For all the assurances from director Rajkumar Hirani that his biopic on Sanjay Dutt was not an attempt to redeem the troubled Bollywood actor, the first few minutes of "Sanju" dispel any such illusions.
In this 161-minute tribute to the actor who helped spark his film-making career, Hirani brushes under the carpet the less tidy aspects of Dutt’s life.
Dutt, the son of illustrious actors and part of a privileged Bollywood club, has always been given a long rope by the film industry, and Hirani only extends that rope. In the first scene, we see Dutt (played by Ranbir Kapoor) beating up a writer for an apparently erroneous comparison. A few scenes later, Dutt meets "world-famous biographer" Winnie (Anushka Sharma) at a museum, begging her to write his side of the story since the media always vilifies him.
Thus begin the many exaggerations and obfuscations in Hirani and Abhijat Joshi's screenplay. In the first half, we see the actor in a drug-addled haze, escaping from rehab, ruining his career and relationships before his father Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal) and friend Kamlesh (Vicky Kaushal) come to his rescue.
Until this point, “Sanju” is believable, if not completely honest. But when it omits Dutt’s failed marriages, his estranged daughter, and skips straight to his role in the 1993 Mumbai bombings, the film hurtles towards mediocrity.
Dutt, we are told, kept an AK-56 rifle because he feared for his life, something that he has maintained in court. But Hirani makes no mention of the hundreds of telephone calls Dutt made to mafia dons. Instead, we are treated to long scenes of his pitiable condition in prison and how the court case affected his father, but nothing about the hundreds killed or wounded in the blasts.
In one scene, we are told that the media and the public were against Dutt, and only political support could help him. The villain is the media, which Hirani blames for all of his hero's ills. The film ends with a rap song by Kapoor and Dutt, tearing newspapers and berating the media for ruining lives. Much like his pronouncements on education and religion in films such as "3 Idiots" and "PK", Hirani's comments on the media are simplistic, but it does give him the ideal fall guy for Dutt's troubles.
What makes “Sanju” bearable is Hirani’s leading man and his chameleon-like ability to transform himself into various avatars. Ranbir Kapoor is nothing short of brilliant in the film, but Vicky Kaushal almost steals the spotlight with a superb performance as Kamlesh. Paresh Rawal as Sunil Dutt is below par while the women in the film barely have anything to do.
“Sanju” is not a particularly engaging film because it stretches too long and resorts to melodrama over substance, but Bollywood also lost the opportunity to look at one of its own with a neutral lens and tell his story honestly.
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