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Do biopics like Sanju end up resurrecting fallen heroes?

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Sanjay Dutt’s biopic, Sanju, has hit the screens today. The much-awaited movie showcases the complicated life of an actor who spent five years in jail.

Ranbir Kapoor, who plays Dutt in the movie, in an interview said that Sanju attempts to show “unknown aspect of him (Dutt), and his vulnerabilities”.

ThePrint asks: Do biopics like Sanju end up resurrecting fallen heroes?

Cinema has become the new outrage industry that can help make careers

Sudhir Mishra

Fallen heroes or not, how a movie materialises depends on the director. Biopics are often inspirational stories. They serve as a metaphor for the spirit of human endurance – take the one on Milkha Singh’s for instance.

When one thinks from that perspective, Sanju becomes a very interesting film. Sanjay Dutt has after all led a very complicated life. He isn’t your typical hero. One can tell how influenced he was by his company and environment just by listening to the way he talks about it. He assesses his actions objectively, and with a sense of dry humour.

I think it is unfair to ask directors to be extra careful. If scientists can be allowed to make mistakes, why can’t they? Like any journalist, it is the calling of a filmmaker to follow the story to its end. They may have an opinion about it, but they have to tell as it happened.

Do they have a responsibility? Yes, to not incite violence. They can’t put human lives in danger.

When TV series Tamas came out, I remember people all around were echoing that there would be riots. But nothing happened. The series was released and became a great success.

People have become too sensitive. What happened with Udta Punjab and Padmaavat is a testament to that fact. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they should extend the same courtesy to others as well.

Unfortunately, cinema has become the new outrage industry that can help make careers.

Hirani will not risk showing the ‘real’ Sanju to the star’s core audience

Gautam Chintamani
Film historian

Few creative platforms can manipulate the way cinema can. It has the power to elicit the kind of reaction the storyteller wants instead of what the viewer might be naturally inclined to, and Rajkumar Hirani is one of the best when it comes to this. Such is his prowess that he can make a film like Munna Bhai MBBS to convince you that education is not as important and only a few years later suggest the polar opposite in 3 Idiots.

Biopics are dicey. Be it Gandhi that transformed Bapu into an angel that descended from the skies or A Beautiful Mind that left out details about Nobel laureate John Nash’s life, such as his homosexual escapades, a love child, and a divorce. To expect that Hirani’s ode to Sanjay Dutt would be something unflattering would be fooling yourself.

In an interview, Hirani reiterated that Sanju makes no “effort to redeem Sanju at all”. Yet he says, it is told “as seen from our point of view”, which in other words means an insider’s account of the troubled superstar.

Even if one were to tell Dutt’s story as it is, it would translate into a fascinating account of a life every bit worthy of a film, but Hirani wouldn’t risk alienating Dutt’s core audience by showing the ‘real’ picture about certain events – like the degree of his involvement in the 1993 Bombay serial blasts. Hoping Sanju to be truthful would be naive. One ought not to judge till Sanju is viewed but the trailer highlighting things like the number of women Dutt had bedded or the impishness with which he waltzed through life might come at a cost – the price of looking the other way while an unlikely hero is resurrected.

Biopic directors should strike balance between extremes of portrayal

Priyanka Sinha Jha
Editor, Screen and film critic

Biopics by their very definition mine the life of a person, famous or infamous. Depending on the perspective or the point of view that the writer-director chooses to show, he/she could intentionally, or unintentionally, deify a wrongdoer or an outlaw, or even vilify a hero.

Good biopics most often humanise the subject and carefully contextualise their frailties as well as their virtues—Gandhi, The Iron Lady are a few movies that come to mind.

Sanju, the biopic based on Sanjay Dutt’s extremely eventful life, which includes drug abuse and flirting with the wrong side of the law, could probably best compare with films like My Week With Marilyn, Jackie or Diana – all were films about celebrities who lived roller-coaster lives.

These films present the protagonists as extremely attractive people who are buffeted to great heights by their fans and eventually crash-land because of their own off-kilter worldview.

Directors of biopics, especially those with contentious protagonists, have to strike a careful balance in etching the character as neither an out-and-out hero nor the ultimate bad guy.

Biopics such as Bandit Queen, or more recently Daddy, humanised the protagonists in the eyes of the audience despite the fact they were outlaws and had served time in jail. However, what the films certainly did not do was project them as faultless and unimpeachable.

If cinema influenced us directly, we would all be killers by now

Moinak Biswas
Professor, Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University

It is unfair to impose moral disclaimers on films. Cinema doesn’t influence us directly; otherwise, all of us would have turned into killers by now. The morality question is a wrong one to pose when it comes to cultural products.

Fallen heroes are a part of a long tradition. Cultures across time and space have always been fascinated by the anti-heroes who live on the margins or the other side of the law. They have a strong appeal in modern culture.

In the context of the popular imagination or popular culture, the gangster genre has existed in films since the 1920s. Hollywood has thrown up various examples from Howard Hawks’ Scarface to Scorsese’s. There is no dearth of precedent for gangster movies.

The life of a gangster draws its appeal from precisely being on the margins of society. They defy the logic of private property, social propriety and give the underdog a chance to have their share of power and wealth.

The criminal is a rebel, and a tragic figure. Their appeal will continue to exist till the legal order is perceived as one that is full of injustice. It’s incomplete and contradictory nature adds to appeal of the marginalised anti-hero. The anti-hero can do things others may want, but can’t because they feel limited.

One is grateful that a film like Sanju has been made at all

Shivam Vij
Contributing editor, ThePrint

For a lay person, it has been difficult to make sense of Sanjay Dutt’s life. Today he’s the good guy, tomorrow he’s the bad guy. One moment he sounds like someone paying for the mistakes of callow youth and the other moment he sounds like a privileged child unwilling to own his faults.

Today, he sounds like he was playing footsie with terrorists and tomorrow he’s playing unforgettable Munnabhai. One day he’s out on parole, and another day he’s again out on parole. What an entitled VIP prisoner!

In that sense, the big picture is muddled. It needs a re-telling of a life for us to see things in context. Without having seen Sanju, one is grateful that such a film has been made at all. Whether or not it resurrects Sanjay Dutt in the public eye, we will know over the weekend.

It is easy to make a film about Sachin Tendulkar or Mangal Pandey. They come across as hagiographies even if they didn’t intend to be. How difficult is it to celebrate a hero? At the same time, it can be boring to tell a story already so well-known.

It is much more interesting to examine the lives of fallen heroes. What exactly happened? They had everything going for them, how did it all come crashing one day? Studying fallen heroes can throw light on the human condition.

Is Sanju a PR-ish attempt to resurrect a fallen hero? Or a film more complex that puts in context the roller coaster life of Sanjay Dutt?

Compiled by Deeksha Bhardwaj, journalist at ThePrint. 

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  1. Sanjay Dutt is a character from whom we cannot get any good values. No one would like one’s child to become like S. D. Drugs, womaniser, helping terrorists,etc. Are the sins that are part of his life. Son of a good actor, Sunil Dutt, and got chance in acting. But his acting skills apart, nothing of his life is admirable.

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