Finally, a movie that made me feel something! This is not a perfect film, but it is thought-provoking, sincere, and effectively topical. So it is a good film. Last week with Aiyaary, I felt I needed to pad the review with more information but with this one, I’m wondering if I will be able to condense it all!
Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, Sanju follows the life and career of Bollywood scion and actor Sanjay Dutt, son of the legendary B-town stars Sunil Dutt and Nargis. It begins like Sanju’s acting career, in the 1980s. Sanju is a struggling actor, pushed into the industry by his father. Despite his parentage, he is not a natural in front of the camera and is already a bit of a rebel, smoking cigarettes with Zubin Mistry (Jim Sarbh) between takes (more on Mistry later). Just as Sanju is starting to find his screen presence the twin tragedies of the introduction of drugs and alcohol into his life and the revelation of his mother’s terminal illness act to throw him into years of addiction and grief. The first quarter of this film follows these wild and occasionally truly unbelievable years in Sanju’s life, in which he loses his mother, his first love, and a good chunk of his youth spent in rehab and homelessness. Somewhere in there his first film premieres, just days after the death of Nargis.
After a long stint in rehab, Sanju does manage to get clean with the support of his father and best friend that he met in New York, Kamlesh Kapasi (Vicky Kaushal). He embarks on a personal and professional re-birth. That is, until the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the Mumbai attacks of 1993. Long story short, Sunil Dutt is by this time an influential politician in addition to a celebrity and his efforts on behalf of the Muslim community make his family a target of extremists themselves. To protect the family, Sanju acquires a gun from men who would later be implicated in the infamous bombings of Mumbai. The discovery of this illegal firearm lands Sanju with a charge of terrorism and the most significant portion of the film follows his stints in and out of prison and his effort to clear his name by being tried on an arms charge rather than a terror one.
This film has a stellar cast. Ranbir Kapoor obviously put incredible effort into embodying Dutt. My concerns after seeing the promotions for the film that Kapoor would merely undertake a good mimicry did not come to fruition. Meanwhile, Paresh Rawal owns every scene he is in as the head of the Dutt family. He has some flaws in the beginning, but one would be forgiven for thinking this film was more a paean to Sunil Dutt than a biography of his son. Dia Mirza and Sonam Kapoor have smaller roles (in terms of screen time) as Sanju’s two primary loves (although his extensive romantic exploits are noted many times). Mirza’s character in particular feels like a well-rounded person despite her minimal screen time.
Unlike most Indian movies, Sanju has no love song to speak of. We do not see Sanju falling in love with Sonam’s Ruby or Dia’s Manyata. The most important woman in this movie is undoubtedly Nargis, Sanju’s mother, played by Manisha Koirala with incredible grace and liveliness. Unfortunately, all the women in this film are there either to dance on a pole or play the role of perfect woman. And the perfect woman sacrifices everything for Sanju, whether that means swallowing humiliation, hiding a debilitating illness, or smiling wryly at his inability not to flirt, though married. Even Anushka Sharma’s author is just the vehicle for Sanju to rehabilitate his image. The nuanced and two-sided relationships in Sanju’s life, as depicted in this film, are with his father and Kamlesh Kapasi. And poor Kamlesh takes the most abuse of all. He continually drops everything for a friend who, the first night they met, attempted to snort cocaine with him in a topless bar and got them chased by security guards. This is the extent of their friendship’s exposition. Kamlesh helps Sanju through his addiction, prevents him from committing suicide, and with minimal bitterness forgives his friend for bedding his girlfriend while he slept. This was the most irritating scene for me and the one where I really began to question whether I like Sanju, the person, at all. But we don’t have to like all our protagonists and Sanju really couldn’t care less what anyone thinks.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Sunil and Sanjay Dutt is what could have made or broken this film. Thanks to the performances, especially the incredible work of Pawal, this portrayal worked. (SPOILER ALERT). When Sunil ji passes, the movie is nothing short of heartbreaking. I will be thinking about the scenes that Kapoor and Rawal shared for a while.
Lastly, Sanju is a strongly anti-press movie. If somehow you missed that throughout the film, the credits song, “Baba Bolta Hai Bas Ho Gaya,” featuring Kapoor and the real Sanjay Dutt will leave you in no doubt that this movie hates reporters. Given the experience of the Dutt family, this is understandable and to be sure there are real issues with the modern 24-hour news cycle. But for me, the attacks on the press in general throughout this movie went so far as to be dangerous. In a political climate where any news that politicians don’t like is labelled as “fake” and journalists are under threat not to undermine the status quo of the powerful, we can not afford to have an industry in the dream business giving us all our information either. And let’s not forget that the Dutt family are privileged. Any negative attention that Sanju recieved did, on some level. result from his own recklessness and disregard for the law. At moments in the film, the effort to rehabilitate Sanjay Dutt in the public eye veered into hagiography. The Bollywood elite have a vested interest in defending one of their own and no qualms about using their own power over the public to influence opinion. Sanju inadvertently exhibits this when it shows the Indian public shifting from hate to love for the Dutt family overnight, simply because they liked Sanju’s film, Munna Bhai, MBBS.
Taken altogether, I did like what Hirani and Kapoor did with this movie. It has its issues for me but it is very, very far from the kind of superficially topical, ineffective, and juvenile movies that I have been inundated with lately. While watching Sanju, I laughed, teared up, shook my head, rolled my eyes, and even felt a bit like clapping. I would definitely recommend seeing it, because I want more people involved in the conversation that this movie could inspire.
Little Weird Things
- WHY did they put those strange, navy blue contacts on Anushka Sharma. They were distracting and just utterly unnecessary.
- I thought we would escape this movie without pointless, white backup dancers but, alas, ’twas not to be.
- There were a few moments that toed the line between dramatic and unintentionally funny. Like the time Sanju puts a toilet seat over Sonam Kapoor’s head.
- The filmmakers try and fail to pass off Australia as Southern California.
- Sanju’s prison allows him to have a radio show where he just muses on his personal life and the evils of the press over the prison loudspeakers for minutes on end. For a non-prisoner to hear this broadcast, they have to park their car close to the prison walls and tune into the right frequency rather than, you know, listen to the loudspeakers.
Other Good stuff
- JIM SARBH. This man proves yet again that he is a treasure of Hindi cinema as the drug peddler and the-devil-on-Sanju’s-shoulder. More Sarbh. Sarbh forever.
- This movie is long, but I didn’t feel like it dragged or should have ended sooner.
- The foreign (non-Indian) actors and extras were actually passably decent! Dancers aside.
- Thankfully, the movie didn’t spend much time doing insanely detailed re-creations of Dutt’s most famous scenes, as advertised.