I love Sanjay Dutt. The cool Indian rockstar superstar with heart. An impossibly flawed hero who has failed many times, and repeatedly mustered up the strength to pick himself up, and face his demons.

No doubt the actor has been wed to trouble all his life. Yet he also showed up, every single time, bigger and better with rock-solid performances. After a confidently tentative debut in Rocky (1981) and the grounding comeback with Naam (1986), his graph has been consistent through the years with Saajan (1991), Sadak (1991), Khalnaayak (1993), Dushman (1998), Vaastav (1999), Mission Kashmir (2000), Kaante (2002), Munnabhai MBBS (2003), Parineeta (2005), Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) and PK (2014).

He is the king of bad personal choices, has worn his faults openly, like badges almost, and carelessly. Quite amazingly, he, or rather his wife Manyata, have now convinced an A-list director to tell his story, and an A-list actor to play him.

No mean feat this, specially since Rajkumar (Raju) Hirani is known for being discerning in his work, questioning the paradoxes in the social fabric of our society. No one else but Ranbir Kapoor could have played Sanjay Dutt. He is so flawless that I had to remind myself this is Ranbir, and not Sanjay in some of the scenes. Mannerisms, walk, tone of voice, unhinged addiction, emotions, awkward bait, the wild spirit… he absorbs all of it.

I couldn’t help but smile at the Nargis and Raj Kapoor connection. Her son and his grandson, decades after, creating magic in a different way. Genes in full glory to perfection, with hard work and practice thrown in for good measure. Ranbir rehearsed for six months, watched Sanjay’s videos, and called him before some important scenes to understand his exact emotion.

There is also the reality that unlike the reticent Salman Khan, who had a similar journey and went into ‘fix-it’ mode with good films and social work, Sanjay has been publicly emotional, vocal, and explicit about most details. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can access the whole story, which is well-documented and easily available. Sanjay’s legacy is complicated by celebrity parents, with his pampering mother Nargis, who adored him, and a strict father Sunil Dutt, who took him to task. How he was affected by her cancer, Rocky’s debut and instant stardom, drugs, rehabilitation, second comeback, success, superstar status, losing it again with the AK-56 possession, spiraling life, criminal history, court case, sentences, jail visits and returns, struggles, love affairs, marriages, friendships, family, feuds… all of it is there.

No doubt Sanju is heavily tilted towards the controversial actor’s perspective of not being a terrorist. At the same time, Raju unreservedly portrays his flaws. They appear twice as magnified on screen, despite the countless number of print and online pages devoted to him. Any director would have probably made five sequels off those. There’s just so much of the actor, and person. His survival story is unique, incredible and mind-boggling: a mammoth job to capture in words, or on screen.

Co-writer Abhijat Joshi and writer-editor-director Raju cleverly focus on Sanjay’s emotional state of mind, and his relationship with his father Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal, at his most poignant) and friend Kamlesh Kanhaiyalal Kapasi (Vicky Kaushal, first-rate), during two prominent, ugly phases – his drug addiction and gun possession. They chart Sanjay’s story from a biographer’s point of view (Winnie Diaz, sincerely played by Anushka Sharma) – directly addressing questions many of us have around those events. In that sense, the movie is revealing and relevant for both his fans, as well as others.

Where Sanju misses the mark is on the gun track. It rushes into completion – almost as if the duo didn’t want to delve into it. Perhaps he acquired the guns as impulsively as he did the drugs. It leaves out some relevant, crucial aspects, like his first foray in jail, camaraderie with inmates, and court appearances. Blame is placed on external factors such as the drug peddler Zubin Mistry (Jim Sarbh), incessant media hounding and the underworld pressure a tad too conveniently, which rankled. The sexist judgment of a woman’s morality, not cool. The drugs phase, failing relationship, and mother’s cancer degeneration parts were excellently portrayed and sad to watch. The father-son song games were warm and fuzzy – especially the last one.

Jim aces it but please, can someone cast him in a romantic role and do justice to those sexy eyes? Diya Mirza, who played Manyata was effective but miscast. (Perhaps Kangana Ranaut would have captured her fire and zing better?) The voyeur in me also felt cheated on the details of his colorful love life: understandably that doesn’t relate to the film’s narrative. The tiny appearances, of Ruby (Sonam Kapoor, superb and spot on) and Pinky (Karishma Tanna, charming), did whet some of that appetite. We all know Ruby, I am still trying to crack who the Pinky character is. Hmmm.

The songs are d… d… dazzling, with varied composers. Main Badhiya Tu Bhi Badhiya, voiced fabulously by duo Sonu Nigam and Sunidhi Chauhan, is all kinds of fun visually, with Ranbir’s version of crazy and Rohan-Rohan’s vintage music. Vikram Montrose creates the inspirational Kar Har Maidan Fateh (Sukhwinder Singh, Shreya Ghoshal) and fun surprise package Baba Bolta Hai Bas Ho Gaya (guess who appears in end credits, tap dancing with Ranbir). A. R. Rahman breezes in to work his musical magic with the richly evocative Ruby Ruby (Shaswat Singh, Poorvi Koutish) and seductively haunting Mujhe Chaand Pe Le Chalo (Nikhita Gandhi, awesomely come-hither).

Ravi Varman’s cinematography, which brings this emotional spectacle together, is superbly aesthetic; intimate, lively, and visually stunning.

Watching Sanjay Dutt’s life is moving in parts. The spotlight is on redemption, without an attempt to hide his faults. The movie entertains, but falls short on awesomeness.

So what’s the verdict? It’s definitely worth a trip to the cinema, especially for the Ranbir experience. Watching him in Sanju is a double treat. Two actors come alive on screen, and it is hard to tell who is better. Check, and double check.

Score: 4 out of 5

Sanju (2018). Director: Rajkumar Hirani. Writers: Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani. Players: Ranbir Kapoor, Diya Mirza, Vicky Kaushal, Paresh Rawal, Sonam Kapoor, Karishma Tanna. Music: AR Rahman, Rohan-Rohan and Vikram Montrose. Theatrical release: Vinod Chopra Films, Rajkumar Hirani Films.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.

 

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