A few years ago, Maanayata Dutt, Hindi film actor Sanjay Dutt’s wife, asked popular filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani to consider making a movie about the controversial star. Dutt’s life truly has the ingredients for a compelling biopic: an illustrious film pedigree, a public battle with drug addiction — and soon after being hailed as one of India’s biggest stars, being charged with terrorism and weapons possession (for which he served time in prison).
Hirani and writing partner Abhijat Joshi interviewed Dutt, which turned into many hours of conversation over multiple meetings. Hirani, who directed Dutt in three wildly successful films, agreed to make Sanju and asked actor Ranbir Kapoor to star in the title role. But how did a fascinating story about one of India’s most well-known film personalities, starring one of the most talented actors in the industry, become a haphazardly constructed, problematic and at times boring film? Take a look at the good, the bad, and the WTF! of Sanju.
Vicky Kaushal: As Kamlesh “Kamli” Kanhaiyalal Kapasi, Kaushal steals many scenes as a naive, Gujarati immigrant living in New York City who helps his catastrophe-prone friend avert disaster on more than a few occasions. Kaushal brings innocence and warmth to his character and in multiple scenes it feels like he’s the only actor in the film drawing from a genuine place.
Manisha Koirala: The talented beauty from ‘90s films such as 1942: A Love Story and Khamoshi is back in a mammoth project after many years. She plays Nargis Dutt, iconic actress and mother to Sanjay. There’s hardly any off-screen footage of Nargis to judge whether Koirala’s portrayal is accurate. But in her scenes, Koirala looks luminous. Her smile still lights up the frame, and it’s refreshing to see an actor whose face has not frozen or morphed with the help of medical science.
Music: “Main Badhiya Tu Bhi Badhiya” composed by Rohan-Rohan is quite the earworm. But don’t let the song’s jovial trailer fool you that all’s well. It shows a young Sanjay Dutt who found the confidence he’s been looking for by getting high on cocaine for the first time. A.R. Rahman’s “Ruby Ruby” is moody and brooding. While not Rahman’s most memorable work, it is perfect for a heartbroken, young Dutt walking the dark streets of Mumbai.
Vikram Montrose’s composition, “Kar Har Maidaan Fateh” is the film’s motivational fight song and has the most commercial appeal, and it will surely play at many Indian sporting events. In one of the few touching scenes in the film, Kapoor’s Sanjay imagines Koirala’s Nargis singing the song to him, which gives him the strength to continue drug rehab. Singer Shreya Ghoshal’s sweet voice works with Koirala’s portrayal. But having a powerful singer like Richa Sharma opposite the equally powerful voice of Sukhwinder Singh would’ve taken the song to another level.
Odd Casting: Actress Anushka Sharma is London-based journalist Winnie Diaz who agrees to interview Sanjay Dutt for his authorized biography. It’s puzzling that any accomplished actress, especially one who has worked with Hirani in a leading role, would agree to play this one-dimensional character. It’s not clear whether Sharma’s bright, blue-colored contact lenses, and light-colored wig are intended to imply she’s playing a white woman. Furthermore, her halfhearted attempted at an English accent is comical.
Actor Paresh Rawal plays Sanjay Dutt’s father, the late Sunil Dutt. Physically, Rawal looks and sounds nothing like Dutt nor does he exude the strength, warmth and personality for which the legendary actor was known. Special mention goes to the distracting, awful wigs both Rawal and Sharma wear.
Poor Writing: The narrative is confusing at times and many dialogues, simply put, are cheap. Multiple scenes rely solely on the audience laughing at Kamli’s pronunciation of English words with a thick Gujarati accent. The duo that wrote the hilarious 3 Idiots resort to Whatsapp-forwards-from-creepy-Indian-uncles style of humor.
There is an entire scene between Dutt and Ruby’s parents constructed with double-meaning dialogues at the expense of Ruby. The guys who made thought-provoking films like Lage Raho Munnabhai, 3 Idiots, and PK now seem to think misogyny is hilarious.
The screenplay even ditches logic when Dutt escapes in the middle of the rehab facility’s aerobics class, only to have him come running back to the class (after weeks) and join the class (mid-dance) and not skip a single step!
Ornamental (and missing) Women: Dutt’s younger sisters Namrata and Priya are shown in a few scenes but other than “Bhaiya!” (brother) have zero dialogues. Dutt’s first two wives, Richa Sharma and Rhea Pillai, aren’t even named. Nor is it even mentioned that Dutt was married to Maanayata Dutt. Kamli’s girlfriend, played by Karisma Tannna, has a couple lines to say, in an over the top Gujarati accent, before she’s bedded by Dutt. Sonam Kapoor who plays Dutt’s girlfriend Ruby, has two moods: elated and despondent.
#FakeNews: The final act of the film firmly focuses on terrorism charges against Dutt in connection with 1993’s fatal Bombay bombings, as well as weapons possession charges. Dutt is on a mission to clear the misunderstanding many Indians, and even his close friends, have about the accusations against him. He does so by blaming the media for making up false stories in pursuit of greater readership. Are viewers to believe that the courts and law enforcement took action solely based upon one news story he talks about in detail?
Ranbir Kapoor: Kapoor has earned the title of “Most Talented Actor of His Generation” with many phenomenal performances in such films as Rocket Singh Salesman of the Year, Barfi!, and Rockstar. Which is why his uneven portrayal of Sanjay Dutt, a role which reports suggest he worked diligently on, is nothing short of shocking.
There are shots where Kapoor resembles Dutt, and given his height, physicality, acting prowess and box-office draw, he is a natural choice. But Dutt’s mannerisms are so distinct that for many years he has been the go-to celebrity for stand-up comics to imitate. Sadly, in many scenes, especially in the portrayal of an older Dutt, Kapoor resorts to mimicry.
Background score: Scenes portraying Dutt’s womanizing, blatant disrespect to Ruby’s parents, and even drug abuse, use a comical background score, often associated with slapstick comedy, to lighten otherwise dark moments. This seems to be done so that Dutt appears as a mischievous man-child as opposed to an irresponsible individual who blames others for his poor decisions. Was the fear Sanju would turn into a grim film and not be deemed “entertaining”? The poor choice of score cheapens scenes and leaves little room for meaningful interactions.
Subtitles: The popular Indian street snack pani puri is translated as waffle. The classic Hindi film Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi is translated as Mary Poppins. Famous Maratha warrior Shivaji is translated as Santa Clause. These are a few of the odd subtitles spotted which are confusing, to those who do AND those who don’t understand Hindi.
During the end credits, the real Sanjay Dutt makes a special appearance and performs with Ranbir Kapoor to a song with a bevy of white women, who shimmy and shake around the duo (“Baba Bolta Hain Bas Ho Gaya”). Dutt sings how tired he is of the phony media and shows his displeasure to the audience. This tacky display is Dutt essentially giving his blessings to Sanju. And why wouldn’t he approve this story glorifying victimhood?
Ultimately, is the film part of an orchestrated public relations effort to improve Dutt’s image? Or is Hirani continuing his tradition of making films about flawed people who can better themselves once they’ve seen the light? If there is a hero in this entire scenario, it just might be Maanayata Dutt who may have helped her husband secure another career comeback.
Shivani cannot remember a time when she wasn’t madly in love with Indian cinema, which now inspires much of her writing. She lives in both New York City and Twitterpur at @Shivani510.