The cinematic resurrection of the actor and convicted felon, Sanjay Dutt, is now complete. Thanks to the active collaboration of writers, actors and producers from the Hindi film industry, the process of transmutation is successful. The clever selection of a short and sweet movie title, ‘Sanju’, adds a tag of endearment, his cute little nickname, to the metamorphosis.
‘Sanju’ is a biopic that shamelessly normalises criminal behaviour and goes so far as to ‘cutesify’ the activities of the perpetrator, a movie star and the son of celebrated actors. It turns the conscious decisions and actions of a man, who was well into his thirties when he was arrested post the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, into symptoms of juvenile delinquency; a hangover from the drug addled period of his youth.
The film is a makeover of Sanjay Dutt by a writer and director who, ironically, has been associated with films that purport to add a moral dimension to our educational institutions, and to question the systems in academia that produce our flawed professionals.
Nor is the narrative of ‘Sanju’ even halfway up to the standard of a Rajkumar Hirani film. The first part of the movie is about a dotty looking woman called Winnie Diaz (Anushka Sharma) who claims she is a writer, and is curious about the big bad actor. She is thinking about writing a book about him, and her research methodology is basic. She works on the principle that to get to know a man you have to know his women, both the quality and the quantity. So she crosschecks with Sanju (Ranbir Kapoor) on the number of women he has slept with. Mr. Dutt hasn’t got enough fingers and toes to count all of them, so he gives her a ball park figure of about 300, give or take a few hookers.
It is on this primitive and facetious level that we proceed to the first romantic relationship described in the film, one between Sanju, stoned out of his mind, and a nice Parsi girl called Ruby (Sonam Kapoor). The actor mocks Ruby’s father (Boman Irani), when he is alive, and jokes about his corpse when he is dead. These scenes are treated like slapstick comedy, even though they are, supposedly, biographical material about this charming, but much misunderstood man in the Hindi film industry.
Boys will be boys when they are young and foolish, is the tone of the movie. The film carries on in this vein, sugar coating all the transgressions of an individual from a privileged background; character flaws that director Hirani would otherwise be unsparingly critical of, were this a film about a fictional persona. We see a harassed and bemused Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal) and a terminally ill Nargis (Manisha Koirala), unable to deal with their unhinged son, and the film persists, with every sequence, in seeing all of his offences as minor misdemeanors.
This fawning biopic has more serious collaborators who have contributed substantially to its making. The first among equals is Ranbir Kapoor. He has worked hard to mimic the look, mannerisms and loping gait of Sanjay Dutt. He has aged himself, and convincingly carries the extra weight of Dutt as he transits into his forties and fifties. This is fine method work. But great acting is about truth; about an authentic interpretation of character and personality. And here Ranbir is bound by the diktat of the script; he must be human and lovable; he must be a flawed hero, not a criminal.
Most of ‘Sanju’ is disingenuous, but it is the kind of slant that pop culture often applies to celebrities who are movie icons.
The shocker comes in the epilogue, a song and dance sequence during the end credits, something that is so brazen that it is worth waiting back in the auditorium to watch. The man himself, the subject of the biopic, and the actor who plays him, both turn up to shake a leg and sing a song, the lyrics of which blames the media, the ‘fake news’ in the media, for contributing to the hero’s predicament. Which begs a question of the film writer and director – isn’t cinema media? Isn’t ‘Sanju’ a movie that consciously attempts to ‘fake’ our perception?