The title of Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanjay Dutt biopic is not Sanjay Dutt: The Untold Story. It is not Baba, or, in the interest of rolling off smoothly, Sanju Baba. It is not Dutt, to keep it cool, to keep it all encompassing as if anyone would instantly recognize what and who it is about. And they no doubt would have. It is simply Sanju. It is the name that his parents used to call him lovingly. It is the very Indian, shortened version of his first name that his friends used to address him and teenage years’ girlfriends used with affection. It is the name of a boy, a kid, not a man. Hirani’s Sanju is unabashed in portraying this Sanju no matter if he is wearing the most pristine early 80s fashion or he is, in prison whites matching the white in his beard, looking for an inch of dry floor in his cell with feces floating about around him. It is tough to gauge if this was the film’s intention (but, to their credit, they declare in the very first scene that this is going to be Dutt’s own version of events – take it or leave it) but a grown, flawed man is infantilized by everyone around him – his parents, his friends, his wife, his biographer. His film. At one point his wife Manyata (Dia Mirza) tells him that your life is full of bad choices so why not make them public. From his debut to his renewed Bollywood success, he is hand held by people around him to the point of choosing his film scripts for him. Why should anyone be interested in the story of a man who decided never to grow up?
This is an off-track subject for a director like Hirani who has so far focused on a kind of people’s cinema, a mix of pop philosophy and easy emotional appeal, films that at some level celebrate life for its simplest pleasures. While the subject is starkly different, Hirani’s sticks to the treatment that comes naturally to him. This is a film that is intensely Bollywood and in love with the industry, the approach is a strange concoction of melodrama, parody and comedy. In the opening scene, Dutt and his family are in their living room listening to news on TV saying Dutt has a month to surrender. And Manyata’s reaction shot is so old school that her face is lit by the fire on the aarti plate Sanjay Dutt is holding – freshly out of his puja room. There are reaction shots and even throwback shots to remind you why things have now come a full circle. They don’t land. Somewhere, you could spot Hirani’s weaknesses as a filmmaker with Sanju. Dutt’s toxicity in his younger years has a comedic tinge to it though thankfully he is not redeemed for any of it. He is shown to suffer though some people give him an endless rope to hang on to. His narcotics filled life is also the most colourful where everything jumps at you out of the screen. Both Hirani the editor and cinematographer Ravi Varman have taken the pains to paint Dutt’s stoned days as a world different from the one people around him live in. Sanju’s bedroom and bathroom walls are designed in such a way that they can come to life at any point, and when he and his father are in front of a mirror, his father’s world remains static while Sanju’s image refracts and floats. He is even filmed inside what looks like a phone booth, junked-up and misty, that comes across like a bubble that doesn’t exist for the world outside.
To complement Hirani, Ranbir Kapoor and Vicky Kaushal both play up their antics to suit the kind of film Sanju is. Kapoor is in his elements, but it is also something that he’s never done before. The part here is showier, more physical and a moment or two are all it takes for it to fall into a mawkish territory. But he never falters, he is so acutely aware of time and spatial orientation that he knows exactly how much effort is needed where. Like the older Dutt is more physical, more mannerism oriented while the younger Dutt is more of a goofball charmer that Ranbir Kapoor can play naturally in his sleep. In those portions he doesn’t allow the real Dutt to pervade him, he wants to play him as Ranbir’s own version of that goofball charmer. Watch him in the beginning of the very delightful Main Badhiya Tu Bhi Badhiya where Sanju is unencumbered by the legacy of his family (with a little help from his narcotics) and Ranbir Kapoor is unencumbered by Dutt’s physical demands. The title Dutt would have been apt too considering how much of this film is also about Sunil Dutt, played with a natural geniality by Paresh Rawal, who really is the only person in the world who can be excused for treating Sanju the way he does.
Those moments are fun, they are very filmy and entertaining with both Ranbir Kapoor and Vicky Kaushal having the time of their lives. And then walks in Winnie (Anushka Sharma) the pooh-pooh-er of this party. When she enters Yerwada jail to talk to Sanju, she is bathed in white light, as if she is the angel walking out of a pure, just world to save the man wronged. Her character is a mystery, she writes about museums and presumably history and culture but has a problem writing about a “terrorist”. She tells Sanju during the early days of their association that thousands of books wallow in book stores and only one or two become bestsellers. I am sure by that logic writing about a man whose identity people are still grappling with would seem like a good bet. But her agreement hinges on Dutt proving and the courts declaring that he is not a terrorist. It is a curious conundrum for Hirani, Sanjay Dutt and co-writer Abhijat Joshi. The film is not a hagiography the way MS Dhoni: The Untold Story or Azhar were. It is weird to say this about privileged, successful people like Hirani, Dutt or Ranbir Kapoor but they’ve made Sanju with a nothing to lose attitude. Dutt clearly wants to indict the media for everything that went wrong in his post-1993 life but he wants to put everything out there and then beg you to see the light that only he can see. It is a trade-off he demands – take every true bad habit of mine and judge me for what I am but that thing you accuse me of, that I am not. But he also keeps repeating that it is all media’s creation. What happened to the admission that your life was full of bad choices then? Surely there is some responsibility here. It is alright that the creators decided that this is what the film Sanju will say but then none of them had elegance on their mind.