Why Sanju is a film in denial of its subject's flaws
The problem with the movie is that it is tough to see it apart from the life of the person it is based on.
- Total Shares
In 1973, Nils Bejerot, a Swedish criminologist came up with the term Normalmstorg Syndrome to describe the refusal of four hostages to testify against their captors after being held in a bank against their will for six days. This term became widely known as the Stockholm Syndrome. Something similar seems to have happened to the makers of Sanju.
Having spent some time reinventing the cinematic Sanjay Dutt with Munnabhai MBBS (2003) and Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), for some reason they chose to remake the real version of the controversial actor.
We have all had times when we have fallen in love with our subjects. It can, however, be extremely detrimental to one's creative process. Sanju is proof of that. Like the subject, the film is in denial. In the well-worn theory that everything is nurture and nothing is nature, Sanjay Dutt's addictions and accidents are all given external rationalisations.
So we meet the poor lonely child who is sent off at six to a boarding school because his father catches him smoking. He misses his mother and feels abandoned. Then we meet the little starboy getting his first break in a big budget launch directed by his father, being humiliated on set, and using his first drugs.
Then again we meet the rich actor quaking in his shoes because of one phone call which threatens to rape his sisters and kill his father during the Mumbai riots of 1993, causing him to ask for and then store guns for his family's protection. Again and again, he disappoints his family, his friends, his women.
Again and again, the real Sanjay Dutt was forgiven. And the film forgives the cinematic Sanju too – casting his criminal activities as the cries of a lost soul and his smaller indiscretions as the acts of a naughty little boy. All amplified and villified by an evil media which revels in the misfortune of others and passes instant judgments in matters on which the court gives its considered albeit delayed opinion.
Only Sanjay Dutt is not a little boy. He is now 59 years old and though he is charmingly played by Ranbir Kapoor, he is a former criminal who has served his time – which one supposes in Bollywood is a great public service given the other "bad boy" who seems to have escaped his quota of divine justice.
It is easy to see why Raju Hirani is fascinated by Dutt, who spent 25 days while on parole telling his story to the director and his writing partner Abhijat Joshi. Here is the child of one of Hindi cinema's most gifted actresses, Nargis, and her unconventional younger husband, the poster couple of Indian secularism who were not only much loved in the film industry but also society at large thanks to their penchant for good works.
He turns out to have a life with extreme highs and extreme lows – from 18 months in drug rehab to being one of Bollywood's biggest stars, to bedding its most beautiful women, to again unknowingly being part of one of the biggest attacks on India's internal security, to landing up in prison with rats and faeces for company.
The problem is Hirani plays this life story either as comedy or tragedy, with not a note in between. Life bana diya circus, says the song at the end, which famously features Sanjay Dutt and Ranbir Kapoor. So if it is Sanju standing up his first serious girlfriend at the registrar's office, it is played for laughs.
If it is Sanju sleeping with his best friend's girlfriend, it is comedy central. If it is Sanju confronting his drug peddler after five years of denial, it is pathos. If it is Sanju making a pass at his would-be biographer, a woman, it is supposed to be funny not creepy. And if it is Sanju's addiction to prostitutes, cutely referred to as ghamagham here, it is again supposed to be sweet.
The problem with Sanju, the movie, is it is tough to see it apart from the life of the person it is based on. It is a problem Raju Hirani knew even when he started the movie, in that it is not a conventional biopic. Dutt is not a hero, not an achiever, though he is a survivor. He is merely a weak-willed man who has too often blamed everyone but himself for his problems, and though he has suffered immeasurably for his misdeeds, he has also ensured the suffering of everyone around him.
Addictions destroy addicts but they also destroy families, friends, loved ones. They wreak havoc with everyone around, leaving a trail of broken souls in their wake. Sunil Dutt's stoic father, Nargis Dutt's ever hopeful mother, his sisters' lives, Dutt hasn't spared anyone.
And though he does get to apologise to his father onscreen – you deserved a better son, joh aap jaisa zyaada aur mujh jaisa kam hota – there is never any closure on such deep wounds. Try reading or watching to understand the nature of forgiveness.
Hirani is a storyteller in the traditional sense. His stories have heroes and villains, even if they are abstract ones like the education system or institutionaised religion. His is a deeply moral universe and his films are wildly successful because they uphold all the idealised values of middle class India – decency, honesty, success. When Aamir Khan played Rancho in 3 Idiots, he found him "dangerous" because he had no flaw.
So he made him mischievous. In Sanju, you can see Hirani's innate moral compass struggling with a real-life character who clearly has none. The struggle is palpable, especially when he sketches the relationship with his best friend, played very well by young Vicky Kaushal, who has been doing exceptional work since his debut in Masaan, based largely on his friend Paresh Ghelani, Kaushal's Kamlesh stands by his friend through behaviour that can only be described as abusive.
Yet Kamlesh is a loyal frien, and tries to explain to his father how "woh aapki legacy he neeche dab gaya hai, woh ham chote logoin ke beech hero feel karta hai. Be his friend, tell him it is okay to be ordinary".
Which brings me to the weakest link in the film, the casting of Paresh Rawal as Sunil Dutt, a charming, dignified, large hearted man. Whatever his insecurities in marrying one of India's most famous women (and apparently he did have some, which is why he would insist she call herself Mrs Dutt) he was a wonderful father, who tried all his life to compensate for the deep hurt his son felt.
Is baar ki jang thodi lambi hogi, he tells Kamlesh when he flies to Mumbai after Dutt is picked up under TADA. Rawal is just not able to capture Dutt's grace under pressure, his crinkly smile, his heart on his sleeve. The tragedy of Sanjay Dutt's life is not his life, but that of his parents, especially Sunil Dutt.
The other weak link is more of an absence – of the many women in his life. Sonam Kapoor's Ruby is supposed to stand in for all the women he dated, from Tina Munim to Madhuri Dixit to Rhea Pillai. It doesn't work. But depicting more of that would probably have made Dutt even more unlikeable than he is.
But I suppose Hirani can always quote Sunil Dutt's Ustad No. 3 Anand Bakshi to sing: Kuch toh log kehnge, logon ka kaam hai kehna. The film ticks all the boxes: a powerhouse performance from Ranbir Kapoor, oodles of sentimentality, the frisson of real life, and more than a hint of scandal.