Tejas Nair | June 29, 2018
Rating – 7/10
A mix of melodrama, pure comedy, and light suspense is the recipe for a film that has what I like to call the “Hirani effect”. The last four films of filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani all have the characteristics of this effect, which makes it look like a burden here in Sanju, a comedy drama that is not a biopic at all, as even the lead character laments in the final minute of the film.
Long-time collaborators writers Abhijat Joshi and Hirani’s main guy Ranbir Kapoor fires up the story of Sanju as he plays Sanjay Dutt, the real-life Bollywood actor who rose to fame with his macho looks and deadpan acting in the early 80s while simultaneously abusing nearly every intoxicating substance on Earth and all that comes with it psychedelically, and then spiral to a period of disgrace because of it and some naughty connections thanks to his adolescence. Hirani’s film is more about his attempt from his rise from this disgrace, which Kapoor experiences second-hand through simple imprisonment, unparalleled debauchery, a strong friendship (Vicky Kaushal), and emotional suspension from his father Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal). Although Sanju is about Kapoor’s Dutt portrayal to showcase his calamitous life through the lens of a comedy and I-like-to-play-safe man like Hirani, it is about nearly everything that you can witness in a modern Hindi film. Except it does not qualify as a biographical drama because of a large number of broken pieces, hagiographical undertones reminiscent of other similar attempts at biopics in Bollywood, and convenient storytelling.
Sanju is high on entertainment as Joshi and Hirani bring about a captivating appeal and unnecessary and undeserved hyperbole to Dutt’s ordinary story. The use of melodrama, as previously observed in director Hirani’s P.K. (2014), uplifts the film’s quotient as it competes with the speed of light to get to the point while making you laugh. At least in the first act where Dutt fools around snorting charlie and delivering sexual innuendos to his girlfriend’s shocked parents in the middle of a night. It’s almost like smoke and mirrors, the concept that Donald Glover recently applied in a music video of his to hide the real issues by resorting to tomfoolery. The montages of trance, with correct use of computer-generated video effects and strengthened by Kapoor’s over-the-top performance, brings out a smooth flow of the narrative in the first half. There is enough comedy here that conveniently diverts the focus from Dutt and instead puts it on his parents, especially his mother (Manisha Koirala), and the most solid character in the film, his friend Kamlesh, played with magic and reverence by Kaushal, who last impressed me in Netflix’s Love Per Square Foot (2017) directed by the talented Anand Tiwari. Yet, the Hirani effect is in full show as hummable songs appear out of nowhere to enable the non-fastidious storytelling.
Hirani is a master of comedy and drama, but he is incapable of separating them. As a result, you will find yourself absorbed in the humor that he makes his characters create and then shuts the door. Even if you try, there is no escaping from his effect, which he flips flops using comedy and drama at the right time, and which you will experience in the second half. After inviting you into Dutt’s fun-filled life, Hirani shoots you in the leg and then asks you not to cry. You may not empathize with Dutt as he uncontrollably engages in hedonism to the point of drug addiction and sex addiction, with the latter conveniently etched out, but you will be enthralled by Hirani’s treatment of family issues. Especially Dutt’s relationships with his father and his close friend, which take precedence throughout the film. Therefore, even if I cannot call Sanju a biopic, it still excels in picking out certain phases of the man’s life, add melody and histrionics to them, and serve with hot sauce ready for consumption. It is a film about everything, I should reiterate, where Kapoor can be seen running, jumping, dancing, and doing whatnot like our dear friend Forrest Gump did in Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 slice of life. There’s no comparison.
Despite that, Sanju has been made like a story coated with loads of jesting, much like the Munnabhai series, starring the subject of this film himself. More than a decade after the second film released in that series, and today it is largely remembered as a comedy. Same could happen to Sanju had it been not the change in the proportion of the ingredients of the recipe. Thanks to the talented actors who know what they are doing and the purported attempt at emotionally tugging at the audience with sentimental story arcs and cheesy dialogues, it stays afloat like Dutt does using intoxication.
Hirani also does not waste too much time going over the specifics. Dutt is married to Maanyata (Dia Mirza), but you see her hardly 3-4 times in the film, either smiling or crying while not looking at the camera. Anushka Sharma is an oversmart biographer who has investigative superpowers but seems to be still hungover from her ecstatic performance in P.K. It also looks like that Hirani’s own Munnabhai M.B.B.S. (2003) was the only successful film that Dutt did in his lifetime. The broken pieces may have attached reasons, but they still rob the film of its essential quality that would make it a biopic.
Kapoor is brilliant at his exaggerated portrayal of an unusual man with a crooked gait and life, but Kaushal steals the limelight by all means. Kapoor’s efforts at suiting up as this rough-and-tough guy are laudable, but he is funny more than he should be, or at least what we can perceive from his dispositions as a man who has courage enough to load up assault rifles in his car. The nuances are visible, especially during the drug sequences, but I cannot call it extraordinary much like how I cannot credit Sonam Kapoor’s appearance as anything. Kaushal, on the other hand, who we saw more recently in Meghna Gulzar’s terrific spy drama Raazi (2018), plays life with absolute finesse, maintaining his language, his dialect, his appearance to fully align with the character that he is. If this were a usual drama film where the actors are not competing with Kapoor, Kaushal would win the award hands down, and Rawal would fail to come in second. He plays Sanjay Dutt with dull conviction and still manages to bring out the tears. Koirala supports him for some time, but I am happier that she finally could find a classier role than a mopey mom in the 2017 Sunaina Bhatnagar directorial blunder. Jim Sarbh comes in second, through his ultra-hip performance as Dutt’s other friend who helps him go down the road of a drug addict. I am still surprised at his ability to pull off the lisp-like talking style, that even Sharma wouldn’t be able to pull off with another lip job if she tried. Almost makes me wonder where he was all these years when we wanted a guy to play subtle torchbearers of evil.
Sanju is a film with missing pieces, which the makers try to fill by taking you back to the Bollywood of the 70s and 80s. The old songs playing in tandem with emotional scenes are the height of the Hirani effect, despite the film having A R Rahman’s oldie songs, and a remarkable pumping number “Kar Har Maidaan Fateh” sung with otherworldly energy by Sukhwinder Singh. A tearjerking second half further makes you forget about the pieces as well as the poor product placements of at least two brands. There is a lot going on between the lines. Unfortunately, they are not the parts that are missing from this ambitious biopic that reeks of conflict of interest. Nonetheless, it still is a well-crafted film that has a very high entertainment quotient as a standalone story about “a father and son”. Just don’t believe everything you see.
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