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Biopics are hardly ever one hundred percent truthful to history. No matter how honest the depiction, events are dramatically condensed or extrapolated for cinematic convenience, while people and their roles in the main character’s life are changed to suit the filmmaker’s storytelling preference.

Even if one accepts these rudimentary aspects of adaptation, director Rajkumar Hirani’s version of Sanjay Dutt’s life story in Sanju is still hogwash. Let me explain why.

Hirani, an expert of heartrending character-play and nimble-fingered satire, recreates Sanjay Dutt’s world into a place that suits his happy-go-lucky aesthetics. In doing so, Hirani and frequent co-writer Abhijat Joshi let key events and people slide into oblivion.

For instance: according to Sanju, Dutt’s first marriage to then-upcoming actress Richa Sharma never happened, nor do we see a reference to his second wife, model-and-actress Rhea Pillai. Dutt’s only on-screen wife is Manyata Dutt (played by Diya Mirza), a staunch pillar of support who doesn’t mind Dutt’s philandering past.

Sanju is the make-believe tale of a real person

Like his unmentioned wives, the story doesn’t feature his first child Trishala from Sharma. Dutt’s twins from Manyata are fleetingly shown because they help ground the portion of his life we are seeing. In the scope of the film, we see him as a family man who needs the audience’s empathy.

Other real people snipped away are his sisters Priya and Namrata Dutt (a young version of the two show up for a shot or two), and Namrata’s husband, actor Kumar Gaurav.

Hirani chooses to eliminate whatever he deems unnecessary, fixating solely on Dutt’s individual misfortunes. Framing the biography within three major events, the stories are delivered with motherly affection, where Dutt is always shown as a victim of emotion or circumstance — or, in a few cases, both.

Dutt’s bad habits — drugs, alcohol, womanising — play a vital role in the plot (how could they not, when most of Dutt’s life is about them). Some instances come off as powerful anecdotes. More than a few — no matter their gravity — are played off as innocent jests, because well, everyone (or more precisely, the makers) loves Sanju.

In one particular event, Dutt (in what I believe are his Saajan days) beds his best friend’s fiancée after coaxing her to put on a revealing nightgown. His friend Kamlesh (a central figure in this film), meanwhile, lies passed out in the next room, intoxicated by alcohol. The following morning Sanju casually tells Kamlesh about having a one-night stand with his fiancée, claiming that he had saved his friend from a wanton woman. This affair becomes the punchline of a weak joke that Hirani uses as a springboard for a few phony emotional moments.

Dutt’s indulgence with Mumbai’s underworld is also presented with a similar nonchalance. At times one feels like Hirani wants everyone to let Dutt off with a slap on the wrist. Nothing is ever actually Dutt’s fault, other than his weak will towards alcohol or drugs.

This filmmaking stance keeps Hirani away from exploiting a goldmine of material that would have resulted in a far more authentic cinematic experience.

Even with friendship handicapping most of his partiality (Hirani has worked with Dutt on Munna Bhai MBBS, its sequel and PK), the director makes some intelligent calls. His first good call is staying away from Dutt’s filmography and the rise and fall of his stardom, which we’ve seen firsthand. His second call is to surround Dutt with three stellar characters: his dad Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal), his friend Kamlesh (Vicky Kaushal) and a girlfriend from his adolescent days named Ruby (Sonam Kapoor).

The casting wastes Anushka Sharma who plays Winnie Diaz, a fictitious fact-seeking biographer hired to author Sanju’s life story with impartiality.

Rawal as Dutt Sr is an odd casting choice, regardless of the actor’s subtle, engaging performance. Manisha Koirala is mesmerising as Nargis, Dutt’s mother, nailing down the late actress’s mannerisms to a tee.

As Sanju, Ranbir Kapoor does more than mimic the real actor’s body language. In each sequence, Kapoor’s transformations manifest Dutt’s troubled physical and mental states, hypnotising the audience into believing that they are seeing the real Sanjay Dutt, and not a doppelganger playing a part for award season glory.

Speaking of which — I would be surprised if Kapoor loses out on any awards this year; he is simply that mind-bogglingly good.

Now, if only Hirani had been as good with his take on Sanju’s life.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 8th, 2018

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