Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Sonam Kapoor, Dia Mirza, Vicky Kaushal, Manisha Koirala, Paresh Rawal
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
Exasperated with the constant media badgering that he is subjected to, the real-life protagonist in Sanjudecides the only way he can hope to shed the tag of a ‘terrorist’ is by narrating his side of the story to a fictional biographer (Anushka Sharma). The latter isn’t too keen to take up the offer. The hero’s wife, Maanyata (Dia Mirza), steps in and throws her a bait: bad choices make good stories. Sanjay Dutt, on his part, promises to reveal the “totalsach“. But whether or not you take Sanju to be an account of the whole truth, it offers a thoroughly engaging probe into the life of a flawed individual who, grappling with the shadow of a towering figure of a father, believes “it is okay to be ordinary”.
Director and co-writer Rajkumar Hirani takes liberties with true events for the purpose of bolstering the film’s emotional appeal, but he does not let Sanju turn into a mere cinematic apologia for a temperamental movie star’s many indiscretions. Together with screenwriter Abhijat Joshi, he crafts an intelligent script that highlights the upheavals unleashed in Dutt’s life by drugs, alcohol, girls, guns and goons. The film is marked by both empathy and surprising bluntness.
It is but natural that a showbiz life less ordinary would yield high drama when it is placed at the heart of a Mumbai movie cast in the popular mould. But when the rollercoaster story in question is that of the life of an actor who has seen more than his fair share of personal and professional struggles in the course of a tumultuous career, it is bound to pack in moments of extraordinary power.
In this scenario, the risk of becoming a pulpy panegyric like MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, a brazenly falsified yarn like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag or a hurried whitewash job like Azhar is high. Grasp over pace, pitch and purpose is, therefore, of the essence. Sanju does not, for the most part, fall short on that count. Even in its more melodramatic scenes, where just a hint of manipulation creeps in, the film does not sputter out of control.
In his fifth film in a decade and a half, Rajkumar Hirani brings all his proven storytelling skills to bear upon his fictionalised but completely believable exploration of the real-life adventures of Sanjay Dutt, who became a drug addict even before his first film hit the screen in the early 1980s and, a decade and a bit later, dug a big legal hole for himself and his family owing to his ill-advised links with underworld elements in the period after the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots and subsequent Mumbai serial bomb blasts.
Ranbir Kapoor, slipping into the skin of the troubled Bollywood star, pulls out the stops in astonishingly effective ways, subsuming his own personality completely into that of the protagonist. The director is on the top of his game and the actor frequently soars to dizzying heights. Sanju, as a result, is an entertainer that delivers more than just the superficial goods that one expects from a mass entertainer. It sets a new benchmark for Bollywood biopics. It will be a hard act to follow.
The 160-minute film, which is essentially a touching father-son drama that also pays tribute to some of Hindi cinema’s greatest lyricists, glides through its busy, pulsating narrative without ever suffering anything akin to an ungainly wobble. Kapoor shines bright. That is actually an understatement. He dazzles us; he catches us unawares; and he sweeps us off our feet. In one word, he is luminous.
The other members of the principal cast are left scrambling to keep pace. Especially out of place is Paresh Rawal, bafflingly cast in the role of Sunil Dutt, an actor, director and politician who stood firm all his life in championing the cause of communal harmony. The veteran character actor’s presence introduces a false note. His exhortations to his wayward son would have rung truer had they been delivered by an actor less openly identified with a worldview that is at variance with that Sunil Dutt espoused in his political stint.
The pacifist father, committed to multiculturalism, is presented as the unwavering voice of reason and sanity and pitted against the unsavoury battles that the protagonist fights to ward off his inner demons and wriggle out of his serious brushes with the law. The old man cites songs penned by his favourite lyricists – he calls each of them his ustad – during his frequent pep talks to his son.
Sunil Dutt’s return to the big screen after a 12-year hiatus – in the role of the titular character’s father in Munnabhai M.B.B.S. – is woven into the Sanju metanarrative in which fiction and fact mingle seamlessly, the jadoo ki jhappi in Hirani’s first film, which was also a crucial turning point for a Sanjay Dutt on the mend, becoming a ‘real’ expression of unconditional love, paternal on the one hand, filial on the other.