The film is more clever than objective, with serious writing chops and sleight- of-hand filmmaking. In short, Sanju is often unabashedly manipulative. Yet, you get pulled in more than once, thanks to genuinely heartfelt portions and a wonderful leading performance.
If you’re looking for a balanced biopic, forget it. In case you’re looking for an entertainer with substance, this will do… if you can forgive the constant glorification of the subject.
The film begins with Sanjay Dutt in present time and takes us back to his first brush with drugs. It takes us through his troubled times, and shows us the grey shades to Sanjay’s character— his womanizing, lack of discipline at work, and his relationship with the underworld. But facts are often glossed over or ignored, and the film subtly shifts the responsibility of his actions to some outside force.
For example, the film tells us that a family crisis made Sanjay Dutt take drugs as a coping mechanism. However Sanjay Dutt has gone on record in a televised interview stating that he began taking drugs in college because it was the ‘in’ thing.
The biggest takeaways from the film are the moments between father and son. The son gets embroiled in one problematic situation after the other, with the father Sunil Dutt (played by Paresh Rawal) consistently stoic and baling him out— at times encouraging him to be resilient through music, and at other times, by sharing a drink.
Uncomfortable personal details like two broken marriages are avoided, with us seeing him in his current marriage with a devoted Manyata.
Which brings us to the casual sexism prevalent in this movie. This includes Sanjay sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend and then judging ‘her’ character, a “joke” referring to a man’s wife and daughter as “aapke ghar ka maal”. Another disturbing scene, an attempt at humour, is the jail’s barber merrily telling Sanjay Dutt how he killed his wife in violent detail and Sanjay recoiling in horror and refusing to get his hair cut from him. Curiously, Manyata Dutt is always shown wearing Indian clothes with the sindoor, while the lady in real life has a far more varied and modern wardrobe.
The ongoing gripe in the movie is about the media— how newsmakers lie and allegedly twist facts. In a wonderful scene, the film talks about how any lie can be printed in a newspaper headline as long as it ends with that little tool called the question mark. Sanjay Dutt, the film tells us, was a constant victim of that tool.
Showing him as a victim of circumstance does work intermittently in the film. You cannot help feel for the father who tries to help his troubled son; you genuinely feel for a young Sanjay when he is kept in solitary confinement for weeks in the most inhumane conditions.
Ranbir Kapoor gives it his all, and the performance is one of a kind! It’s not surprising that he even wore Sanjay Dutt’s perfume to prepare for this role. Rajkumar Hirani’s filmmaking expertise sparkles through the story, but he’s clearly besotted with his subject’s story and has already taken sides.
There is no doubt that Sanjay Dutt’s life has been an extraordinary one. In an interview this writer watched, he called himself ‘the chosen one’. Under Hirani’s direction, Sanjay’s story comes alive with all its emotions, tragedy, drama and that larger-than-life flavour. However, one gets the feeling that the film hasn’t told us all sides to the story, choosing only the parts that are palatable, sanitized and entertaining.
It’s still an extraordinary story and an immensely watchable film. A film about a superstar who flit between being a nayak and khalnayak, several times in his life.
Sonia Chopra is a critic, columnist and screenwriter with over 15 years of experience. She tweets on @soniachopra2