“Sanju”… The complex life of a cipher of a man is reduced to a simplistic entertainer

Posted on July 2, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

When Rajkumar Hirani announced Sanju, it sounded like a breakaway. He makes movies about outsiders. If Munna Bhai was an outsider to the establishment, one of the 3 idiots was an outsider to the rote-learning rat race, and then we got a film about the ultimate outsider: an alien. I wondered how Hirani would handle the story of a cosseted industry insider — but it turns out the Sanju of Sanju is an outsider, too, a square peg in a round hole. He doesn’t fit his father’s expectations, his girlfriend’s dreams, and he doesn’t live up to his best friend’s friendship and his countrymen’s expectations of a patriotic citizen. The difference is that Hirani’s other outsiders were forced into the situations they found themselves in (say, due to being left behind on earth), whereas everything Sanju did, he chose to do. The hope, therefore, was that the film would provide the why-s behind Sanjay Dutt’s actions. So many boys have domineering fathers and mothers who die early. They don’t end up snorting coke. So many Mumbai-ites received threats after the 1993 bomb blasts. They didn’t buy arms from the underworld. Was Sanju an emotional fool? Was he weak of will? Or was he someone who was programmed to flirt with fire? What makes this poor little rich boy so special, so different that we empathise with his lapses into behaviours we’d not so easily overlook in others?

That should have been Sanju. That’s what Sanju isn’t. It’s usually not the audience’s business what the writer puts into a biopic, and what he leaves out. (Or writers in this case, Hirani and his regular partner-in-crime, Abhijat Joshi.) That’s why the same life can come in many versions. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi chose to look at the Mahatma through a reverential lens, while Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi, My Father cut Bapu down to size as someone so obsessed with his role of father of the nation that he forgot to be a father to his son. Sanju doesn’t shy away from its protagonist’s bad choices. Manyata Dutt, played by Dia Mirza, calls her husband “the king of bad choices.” But a choice means that more than one option or scenario exists. The film concedes that Sanjay Dutt procured assault rifles from the underworld, but strictly for “self defence.” (It’s a bit like buying a T-Rex because your two-year-old wanted a pet.) If this was the “bad choice,” what were the other options/scenarios? Was Dutt aware of them? Did he weigh them in his mind, wrestle with them at night? Or did he just take the easiest way out? Without this journalistic line of inquiry, how do we begin to understand Sanju?

The problem with Sanju isn’t its conviction that Sanjay Dutt was not a terrorist, and that the media is largely responsible for this perception (though this point is harped on endlessly, as though to suggest Sanju would not have suffered if the newspapers had been more responsible). The problem is that it doesn’t think it’s important to build a watertight case to convince us that this was indeed so. And I don’t think this is a huge ask from a filmmaker who, in his greatest film, convinced us that Sanjay Dutt and Mahatma Gandhi could co-exist in the same space. I have no doubt Hirani believes what he’s saying, but for those of us looking for some insight into Sanjay Dutt, beyond what’s been reported over the years, there’s practically nothing. Hirani has said, in interviews, that he heard these great stories from Sanjay Dutt, and was so fascinated that he had to make a movie about it all. The opening scene of Sanju literally mirrors this decision. We see Sanju (Ranbir Kapoor) staring into a mirror, and promising the story of his life. His biographer (and stand-in for Hirani), Winnie Diaz (Anushka Sharma), eventually becomes that mirror, reflecting back everything almost unquestioningly. She’s a bit of a sceptic at first, but Sanju asks her to give him an hour, and if his story isn’t the greatest tale ever told, then she can walk away. Of course, she doesn’t.

Occasionally, someone pops in with some damning news about Sanju, and Winnie’s blue eyes open wide in disbelief — and she sets out to unearth the truth. (Any halfway decent biographer would already know most of this, from preliminary research.) Otherwise, this is probably the easiest bio ever written, based on one man’s narration. To millennials, Sanjay Dutt’s story may be new, but the rest of us know it all. We know about Nargis Dutt and her last days, which fell like a pall over the production of Rocky. We know about the Bombay blasts, and Sanjay Dutt’s numerous trips to jail. What could have made these events interesting is the psychology — the why — but Hirani, one of our sunniest filmmakers, either doesn’t want to go there or is incapable of going there.

