Director: Rajkumar Hirani
To expect objectivity in a biography that’s been commissioned by its very subject is like ordering vegetable biryani and complaining that you can’t find any meat in it. Sanjay Dutt’s fascinating life story makes for a compelling, emotional film, but Sanju, directed by Rajkumar Hirani, doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s a one-sided, practically first-person defense of the actor’s many transgressions. And boy, does it work hard to make you question that ‘khalnayak’ image!
Ranbir Kapoor practically disappears into the character of Sanjay Dutt, and it’s an especially commendable achievement given that the actor is pitch-perfect playing Dutt at different points in his life – as a fresh-faced twenty-one-year-old learning to fake romance for the camera, as the poor-little-rich-boy whose descent into drug addiction is swift and heartbreaking, as the misguided movie star whose bad decisions cost him his freedom, and as the ageing family man desperate to tell his side of what he insists is a compromised story.
The actor’s transformation is not just physical, although make-up, hair, and costume departments deserve praise for their extraordinary work in creating an eerie resemblance. Ranbir does much more than mimicking Dutt’s distinct droop, his walk, and his famed hangdog expression. He practically nails Dutt’s voice and his laugh, and somehow conveys the essence of the troubled star.
The acting is terrific, especially among the central players, with Vicky Kaushal delivering a winning turn as Sanjay Dutt’s best friend and longtime ally, Manisha Koirala beautifully channeling the fragility and the spunk of an ailing Nargis Dutt, and Paresh Rawal whose portrayal of Sanjay’s long-suffering father Sunil Dutt feels authentic although the resemblance isn’t entirely convincing. In smaller roles, Dia Mirza and Sonam Kapoor hit the right notes as Sanjay Dutt’s partners, present and past, but Anushka Sharma sticks out with strange hair and stranger accent as the biographer entrusted with telling his story.
In trademark Hirani fashion, the film is both moving and humorous, often times in the same scenes. The script, by Hirani and Abhijat Joshi, is clever, and packed with terrific moments that leave a lasting impact.
What’s a little troubling, however, are the excuses made for Dutt’s failures and misdeeds. Sure he’s alternately portrayed as selfish, insensitive, self-destructive, and entitled at various points in the film, but it’s all part of a larger narrative in which Dutt is always the victim. The villains are plenty, including a shrewd drug dealer (Jim Sarbh), a father whose high standards he cannot meet, the fear of life threats on his family that made him acquire the deadly AK-56 rifles that did him in, and an especially biased, irresponsible media that is blamed for the majority of his legal woes.
In a film by a less skilled director, there’s a good chance these ‘liberties’ might have derailed the narrative completely. But Hirani whips up a cocktail of emotion, melodrama, and humor so astutely you’re swept up despite the manipulation.
The scenes that stand out are ones that suggest Dutt’s fraught relationship with his father, his friendship with Vicky Kaushal’s character, a New York Gujarati that he meets while his mother is being treated for cancer, and difficult portions depicting his own drug addiction and subsequent rehabilitation. A scene, roughly an hour into the film, in which Sunil Dutt plays his son an audio message from his mother, is performed so exceptionally by both actors, good luck trying to hold back your tears. But the laughs come plenty too. A scene in which a young Sanjay Dutt shows up late into the night at the home of his girlfriend (Sonam Kapoor) is this film’s version of the polarizing balatkaar speech from 3 Idiots, although this one is probably funnier.
By very definition, a biography or a biopic is an account of another person’s life. In Sanju, the filmmakers choose to side with their subject, telling his story from his point of view, humanizing the controversial star, letting him off a tad lightly. Shrewd writing and Ranbir Kapoor’s extraordinary performance makes it hard not to empathize with the protagonist.
So is he a bechara or a bad-boy? I’ll let you decide for yourself.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Sanju. It’s a consistently engaging film that makes its way to your heart even though the head frequently resists.