As Sanju opens, a chap called DN Tripathi reads aloud from a book he has written on Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt to the man himself. In that passage, Tripathi has drawn parallels between the lives of Bapu and Baba. It is a clever line to take in a hagiography since Bapu, of course, is the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi, Baba/Sanju Baba is Dutt’s nickname, and the actor’s most popular screen role till date has been of a modern-day Gandhi devotee. Far from being flattered by the comparison, Dutt is appalled and throws Tripathi out of the house.
Dutt/Baba is on the lookout for a biographer, you see, and what this interaction conveys is that he wants to tell the unadulterated, undiluted truth. The scene offers a precis of what Sanju wants you to believe it is: an honest account of a controversial star. The fact though is that this is one among many moments of insincerity in the film. Because Sanju, writer-editor-director Rajkumar Hirani’s biopic of Sanju Baba, is anything but honest.
Sanju is the story of Sanjay Dutt, Bollywood superstar, acclaimed actor, convicted criminal, son of the screen legend Nargis and the much-respected actor-activist-politician Sunil Dutt. The film skips Dutt Jr’s childhood and takes us through his work on his debut film, his mother’s illness, his rocky relationship with his father, his alcoholism and drug addiction, the allegations of involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, his arrest under the draconian and now lapsed TADA, the acquittal on terror charges and conviction under the Arms Act, his jailing and ultimate release.
Hirani does all this through a well-chosen narrative device: Sanjay Dutt trying to convince an acclaimed London-based biographer called Winnie Diaz to make him her next subject, while she parallelly investigates his claims about himself. The words are Dutt’s, but hey, they are all being verified by Diaz, so you gotta buy into them. Right?
Wrong. Abhijat Joshi and Hirani – who are credited with Sanju’s story, screenplay and dialogues – have cherrypicked facts and bathed their selectiveness in large doses of affectionate indulgence for their protagonist. For instance, we are told that Dutt acquired three AK-56 rifles and bullets without a licence out of fear for his Dad’s and his sisters’ safety following threats to Dutt Sr for his missionary work among Muslim riot victims in 1992-93 in Mumbai. This is a claim Dutt had made on the record in real life. However, the film fails to mention that he had also gone on the record to admit that he already owned three licensed firearms which, he reportedly told the police, he purchased because of his love for hunting. So why did he need any more weapons? (Note: he later withdrew the latter statement.)
Messrs Hirani and Joshi play this game throughout the film.
They are also wise in their choice of issues they do not whitewash. For instance, they make no bones about Dutt’s substance abuse, his sexual promiscuity, his unprofessionalism, his irresponsible behaviour towards his parents and colleagues, and his lies in these matters. But all this is portrayed in a cutesefied, comedified fashion to a fandom that has already forgiven him for these widely known facts anyway, each one carefully presented in such a manner as to elicit an “aww, cho chweet” reaction from us.
The object of the film is two-fold: to project Dutt as a misguided but well-intentioned man and all-round nice guy, and to scapegoat others for his failings. So yes, he was not committed to his work, but c’mon, what is bechara Baba to do when he is under so much strain to match his father’s greatness? So yes, he took drugs and alcohol, and no Ma’am, that was not okay, but c’mon, can you really blame Baba when his work stresses and personal traumas were compounded by that evil drug dealer who tricked him into addiction? Yes, he bought firearms, but did we not tell you it was because of his desire to protect his father and sisters, as any good Indian mard should? And yes of course slept with hundreds of women and treated them lightly, but that is sho funny and sho cute, na?
The most well-strategised choice of scapegoat is the media, which is skewered in the closing song featuring Ranbir Kapoor and the real Sanjay Dutt himself. For everything wrong that Baba has done, the buck stops at the door of the lying press, according to the lyrics of ‘Baba bolta hain bas ho gaya’. This is a stroke of propagandist genius, because vast sections of the Indian media are so disgraceful that it is tempting to cheer when a finger is pointed at them for anything, even if our disgust for media sensationalism is being used to quietly influence us into viewing a movie star’s misdemeanours, vices, crimes and contemptible qualities with fondness.
Other facets of Dutt that are conveniently papered over include his difficult relationship with his siblings – Priya and Namrata are marginal, virtually dialogueless characters in Sanju – and his misogynistic, patriarchal mindset. I guess because you cannot expect to drive an audience to tears over Baba’s wish to bachao his behnas if you point out that their equation is so troubled that when he married his current wife Manyata, sister Priya Dutt appeared not to be aware of the development till the media asked her for a reaction; or if you remind us that he once publicly snubbed Priya by famously telling a newspaper reporter: “There is only one Mr and Mrs Dutt of Pali Hill (in Mumbai), and that’s Maanyata and I. Girls who become part of a new family after marriage must assume their new surname and all the responsibilities that come with it.”
No doubt with the goal of painting this portrait of virtue, his first marriage to Richa Sharma, who died of cancer, is completely ignored. His second marriage finds no mention either. Manyata Dutt, on the other hand, is presented as his only pillar of strength once his father is gone and his best buddy leaves him.
How unfortunate that this should come from Hirani, creator of the brilliant Munnabhai films (both starring Dutt), in addition to 3 Idiots and PK, which, whatever their flaws may have been, had very relevant points to make.
This is not to say that Sanju is a lost cause. Initially, when its intent is not yet clear, it is often funny. There are several moving portions right through the film, interestingly all of them involving the late Sunil Dutt — perhaps because these are the only parts that come from a place of genuineness (Duttsaab, from every available account, was indeed a great human being, so the film is not lying about him) — and/or Baba’s friend Kamlesh Kanhaiyalal Kapasi.