Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan may have legendary careers and dizzying global fame, but there’s a good reason why, of all the living actors who could have been the subject of a Bollywood biopic, Sanjay Dutt, of all people, emerged as a viable option in the just-released “Sanju.” Son of iconic Mother India actress Nargis and actor, activist and politician Sunil Dutt (whose 30-year film career has been overshadowed by problems such as drug addiction, womanizing, terrorism charges and jail terms), Sanjay’s life contains tragedy, drama, crime and redemption in abundance; in short, he is the stuff of movies.
Given Sanjay’s widely publicized flaws, writer-director Rajkumar Hirani and co-writer Abhijat Joshi seem aware that it would be foolish to glorify Bollywood’s “bad boy” without qualms; indeed, in the first scene of “Sanju,” an outraged Sanjay (played with uncanny accuracy by Ranbir Kapoor) burns the book of a biographer who compares him to Gandhi. Soon after, his wife Manyata (Dia Mirza) assures him that they will find a writer who will tell his story honestly. “Bad decisions make good stories,” she says, “and you are the king of bad decisions.” When biographer Winnie Dias (Anushka Sharma) is skeptical of the project, she is quickly convinced of his commitment to “truths” – dwarfs and all – when he bluntly reveals to Manyata that the number of women he’s slept with is 350, “not counting prostitutes.”
It’s a strategic setup, presumably meant to convince us that despite the fact that Dutt practically commissioned Hirani and Joshi to write this script, “Sanju” is not meant to be a hagiography. But while the film doesn’t hide Sanjay’s tumultuous career, it’s clear by the end that Manyata’s words are the only fleeting sign of recognition that Sanjay is truly responsible.
As he recounts to Winnie the drug, alcohol, and crime-plagued chapters of his past, “Sanju” is presented as a record of his mistakes, but in a way that places the blame somewhere other than Sanjay himself. As Hirani portrays it, Sanjay’s addiction problems were triggered by the pain of his mother’s illness and a strained relationship with his father, and then fueled by his gun dealer (Jim Sarbh). Illegal gun possession linked to terrorist activity was the unfortunate result of poor counseling and self-protection, and his dubious public reputation was solely the work of the reckless media.
The justifications are especially disappointing coming from a filmmaker known for his ability to mix heartbreaking comedy and moments of tear-jerking melodrama with straightforward commentary; from criticizing the questionable ethics of India’s health care system in his 2003 directorial debut “Munna Bhai M. B.B.S” (which incidentally starred Dutt himself) to the problematic practice of idol worship in 2014’s “PK,” Hirani has built an extraordinarily successful career exposing institutional injustices and challenging social norms through witty and familiar material.
But both the humor and the criticism are too often misplaced here. In a dangerous, almost irresponsible move, given the current global conversation about sexual harassment, Hirani often ridicules Sanjay’s misogynistic behavior; the actor’s confession about his 300-plus sexual partners is met with laughter from both Manyata and Winnie, and when he casually sleeps with his best friend Kamlesh’s (Vicky Kaushal) girlfriend, the boys giggle at the prospect of Kamlesh doing the same in the future to be “even.”
And while the film displays a playful, almost indulgent “Sanju will be Sanju” attitude toward his womanizing behavior, it saves its (disproportionate) criticism for the media, which, if the film is to be believed, has been the biggest villain in this story for portraying Sanjay as a terrorist. There is even talk of “fake news” at one point, and if there is any doubt that the film blames the media for almost all of Sanjay’s suffering, it is dispelled by a final musical number in which Kapoor dances along with the real Dutt to lyrics that criticize headline-hungry journalists. While the criticism of sensationalist reporting is not entirely unfounded, it is considerably diminished by the absurdity of the song, not to mention the scantily clad dancers.