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Home > News > Columnists > Vamsee Juluri

Gandhian gangster goes back to jail

August 03, 2007

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Some celebrities go to jail in disgrace, and others merely because history chases them with burdens few others would bear. The sentencing of Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt [Images] to six years in jail seems to have pushed him into the latter, leaving him nowhere to look perhaps except to the Mahatma's own footsteps for inspiration. After all, what man cannot turn into a saint after troubles like this? And what nation can fail to see him as anything but one?

This is not merely because public sympathy is on his side, but so are truth, justice, and the whole moral universe of Indian cinema -- which is seldom wrong about anything. As a celebrity-child and a celebrity himself, Sanjay Dutt's life has been a public narrative for many years. What is uncanny though is that rather than being the story of a rich brat driving over pedestrians or shooting people at parties, it has turned into a mirror of the Indian film hero himself in all his noble forms.

In his early years, he was like the maudlin heroes of the black and white era, seeking escape through intoxication. Then, he became like the heroes of the 'angry young man' genre, taking the law and those cursed weapons, literally, into his own hands in a flash of vigilante-style machismo. Now, as he confronts another nightmare in real life, one wonders if his last screen avatar will emerge to guide him. Will Sanjay Dutt prove himself a real-life Munnabhai [Images], a true devotee of Bapu?

That is what perhaps India is ultimately expecting of him, and that is why it is on his side. The people who do not want him punished so harshly are not just film-crazed fans. They are those who see justice in an Indian way, as a matter of truth and righteousness, rather than rules and procedures. They echo a sensibility that is at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi's [Images] injunctions against lawyers and modern legal institutions. Their moral universe knows that Sanjay has more than paid a price for what was a momentary lapse, not even of conscience, but of judgment.

There is, I think, little merit in the editorial view taken by some newspapers in India that Sanjay Dutt's punishment is a triumph for the judicial system, as proof that no one is above the law. Such a view does not stand up against the public knowledge that those who have done far worse crimes walk free every day. It seems reminiscent of an age when the State used to punish the successful for their success, and a continuation of the cynical manner in which the political system uses film stars for their celebrity status while disdainfully withholding from them the respect they also have earned as hard-working professionals.

And it seems, most of all, an utter shame and waste that a man whose work has done more than any other leader or celebrity to revive a passion for Mahatma Gandhi in this country should be locked away. It is time to look beyond the nitty-gritty of the law and the image of the judiciary to the question of justice. The injustice is not only for a man who has by all accounts not done any harm except to himself and more than suffered for it, but for a nation which has found a real hero in its movies after a very long time.

A star who can spread Gandhian values in this age is a national treasure. When we cherish the Mahatma so much that we fight to get his letter back from a foreign auction house, why can't we find a way to ensure that a star who has the potential to translate his values for the masses is allowed to work? I hope the Supreme Court will let Sanjay Dutt out to make many more Munnabhai movies. And I hope to see the Mahatma in every one of them.

Vamsee Juluri is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, and the author of Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television.

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