'Sanju' Is an Expensive Gift from a Powerful Filmmaker to His Actor Friend

It is a bittersweet irony that a gifted actor like Ranbir Kapoor, who has been almost pigeonholed into the image of a man-child, truly comes of age in the role of a particularly famous man-child.

Storytelling, especially in a country like India, has been – and will perhaps be for a long time – the domain of the privileged. So when Bollywood’s most successful director, Rajkumar Hirani, whose previous films are said to have earned more than Rs 1,000 crore at the box office, decides to make a film on his friend and collaborator, Sanjay Dutt, a Bollywood star, that exercise seems to glitter with vanity and power. But then it can be argued that most art, even when it has apparent altruistic ends, is an act of benign narcissism, a chance to rewrite a story anew, stamping your own narrative over someone else’s.

Most Bollywood stars get a disproportionate amount of publicity in this country, given their talent. In such a cultural climate, a film like Sanju, where a successful filmmaker first casts his friend as a victim and then makes us sympathise with him, does seem like a case of excess, eliciting a feeling of vague uneasiness that is difficult to shake off. But a story is its own beast, and it’ll be unfair to Hirani – and other members of the film cast and crew – to not enter his world and see it through his eyes.

Sanju, starring Ranbir Kapoor as Dutt, opens in the year 2013, when the actor is sentenced to five years in jail, and then segues to a flashback in 1981, when he’s shooting for his debut, Rocky. Dutt in this period is hooked on hard drugs – LSD, cocaine, heroin – someone whose mornings, afternoons and nights blur into each other, a wastrel of a son finding it hard to carry his parents’ legacy. Just like in its trailer, the film takes some time in convincing us that Kapoor, a much better actor than his character, is Dutt. Kapoor ticks off the customary mannerisms with ease – the bent shoulders, the droopy eyes, the inelegant gait – but it’s reassuring to find that he isn’t solely trying to mimic Dutt. He’s of course helped by make-up and prosthetics, but Kapoor eventually reminds us of Dutt even in scenes that don’t require the embellishments of dialogues or mannerisms. It is a bittersweet irony that a gifted actor like Kapoor, who has been almost pigeonholed into the image of a man-child, truly comes of age in the role of a particularly famous man-child.

Hirani has often said in his interviews that the genesis of this film was Dutt’s incredible story. The story here, of a famous star son spiralling into drugs and then getting implicated under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention (TADA) Act, does merit some intrigue, since it’s a confluence of celebrity, media and the judicial system, but it’s not enough by itself to sustain a feature film, especially because it’s been well documented. The key to unlocking this story then, like most stories, is in the hands of its people and the relationships among them. Hirani does an impressive job of nailing Dutt’s amorphous anxiety, and his incessant escape into drugs, early in the film. What Dutt fears the most, we are told, is being ordinary, of not being his father’s son. “Tell him that he doesn’t need to be Sunil Dutt – that it’s okay to be Sanjay Dutt,” says Dutt Jr.’s friend Kamlesh (Vicky Kaushal) to Sunil (Paresh Rawal). It’s a small, wonderful scene that tells us more than we know: about an actor, his father, the cost of failing in a family where success is inherited.

Sanju needed more moments like these, where the filmmaker and writers (Hirani and Abhijat Joshi) found stories within stories, unravelling the layers that make a star a person. That crucial vulnerability – seen, empathised and understood from the inside – is conspicuously missing from this movie. There are few scenes in the film, such as Sanju succumbing to shooting heroin while his mother, Nargis (Manisha Koirala), is in a coma, that match the raw intensity of the Kamlesh-Sunil exchange. It is unfortunate that even at the end of a 162-minute film, we come out with little understanding of Dutt the person. There are many scenes that detail his various struggles, but Hirani throws little spotlight on how they affect or change Dutt, either as an actor or as a citizen or as a son.

The film shines the brightest in its different subplots, be it the one between Dutt and Kamlesh (Kaushal is a funny, arresting presence) or the one centred on Sunil, a father seeing his son lose from the sidelines. Sanju is not a hagiography – a ridiculously low bar for a biopic in any case – but it is also a largely sanitised version of the star’s life, reluctant to examine and interrogate his story. The scenes related to the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts are quickly and cursorily dealt with. (Any self-aware film would have at least wondered on the relationship between AK-56 and “self-defence”.) The fourth estate is an invisible villain in the film, responsible for Dutt’s arrest and downfall. It’s true that entertainment journalism, perpetually spicing up an actor’s life for getting more readers, is mostly compromised in this country, but to paint an entire profession in broad strokes, especially in the climate of “fake news” and “paid media”, is misleading and even dangerous.

Then there are instances where Hirani needlessly underlines the import of a scene by referencing quick flashbacks, showing his lack of confidence. Or minor annoyances – such as Kamlesh carrying an old newspaper clipping even after a decade or Dutt’s biography, by an expat writer, in English called Kuch Toh Log Kahenge – that suggest this movie’s uneasy relationship with realism. Sanju however, with the exception of Munnabhai MBBS, is a much better film compared to Hirani’s previous works, because here he isn’t masking the complexity of a grave social problem with humour, nor occupying a convenient moral vantage point.

True to what is promised, Sanju is a private transaction between two powerful Bollywood figures, an expensive, endearing gift from a filmmaker to his friend. Enough has been said about Bollywood not taking a stand but, as Sanju shows, they at least stand for each other. After all, what is power? The act of colouring this world with your favourite shades.