected to writer's question on the radio
Ironically, Sunil Dutt was associated with the then ruling Congress party that brought in the TADA in the first place in spite of many objections from the civil society.
I remember having made Sunil Dutt angry over this when he once visited Canada when I used to work for Radio India.
Dutt Senior was here to attend an event organized by the cancer foundation named after his late wife, Nargis Dutt. During a live interview, I asked him how he felt about ordinary people who suffered because of the TADA, while his film star son has got so much sympathy and support.
An agitated Dutt said that my line of questioning was unacceptable and "unfortunate".
He insisted that we let the courts decide whether his son did anything wrong or not. However, he later cooled down and asked me to join us for a group photo.
Sanju is not just a reminder of the past, but is relevant even today as some new draconian laws have replaced the TADA.
Activists, writers, and artists are frequently arrested under the right-wing Hindu nationalist government to suppress any voice of dissent. In most cases when these individuals stand up for the oppressed communities or raise voice against injustice, they are branded as “anti-nationals”. Or, in the worst scenario, as sympathizers of Muslim or Maoist insurgents, which creates animosity against them in the media.
Hopefully, someone like Hirani will look into their stories one day and bring to light many of these unheard tales before the mainstream that is consumed by majoritarianism and narrow nationalism.