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40 years of Rocky: Sanjay Dutt’s grand launch

While the actor and star son made a not-so-memorable debut with his first film, he slowly gained popularity with subsequent films and established himself amongst his peers.

Sonal Pandya

When Sanjay Dutt, son of the former star Nargis and actor-turned-politician Sunil Dutt, appeared on the big screen with Rocky (1981), great things were expected of him.

In the book Sanjay Dutt: One Man, Many Lives, Ram Kamal Mukherjee writes, “In 1981, when Dutt exploded on to the scene with Rocky, he was unlike any other actor Bollywood [commerical Hindi cinema] had seen so far. He was lanky, droopy-eyed, wore his hair long and was distinctly ‘Westernized’ in his slim pants, bomber jackets with his initials emblazoned on it and pulling stunts on his bike. No one seemed to care that he was evidently ill-equipped to emote; his reckless rock-star aura simply filled up the screen.”

Sanjay Dutt made his debut around the same time as two other star sons, Kumar Gaurav with Love Story (1981) and Sunny Deol with Betaab (1983). But despite his not-so-memorable debut, he eventually gained popularity with his subsequent films and established himself amongst his peers, even winning the Filmfare award for Best Actor for Vaastav (2000).

Sanjay Dutt and Namrata Shirodkar in Vaastav

But his debut film was a different affair. Directed by Sunil Dutt, Rocky featured Rakhee, Reena Roy and Amjad Khan, with Tina Munim as Sanjay’s love interest. The elder Dutt also played Sanjay’s father in a special appearance in the film.

Sanjay’s entry into cinema was two years in the making, and was produced by Amarjeet, husband of Nargis’s niece Rehana, and Gulshan Rai. According to Yasser Usman's book on the star, Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy, the mahurat was held at Mumbai's Mehboob Studio on 1 January 1980 and featured the cast of the film, with a few special guests, including Nargis's former co-star Dilip Kumar.

The musical drama, which was partly shot in Kashmir, had Sunil and Rakhee playing Sanjay’s parents. Sunil’s character Shankar, a union leader, is murdered by Jagdish (Ranjeet), leaving behind a traumatized wife and son. Sanjay is adopted as a child by characters played by Amjad Khan and Aruna Irani and renamed Rocky.

Sanjay Dutt with Tina Munim, Shakti Kapoor and Reena Roy in Rocky

Rocky is blissfully unaware of his traumatic past and grows up to fall in love with Renuka (Tina Munim), the daughter of Ratanlal, his father’s former boss, who is also murdered by Jagdish. When he finds out the truth about his past, he sets out to avenge his father’s death.

Like most star kid’s launches, the film was designed to show off Sanjay. The young man had to act, dance, lip-synch, romance, and pull off stunts in the revenge saga. The film’s two young leads, Sanjay and Tina, began dating during the making of the film.

But during this time, Sanjay was facing two different battles. Usman writes, 'During the schedule in Kashmir though, Sanjay had managed to temporarily reduce his drug intake. He was fearful of his father’s constant presence at the shoot. He also wanted to control his drug dependency for the sake of his career.'

By August 1980, the Dutt family received devastating news. The matriarch, Nargis, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and needed to be shifted to the US for treatment. Production was halted on the film while Nargis began undergoing treatment abroad.

But as Nargis’s condition deteriorated, Sanjay had to return to India to finish shooting for his debut. Sunil requested filmmaker Raj Khosla to finish the film according to his instructions from the US over phone calls.

Nargis's condition slightly improved and she could return to India. She was able to see her son in an early cut of the film in March 1981 at a preview theatre. Sadly, she didn’t live long enough to see him at the film’s grand premiere; she died four days before the event. The Dutts left an empty seat in her honour at the premiere screening in Mumbai’s Ganga theatre. Eerily, her one-time co-star and friend Shahu Modak had predicted this.

While the reviews at the time were less than complimentary, the film held its own at the box office. Rocky was boosted by maestro RD Burman’s music, producing hit numbers like the romantic duet ‘Kya Yehi Pyar Hai’ and the dance number ‘Aa Dekhen Zara’. However, a few reviews noted Sanjay’s rawness on the screen.

An India Today review of the film stated that the young actor wasn't a natural. "[He] doesn't walk, talk, or even look like a star, only like a real-life 19-year-old. His natural gawkiness, gangling limbs, shaggy haircut and sleepy eyes aren't the stuff stars are made of on inaugural flights.”

It went to say that Rocky lacked star power andm moreover, was “not so much a case of an ambitious director planning a sensational launch of a new face and flunking. Merely a case of a father counting on his chicken before it hatched.”

Despite the shaky start, Sanjay Dutt has bounced back again and again in his long and controversial career. Every time he was written off, he returned in a new avatar.

He conquered the brooding romantic hero space with Saajan (1991), embraced the bad-guy persona with Khal Nayak (1993), won acclaim as the tortured gangster with Vaastav (2000), and became everyone's lovable goon in Munna Bhai MBBS (2003). Even after his arrest in 1993 under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the actor returned to more film roles and a warm welcome from an eager audience.

Sanjay Dutt in Torbaaz (2020)

When he was finally released from Pune's Yerwada jail in February 2016 after serving out his five-year sentence, his story was told yet again by filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani with the biopic Sanju (2018), starring Ranbir Kapoor. Even now, the actor hasn't walked away from the limelight with upcoming roles in Shamshera, KGF: Chapter 2 and Bhuj: The Pride Of India. Far removed from that lanky, awkward phase of his debut 40 years ago, Sanjay Dutt has finally settled in.