‘Sanju’ review: A Question Mark of a Choice

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Life is a Cinema Hall rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)

We’re all living our present based on our choices of the past, and our future’s constantly being paved and repaved by our current, down-to-the-wire flowchart of decision markers we make and take. In the dramatized biopic Sanju, director Rajkumar Hirani makes no bones about his choices in how he wants portray actor Sanjay Dutt. With writer Abhijat Joshi, Hirani co-writes this inscape to bring into relief the purported choices—I desisted using the word alleged here—Dutt made in his life that caused all the turmoil and public lambaste that he and his family underwent.

Ranbir Kapoor, Dia MIrza- love is in the pair
Ranbir Kapoor, Dia Mirza: love is in the pair.

The movie opens with Sanjay Dutt (Ranbir Kapoor) going through his biography written by his appointed biographer (Piyush Mishra in a cameo), and what gets his goat is his being compared to Mahatma Gandhi. That’s to set the tone of Dutt’s expectations of how his story ought to be told. And here’s exactly where the movie sets itself on thin ice, and then carouses along, not looking back to see if the plot’s cracking or becoming an embarrassingly frappy ride to layer up its choice of the story arc. So you see Dutt being sentenced to jail for 5 years, given a month to surrender, and in the meantime scrambling with wife Manyata (Dia Mirza) to try and convince Winnie Diaz (Anushka Sharma, supposedly repping Hirani collating and tracking the story) to bring out his true biography.

Sonam, Ranbir Kapoor-love takes a backseat
Sonam, Ranbir Kapoor: love takes a backseat.

Winnie is approached by a mysterious Zubin Mistry (Jim Sarbh, sneering and hamming consistently as if Groucho Marx on a glucose overdose) who warns her of Dutt’s duplicitousness; which then reveals us the most critical information of the actor’s life—how many women he bedded. Hirani takes the movie into flashback cuts, and some of it is fun—the Rahul Dev Burman beauty, Kya Yahi Pyaar Hai’s shooting sequence for Rocky, Dutt’s debut movie directed by his father, the venerable Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal) is a hoot; while others cringe-worthy digressions, and lengthy ones at that, especially of how Dutt meets his BFF Kamlesh/Kamli (Vicky Kaushal) at the Sloane Hospital in New York, where Nargis Dutt (Manisha Koirala in, you guessed it, a cameo), fighting cancer, has slipped into a coma.

There are other subplots too, that involve Sanju’s girlfriend Ruby (Sonam Kapoor in a you-know-what role) and her family—Boman Irani as her father wasted in a ridiculous piece that wasn’t required, but only slapped on as if because the director wanted to show off his talented totem at any cost. And here’s the thing about Sanju. It is these digressions that don’t work at all. But it is also them that fill in for what’s missing as a result of the choice that Hirani makes—laying the brunt of all of Dutt’s choices on the big, bad world and the fourth estate, while not delving into what went behind—truly went behind—him making them. The scenes involving his trippy rides into cocaine, LSD, and a laundry list of drugs swivel between the chillingly dark to some amateurish green-screen special effects; while what could have been a noirish drama to tap into the actor’s dealings with the underworld that led to his arrest under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act is swept aside with a couple of lines of explanation that seem more like the defense counsel’s opening. Dutt’s time in jail opens disturbingly enough, but gives way to other plotlines—whereas his survival and introspection would’ve made for some powerful cinema. Hirani, however, aims to please and appease.

Ranbir Kapoor is the tour de force in Sanju.
Ranbir Kapoor is the tour de force in Sanju.

Which then means that he uses his usually delightful cinematic manipulations to engage you and work you emotionally. (As does he use the template background score that plays as if on cue—do you truly need a keyboard tremor to tell you it’s a funny scene, or a quivering violin to move you to tears?) It hit the mark in most of his movies, didn’t so much in PK, and here it’s strictly iffy. Where it does work is in most of the scenes involving  Dutt junior and senior—it gets off to a shaky start post the Rocky shooting scene, but later settles in with genuine warmth and affection, more so in the second half. The father-son relationship is moving, especially in a scene where the son speaks about his father’s role in making him what he is. When an offspring finally acknowledges to a parent all the sacrifices they’ve made, and that they can never actually be the person the parent was, it’s one of the truly purest joys old age can induce. And that is captured oh so beautifully in Sanju.

Paresh Rawal and Ranbir Kapoor invoke lyricists to keep going
Paresh Rawal and Ranbir Kapoor invoke lyricists to keep going.

Surprisingly, the women in Dutt’s life get hors d’oeuvre bits in the movie. For someone who was supposed to have had major trajectory pushes from them, this is another glaring gloss-over with all the female cameos, while his sisters are barely nodded at. But making this enterprise watchable are the three men—Vicky Kaushal is a winner all through, his act shimmering with genuine likeability and pain that only a true friend can reflect and feel. Here’s an actor who’s good at whatever comes his way, and here’s to more of him. Paresh Rawal, fortunately, doesn’t aim to ape the gentlemanly and eminently likeable Sunil Dutt, which makes him understated and gracefully calm. But at the helm of it all and the super-steamed boiler is Ranbir Kapoor, who opens with a slightly awkward act of imitating Sanjay Dutt, but then gets down to it with such a ferocious focus that you simply can’t distinguish the man and his role. Watch him in the bizarre drug-addled bathroom scene with Sonam and Vicky Kaushal; or when he’s reading his speech for his father; or how finely he gets Dutt’s angled gait without making it seem like an imitation game. This is Kapoor at his peak, fine-tuned with a combination of off-the-wagon madness and hunched-down maturity.

But Sanju doesn’t tell you much about what went inside Sanjay Dutt’s conflicted mind and how he weighed—or didn’t—the consequences of his actions. Director Hirani issues a carte blanche of a clean chit to his subject, ironically doing exactly what riles his hero in the opening scene. How you wish he’d chosen the power of the question mark instead.

Life is a Cinema Hall ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Sanju (2018) on IMDb

Movie data powered by IMDb

Sanju  is rated U/A Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s a strip club scene, some implied nudity, and drug use.

Director Rajkumar Hirani Running Time 2h 35min
Writers Rajkumar Hirani, Abhijat Joshi
Stars Ranbir Kapoor, Vicky Kaushal, Paresh Rawal
Genres  Biography, Drama

Watch the trailer of Sanju here:

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