The three faces of Sanjay Dutt: Which one do we punish?

The 1993 Mumbai blasts which left 257 people dead with its diverse cast of characters from film, crime and media had all the makings of a Russian novel. But it is Time -- the spans of time spent waiting for the verdict -- that is the true protagonist of this story. Twenty years ago, Mumbai was still Bombay, and Sanjay Dutt was was in his early thirties. A Bollywood brat with a Neanderthal image then, he is now a middle aged man with 3 children

"Sanjay Dutt is being sentenced on page one and pardoned on page three. Like many actors embedded in Mumbai, he combines the real and the imaginary," observed a friend. The question then is: which Sanjay Dutt are we punishing?

The same friend claims that Sanjay Dutt is like a three-in-one ice cream. Such a person stands between simplicity and complexity. He has layers but each remains separate, and it does not take long to unravel them.  He is a child of cinema, a fact of cinema and a hybrid product of a city called Mumbai.

Sanjay Dutt. AFP.

Sanjay Dutt. AFP.

Sanjay's parents, Nargis and Sunil Dutt, are legendary figures who loom large in the annals of Indian cinema. Nargis played Mother India and epitomised the myth of sacrifice. Her marriage to Sunil Dutt -- a celluloid giant in his own right -- represented the integrative myth of Bollywood, where Hindu and Muslim could come together. Their child, Sanjay, was the offspring of that grand romance.

He was expected to live a copy book life which he then proceeded to ruin, copy book style.

Then there is Sanjay Dutt, the film star. Despite the legend of Rocky and Munna Bhai, despite his attempts to play cop and villain, he never made it to the Valhalla of celluloid heroes. What more often created news was his anarchic personal life. He was loud, spoilt, confused and yet lady luck smiled on him enough to keep him in the lime light.

He took time to settle down and controversy clung to him like an obsessive fan.  He brawled and hammed his way through life and yet like Salman, was loved by his friends. His sister Priya, a textbook MP, was a perfect foil to the sheer exuberance of her brother.

The third Sanjay was an ambivalent man without the moorings of identity. He was neither Hindu nor Muslim -- unlike Sunil and Priya Dutt who were securely Hindu and Congress loyalists.  His Muslim identity outside film became a burden, a cross he had to bear. As a young man, the riots and blast must have created a slightly paranoid world of terror, where a machismo of guns provided a false security. During the Mumbai blast, his house looked like an armed fortress.

Twenty years later, Sanjay paid a heavy price for that misplaced machismo. He was found guilty for possession and guilt by association as his guns were a part of a consignment smuggled in by Dawood and his associates in 1993.

I realize the law is impersonal and one must respect the law as we do at the end of most Bollywood movies. To ask pardon only for him makes law a fact of power. To say that one should appeal to the president is to be elitist, to believe justice can be softened for those with connections.

Yet the verdict leaves a strange after taste. It punishes a middle aged balding overweight man for his childish crimes. Sanjay's life was like B-grade thriller and his behavior never reached the heights of villainy.  As Sunil Dutt once said of him, Sanjay lacks the intelligence to be a terrorist.

He remained the happy Neanderthal from Sanawar school, someone haunted by adolescence in this late thirties. A confused overgrown boy with a brawling style of life seeking comradeship, identity and love in the years of the Mumbai blast.

All one sees now is a middle aged man unable to distance himself from the idiocies of adolescence. There is sadness here. If sentenced, he will serve a few years in jail and come back almost forgotten. In the trial of an actor's life, that may well be the ultimate punishment.

Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science nomad.