The why-s of other characters are equally bewildering. An endearing, affecting Vicky Kaushal plays Kamlesh, Sanjay Dutt’s BFF (and this film’s Circuit), and when Sanju sleeps with his girlfriend, he gets mad the way we’d get mad if a roommate finished off the bar of chocolate you’d kept in the fridge. This stretch is icky for many reasons. The girl in question is presented as a Madonna/whore — she’s sweet and simple when attired in a salwar kameez, but when she slips into lingerie, she strikes a seductive pose before Sanjay, despite knowing Kamlesh isn’t in the room. Hirani doesn’t seem to realise this is a problematic situation. Sanju may have laughed about his conquests (some 350, we are told), but surely a biographer must wonder what made him this way! Like drugs, was this an escape? Given that his father treated him like a little boy, did these conquests make him feel more of a man? Did he sleep around even when married to others? But to Hirani, this is simply material for a laugh. And he knows his audience. In the theatre I was in, they laughed too.

But then, it’s probably futile to expect why-s from Hirani. Why is psychology; Hirani is more interested in event and entertainment. He transforms a feel-bad life into a feel-good story. Imagine comparing Sanjay Dutt to Mahatma Gandhi: both carried weapons (a lathi, an AK-56) but never used it. This insight comes from a fawning biographer, someone hired before Winnie, and is dismissed by an appalled Sanjay Dutt — but the comparison is still out there, couched in poke-in-the-ribs humour, and it colours the rest of the film. Someone should tell Hirani that just because you can make a joke about everything, doesn’t mean you should. If he were a provocative stand-up comedian, then this would not be an issue. But when you’re tackling the life of a complex individual, then these laughs feel horribly out of place. It’s one thing to use humour to sugar-coat bitter-pill issues like the education system or fake godmen, and quite another to use it to amp up the adorability quotient of a man some of us are still conflicted about.

But there’s no denying that Hirani’s audience-pleasing instincts may be the best in the country. When his jokes work, they land amazingly. At many places, I laughed out loud — say, when Sunil Dutt, at the shooting spot of Rocky, demonstrates lip-syncing, and this joke segues, smoothly and organically, to another one built around Gabbar Singh. And there’s a glorious scene around a gangster played by Sayaji Shinde, one that locates humour in  life-or-death situation. In other words, if a “Hirani-esque entertainment” is what you seek, then you probably won’t complain. His tried-and-tested tricks, fine-tuned over a series of blockbusters, are all in here. The background score dictates our emotions. When a drug peddler (an amusing Jim Sarbh, with a lisp) tempts Sanjay Dutt with coke, the score says “something really bad is happening here,” and later, when Sanjay Dutt is taken away by the police, the score says “something really sad is happening here.” You’ll also find Hirani’s Gujarati/Parsi caricatures, his simplistic  emotionalism (using songs like “Na moonh chhupa ke jiyo” to bridge major character arcs”), and, of course, his trademark catchphrase. After “jadoo ki jhappi” and “all is well,” we get “question mark.”

These “tricks” help us navigate a film without much else. The entire first half is devoted to scenes with Nargis (Manisha Koirala), and Sanjay Dutt’s drug use and rehab. That’s a long time for stretches that say little more than “Nargis was a good mother” and “drugs are hell.” Scenes go on and on, like one where Sanju barges into his girlfriend’s (Sonam Kapoor, as Ruby) house at night, so he can raid her father’s liquor cabinet. Ruby gets one of the few really affecting scenes when she leaves Sanju for good. But what happened the next day? Did Sanju even care she was gone? Was there a bit of heartbreak? Was that what led to the womanising? Oh sorry, wrong movie. I didn’t buy Paresh Rawal as Sunil Dutt (he seems to be playing… Paresh Rawal), but he, too, pumps genuine emotion into the film. Given his plight (a cancer-stricken wife, two daughters to raise, a brattish son who keeps getting into trouble), I felt I wouldn’t have minded a biopic called Sunil. Kamlesh gets it right when he tells Sanju, “Tere se zyada tera baap jhel raha hai.”

I missed the movies Sanjay Dutt was part of — Sanju makes it appear as though there was Rocky, and then we got a Khalnayak poster, and then, Munna Bhai MBBS. What about the milestone films that were being made alongside these other episodes of the star’s life: Naam and Saajan, Sadak and Vaastav? It would have been fun to see Ranbir mimicking Sanjay Dutt in a recreation of, say, Mera dil bhi kitna paagal hai. But Ranbir’s performance goes beyond mimicry. He doesn’t make the sorrows sing like he did in Rockstar because the broad-beats writing doesn’t give the actors much to work off of. (Sample moment: at first, Sunil Dutt is called “terrorist ka baap,” and later, “Munna Bhai ka baap.” Cue, misty eyes.) But perhaps this is a much more difficult kind of acting: making people invest in your emotional state even when the script isn’t giving you much of a “before” or “after.” Cinematographer Ravi Varman attempts to provide at least a little texture — like in the drugged-out scenes where Ranbir is bathed in harsh lights and deep shadows. But when the film rolls to a full stop, the real Sanju is still a… question mark.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi