Rajkumar Hirani is the Bollywood film-maker with the Midas touch. Each of the four films he directed over the past decade and a half broke box-office records and won critical acclaim.
Hirani's new film "Sanju", which opens in cinemas on Friday, is expected to get the widest release for a Bollywood movie this year. The biopic on the troubled life of Sanjay Dutt, the leading man in Hirani's first two films, is a departure from the director's track record of comedies with a social message.
Hirani, 55, spoke to Reuters about the film, what makes a good biopic and whether "Sanju" redeems the actor who was jailed in a case linked to the 1993 Mumbai bombings.
Q: A huge part of your career overlaps with Sanjay Dutt's, especially the "Munnabhai" films. Was it difficult to maintain perspective while making "Sanju"?
A: Yes, I have done films with him, but I would never think of Sanju as someone who is a close buddy. He was an actor who worked on my film, we had a very cordial relationship with each other, but it was not that we were meeting for dinners or having a drink together. Sanju is friends with other people. He had a barrier, he would talk to me very carefully. So when we were working together, I didn’t know much about his life. Only what I had read or heard. It is only when I heard the stories I didn’t know that I got fascinated. And the fascination is not because I know him, but because I thought ‘somebody can have a life like that?’ Film-makers are greedy people - we want good stories and good subjects. This one just fell into my lap.
Q: We are seeing a lot of biopics these days in Bollywood. What do you think goes into the making of a good biopic?
A: Biopic is a different monster. Our initial attraction to the biopic comes from the anecdotes we hear, because when you are writing a fiction story, you might have a faint idea that this is your story, but the bigger battle is how to write your screenplay. How do you make every scene entertaining and engaging? With a biopic, every time you hear an anecdote and think this can be in the film. But anecdotes do not make a film. You have to have a spine, which drives the film till the end. That was a discovery I made with this film. Initially, yes, I did get attracted to all the anecdotes but as we were writing it, we realized it was not enough - we had to be able to string it all together.
See, most films are about achievers. You see a film like "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag" or "Dhoni". Even "Gandhi", or the biopic on Lincoln. They end in triumph, on a high. In Sanju's case, that does not happen. It was a far more trickier film to write than I imagined it to be. Let’s see, I hope people like it.
Q: Given that your subject has had a very eventful life, how did you decide what to include in the film? Do you brush over some life events?
A: You have to. Take any biopic, like Attenborough's "Gandhi". There is no mention of Gandhi’s personal life. There was huge drama in his personal life, like his relationship with his son, which they have completely ignored. Even in the events of the freedom struggle, they have compressed time, etc. Films have to find a way to compress many anecdotes into one, or many events into one. Otherwise there is no way to tell it in two and a half hours. You’ll have to make a Netflix series, or do a TV series that goes on for 100 episodes.
Q: When you are making these choices about events, what do you base them on? Does it have to do with the spine of the story that you spoke about earlier?
A: No, even before that, you have to decide which part of his life you wanted to focus on. In this case, I decided that what people need to know is his gun story, because it is important. If there is no gun story, there is no biopic. And his drug story. How after his first film, he got into drugs, and they thought he’d be dead, but he got out of it. These are two primary stories - everything else is in passing, to be honest. Whether it was his affairs or other things - many people have that. That’s not the story.
Q: The perception about Bollywood is that they tend to forgive their own easily, whereas outside, Sanjay Dutt is probably viewed as someone who committed a crime and got away far too easily as compared to a common man. Is there redemption for him in your film too?
A: First you tell me, how is this perception created? It is created by what is written about him, but all that writing is skimming over the surface. What has Sanjay Dutt done? First of all, I have not given him a clean chit - you’ll see that in the film. But what is his crime? That he kept a gun. Did he shoot anybody with the gun? Did he threaten, or kill anybody with the gun? Why did it all happen? What was the reason? That’s the story of the film, which you’ll discover.
Q: The one constant thing in all your films is that there is always a social message, a comment on a larger issue. Is that there in “Sanju” too?
A: Yes. But I cannot reveal it now.
Q: Can you give us an inkling?
A: See, there are primarily three things in this film. There is the father-son story, a friendship and one is a question mark. For the last one, you’ll have to see the film.
Q: Is that important to you? That your films always have to have a message?
A: No, but it happens. When you are writing a script, you are delving into your lives, and whatever your beliefs are, you go by that. But I don’t think as film-makers it is our responsibility that every time we make a film we should be saying something. If you are entertaining people, that’s more than enough.
Editing by Tony Tharakan. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.