Bollywood’s latest release ‘Sanju’ is breaking box office records, earning a whopping $1.2 billion in its first three days. Helmed by ace director Rajkumar Hirani, ‘Sanju’ details the gory details of actor Sanjay Dutt’s life, ranging from his drug addiction to his time in prison. Unfortunately, even exceptional acting by Dutt’s portrayer Ranbir Kapoor and a stellar supporting cast cannot hide the blatant bias of this film.
When it was first revealed that Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who worked with Dutt on the successful “Munnabhai M.B.B.S.” films, were making a movie on his life, questions were raised about the authenticity of the narrative. Both men dismissed these doubts and suggested they would only focus on telling the truth.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why this didn’t hold up. Their two other big movies together, “3 Idiots” and “PK,” along with the two “Munnabhai” movies, are glossy, preachy, and emotional.They make for a wonderful cinematic experience and try to wrap things up in a neat, tidy bow. “Sanju,” for all the ups and downs of the titular hero, tries to do the same. That’s the problem.
Dutt’s life has always been somewhat of an enigma. As the son of Bollywood superstars Sunil Dutt and Nargis Dutt, he was always in the limelight, much like any star chid is even today. He’s had a tough life. He’s made some disastrous decisions, paid the price, and probably tried to do better since. It’s when ‘Sanju’ tries to justify and even glorify those mistakes that it falters the hardest.
The first half of the film drags on slightly and focuses on his drug and alcohol addiction, which stemmed during the shoot of his very first movie “Rocky” in 1981. Encouraged by his friend Zubin Mistry (Jim Sarbh), he consumes all kinds of drugs to cope with the pressure his father is putting on him. He’s in deep and completely messes up his relationship with girlfriend Ruby (Sonam Kapoor, initially rumored to actually be playing Tina Ambani). His addiction is further fueled by the death of his mother just a few days before his debut film premiered.
‘Sanju’ tries hard to show Dutt as the victim, whose grief propelled him towards drugs and alcohol to the point where his life had no meaning anymore, despite the riches and successes. His only saving grace were two people, his father Sunil Dutt (played by Paresh Rawal) and his best friend Kamlesh ‘Kamli’ Kapasi (Vicky Kaushal). Both of them put everything on hold to ensure Sanju’s stint in an American rehab makes a difference for him.
When he finally gets sober and moves back home, his Bollywood career is revived and he becomes even more famous. Yet, another gruesome fate awaits. After the Babri Masjid demolition that caused Hindu-Muslim riots in 1992, Sunil Dutt dropped his Bollywood career and invested in politics, trying to help Muslims who were being attacked. As a result, he was often threatened.
Sanju, apparently as a precautionary measure, stashed guns and bullets at his home with the help of a gang. These are the same men who were responsible for Mumbai’s 12 serial bomb blasts in 1993, that killed over 250 people. Sanju was arrested on the charges of weapons possession and terrorism. While the latter charge was dismissed based on the fact that he didn’t know beforehand about the bombings, it took a long time to get to that decision. Sanju ended up spending several months in jail.
‘Sanju’ spends very little time focusing on the details of this case, leaving things quite murky. Ever since the bombings, the media and the citizens started labeling Sanjay Dutt as a terrorist. The movie wastes no time in blaming all of his problems on the media, citing they just wanted juicy gossip and not the facts. The movie ends with Kapoor and the real Dutt in a music video that basically rips up newspapers and calls them liars. Clearly, the ‘fake news syndrome’ is spreading.
The movie makes no mention of the leader of this gang, Dawood Ibrahim, or of Sanjay Dutt’s connection with him. This part of the story is devoted to proving he did not know about the attacks. Most of it is through the angle of Sunil Dutt’s emotional journey from courts to cops, trying to get his son out on bail.
In fact, when his best friend Kamli leaves him and resettles in America after Dutt is accused of terrorism, ‘Sanju’ tries to show us that he abandoned his friend. Sanjay Dutt is shown as the do-gooder who forgives him with a nostalgia-filled impassioned speech. Whereas in the film, Kamli is the only friend pushing Sanju towards a truly better life. It’s important to note that Kaushal has said Kamli is an apparent amalgamation of 3-4 of Dutt’s friends and not based on one specific person.
The biopic then moves on to the years he spent in jail, interspersing it with his wife Maanyata’s efforts to get him out. The husband-and-wife duo convinces famous biographer Winnie Diaz (Anushka Sharma) to write an honest book about Sanjay Dutt’s life. The irony is, honest is not the film’s strong suit. They’ve focused on some truly difficult phases of the actor’s life but through a rose-colored lens. The film happily makes a joke out of his womanizing, philandering ways, quietly laughing about the fact that he may have slept with over 350 women.
The only saving grace is the actors. Most of them, at least. Kapoor delivers an extraordinary performance, submerging himself in Dutt’s mannerisms. Rawal is equally powerful as Sunil Dutt, proving that he is truly a gift to Indian cinema. The real stand-out of ‘Sanju’ is undoubtedly Kaushal, who plays the Gujurati-American innocent, warm Kamli with all his heart. His work matches up to experienced stars like Rawal and Kapoor.
It’s hard to take anything Sharma does or says as Winnie Diaz because of that awful wig. Winnie is a fictional character in Dutt’s universe, used as a prop to tell Sanjay Dutt’s story.
Sarbh’s Zubin Mistry, also apparently a mixture of 3-4 real people, is over-the-top with his acting. Putting fictional people or characters who are based on multiple people in a biopic meant to tell the truth is beyond lazy. It’s proof of subjective storytelling, especially because there is zero mention in the film of Sanjay Dutt’s first two marriages or any other children he has besides his twins with current wife Maanyata Dutt.
Still, Hirani sure knows how to tell a tale because ‘Sanju’ will have you invested in its story. It’s a movie about how Dutt, an underdog despite not really being one, surreptitiously beat all his problems and is deserving of a movie about him. It ignores its responsibility of telling the whole truth by blaming everyone but Sanju, whether it’s his girlfriend marrying someone else, his mother’s untimely demise, the pressure to be as good as his father, the media’s obsession with his case, or his friends ditching him (for a good reason!).
Bollywood stars are truly put on a pedestal in India and this movie only tries to benefit from that. Hopefully, audiences know better than to believe what a reckless 2.5 hour ‘biopic’ tries to portray.