Book review: Sanjay Khan: The Best Mistakes of My Life

Just short of candid

The title of the book — The Best Mistakes of My Life — is a misnomer because the only mistake mentioned is some injustice the writer did to his wife.

An autobiography of actor-producer-director Sanjay Khan, born as Shah Abbas Mehndi Ali Khan, the book is, in fact, replete with the wonderful things that happened in his life, the important people he met, the tremendous fan following he garnered, and the successes he enjoyed.

The actor with box-office hits like Dosti, Dus Lakh and Ek Phool Do Mali to his credit, was born in 1940 in the beautiful city of Bengaluru when it was a virtual garden city.

His family was an altruistic Muslim family firmly against the partition of the country.

Sanjay and his brothers studied in St Germain Boys High School, a Catholic institution, even as they followed the tenets of Islam. It was a period of learning, unaffected by the religious divide that split the country in 1947. Studies, sports, theatre, canings at the hands of the principal, moral teachings of his father were what kept the school-going Sanjay occupied.

However, before he could appear for his Senior Cambridge examination, Sanjay had to shift to Bombay on medical advice as the cool climate of the garden city was not suitable for his health after an attack of diphtheria. Bombay was an eye-opener for the young lad. Apart from the crowds and tall buildings, what caught his attention were the billboards of films. His introduction to the fascinating world of cinema had happened at the age of 10, when he had sneaked out with a domestic help to see Awaara, against the wishes of his father who thought films were a bad influence.

As luck would have it, his sister, whom he lived with initially in Bombay, stayed within walking distance from Regal, an impressive, modern cinema hall that exhibited English films.

So, it was only a matter of time before he got familiar with Hollywood. If Raj Kapoor was his childhood and lifelong idol, James Dean became his teenage favourite. Standing outside Regal Cinema, daydreaming, the boy from Bengaluru fantasised about becoming a star.

He took the first step towards his goal when his older brother, Feroz, got noticed by the Czar of filmmaking, Sashadhar Mukherjee and was signed on for three films. The two brothers shifted into a small flat on the impressive Marine Drive, where actors like Nargis lived. Then, one of his acquaintances from Bengaluru, who worked as a comedian in films, took him to Raj Kapoor’s Holi party. Shaking hands with his idol Raj Kapoor and seeing other film luminaries up-close made him realise that these larger-than-life figures were just as human as him.

The star-struck youngster got closer to film folks when Feroz moved to Juhu, to Jussawala Wadi, a colony of palm-fringed, seaside cottages where directors like Satyen Bose and K A Abbas lived. Not too far away lived Chetan Anand.

Sanjay, who had done odd jobs till then in the film industry, got his break as a full-fledged actor in the latter’s Haqeeqat, a moving film on the Indo- China war. It was a big break and soon he was signed up for Dosti (1964) courtesy Satyen Bose, who directed this hit film and christened him Sanjay as there were too many Abbases in the film industry.

After that, Sanjay acted in one hit after another, sometimes working three shifts a day. If Jussawala Wadi was his pathway to films, it was also the pathway to romance. Within weeks of him shifting here, he set his eyes on 13-year-old Zarine Katrak, innocent, pretty and lively. It was love at first sight for both.

They courted for six years and tied the knot in 1966, as soon as Sanjay could afford to live on his own. Sanjay devotes page after page to Zarine, singing praises of her beauty, her role as a home-maker, as a mother to four children, as an interior designer, as a hostess throwing lavish parties for Sanjay’s friends.

Blissful married life? Then why did he stray? Sanjay avoids categorically confessing he had a torrid affair with Zeenat Aman.

While he describes the midnight drives the two sneaked out on when shooting for Dhund, in Panchgani, he does not say they were in a relationship. Later, he hints at it through a convoluted story about his film Abdullah.

Film magazine readers of those times would know that the two had a showdown (some reports said violent) at a hotel, in the presence of Zarine. Sanjay refers to the incident as an alternate ending to Abdullah. Rather lame explanation, that.

Elsewhere in the book, he thanks Zarine for not divorcing him “despite some of the unjustifiable wrongs I have done.” (He needs to apologise to his daughters for another wrong — repeatedly, he refers to their college as Sapphire, instead of Sophia.) The fire that broke out on his set of The Sword of Tipu Sultan in a Bengaluru studio, expectedly forms a significant portion of the book as there was very little chance of Sanjay surviving the 65 % third-degree burns he suffered. But qualified doctors in Mumbai and New York and countless fans who donated blood ensured he pulled through.

The Best Mistakes of My Life makes interesting reading because it portrays the public and private personae of a star as well as a large world, peopled with glamorous names from the world of films, politics, business and royalty.

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Book review: Sanjay Khan: The Best Mistakes of My Life

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