In Sanju, Rajkumar Hirani turns a privileged movie star into a victim of media bias. The movie fails to probe Dutt’s choices.
Bapu aur Baba’ is how Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju, a biopic on actor Sanjay Dutt, begins. In a chapter from a fictional biography, penned by a fictional D.N. Tripathi (Piyush Mishra), the actor who is popularly known as Baba is said to have lived a life similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s. The comic scene is meant to convey Dutt’s (Ranbir Kapoor) aversion to such a statement. However, it plays out like Hirani’s guilty conscience.
In one of his best films till date, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Hirani (and co-writer Abhijat Joshi) had a lot to say about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation. He revived Gandhi in public consciousness almost 60 years after his assassination by bringing him within the fold of the world of his two most loved characters – Munna Bhai and Circuit.
The most striking thing about Lage Raho was the humanity Hirani managed to bestow on his characters, even the questionable ones. He gave voice to middle-class Indians, mostly forgotten and erased by Bollywood’s largely upper-class world. Be it Maqsood, the sweeper, in Munna Bhai MBBS or the retired teacher seeking pension in Lage Raho, Hirani humanised his characters and brought his professed Gandhian philosophy to his art.
But over the course of four films, prior to Sanju, empathy and honesty – the strongest attributes of his breakout debut – acquired the heavy wardrobe of issues. Painted in a caricaturish tone, his characters started to appear soulless.
Coming after PK, Hirani’s biggest success, Sanju has been looked at with suspicion since its announcement. It always sounded like a movie, which a big filmmaker was making for his just-out-of-jail actor friend.
But Sanju is not an exercise in white-washing. It’s pure and simple denial.
Dutt has certainly lived a life that would dwarf most people’s – be it his fight with drugs, liaisons with co-actors or connections with underworld dons. Reams have been written about that last one, and still not nearly enough.
Sanju is almost an exception for Hirani because it’s not a plot-driven but a character-driven narrative. The focus, front and centre, is on Dutt, but lacks any psychological probing. He is who he is, and you should view him just like that. Except the fact that he’s the only prominent star in the over 100-year-old history of Indian cinema to have been accused of serious crimes, including terrorism.
Dutt was convicted under the Arms Act in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case by a TADA court in 2007 and sentenced to six years in prison. Charges of terrorism, however, were dropped.
The film hinges on Dutt’s relationship with his father, actor and politician Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal), a beloved figure in the city of Mumbai. Kamlesh Kapasi (Vicky Kaushal), the character of his US-based friend, is prominent too.
For a change, Hirani finds a way to not bathe his lead protagonist in innocence. His last two monstrous successes, including 3 Idiots, showed the main protagonists as infallible. Dutt has been given many shades – lost boy, disappointment to father, womaniser – except the one that shows his persisting relations with underworld dons, especially when their shadows on Mumbai were long and dark.
So who is the antagonist here? Media. It’s the messenger, which has been held responsible for almost costing Dutt his life, dignity and career. One of the scenes show an article about the actor titled “Finished?” with “editor-in-chief” in the byline. This poorly researched and comical depiction of the messenger is symptomatic of how Hirani has placed the burden of proof on media in favour of a man who spent years in jail for possession of arms. The media didn’t make the life choices for Dutt. The liability for that falls squarely on his broad shoulders.
In probably its most brazen and disingenuous attempt, Sanju has an end-credits song featuring both Dutt and Kapoor berating newspapers. In his last film too, Hirani wasn’t kind on the media, which is baffling given that he is part of the larger industry.
Turning lofty political issues into simple but well-intentioned stories, which are told through comedy, has been Hirani’s simple funda. Take, for instance, the alien (Aamir Khan) in PK who learns the ways of the world only to challenge them, but in a non-confrontational manner. Or, the genius student Rancho (Khan) in 3 Idiots. The appeal of these characters and films lies in Hirani’s sincerity. Even if not nuanced in conception, they still aspire for a better world.
Like anyone else, Dutt too will be seen sympathetically by his friends and family. But the fact that Hirani chooses to not use his Gandhian philosophy to probe his friend’s life, and instead turns a privileged movie star into a victim of media bias is escapist, almost hypocritical.
Perhaps, India’s most commercially successful director needn’t have filtered so much out of his friend’s tough life. A prism of sympathy may be fine, but denial, not so much.