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Sanju lives up to our society’s compulsive need to sympathize with problematic men.

The film is the Koh-i-Noor from the Golconda of nepotism

Sanju lives up to our society’s compulsive need to sympathize with problematic men, and Bollywood’s need to go all out to make heroes out of them. Based on the life of a superstar son of two superstars, with the titular character being played by Ranbir Kapoor who is also a son (and grandson, nephew and cousin) of other superstars – the film is the Koh-i-Noor from the Golconda of nepotism. Thus, it’s no surprise that Sanju’s narrative is designed to be a series of justifications for Dutt’s behaviours –  whitewashing, to make us believe that Sanju is a just a misunderstood boy who’s actually very good at heart – establishing victimhood that excuses all of his crimes and ‘misdemeanours’. 

The inability of the plot to hold Sanju responsible for his actions makes it clear that it’s a movie for men, by a man and about a man.  His drug use is brushed off as a result of the following: Daddy issues – the first time he snorts cocaine is after getting scolded by his father; Nargis’ illness – the second time he does drugs (this time, LSD) is after he finds out about his mother’s cancer. The final blame is assigned to a lying drug peddling friend. The only merit of the film is that it portrays to some degree, the horrible effects of drug addiction. Just when you’re feeling sorry for him, a Chak de India style montage of his recovery follows to conscript the audience as cheerleaders. Sanjay is shown to be the best recovering addict in the rehab – literally winning the race as the ghost of Nargis, played by Manisha Koirala, cheers him on. 

In the second half of the movie, the notoriety that came with the Arms Act and TADA case is blamed on the media. It is the media that gives him a bad name, not his own actions. The fact that he was pally with the mafia, even after his conviction, is dealt with by telling us that he tolerates the goondas only because he’s scared of them. We are presented with a Big bad don and his men who threaten him when he refuses their invitation. But this is Bollywood, so Sanju manages to get them off his backs by – get this, winning their hearts with his honesty and courage. Meanwhile, Preity Zinta sits rolling her eyes. 

The movie’s biggest failing, however, was how it used the ignominy that comes with the ‘terrorist’ label to make us sympathize with Sanju.

Poor boy was taunted with ‘terrorist’, and his father with ‘terrorist ka baap’, which of course hurt them the most. There are actual men and boys in this country who spend their entire life in jails under false terror charges, and none of them is endearingly called ‘Baba’ by a nation of millions. Their names don’t sound anything like ‘Sanjay Dutt’, and they definitely don’t own sea-facing penthouses in Mumbai. Once labelled ‘terrorist’, they don’t get to dream and definitely don’t get live everybody’s dream of being a movie star. 

The audacity with which Hirani uses the fear of ‘mob violence’ to justify Sanju’s possession of an assault rifle and garner our sympathy for a privileged Bollywood superstar and son of an MP, is repulsive. Indian cinema has always dealt with serious issues in a self-serving and tone-deaf manner, the only rule that Sanju won’t break.

“Bad choices make good stories”, says Dia Mirza who plays Sanju’s wife, Manyata. But this film is not a good story. A good story would have shown the consequences of these bad choices that other people had to face. We don’t get to see that for anyone except for Sunil Dutt, played by Paresh Rawal.

I would have loved to see the strain that the drug addiction would have had on Sanju and Nargis’s relationship. Instead, her character has a grand total of four scenes, and she is reduced to being either a doting mother or a dying mother.

There is not even a mention of Dutt’s first and second marriage, or his daughter Trishala or what they would have gone through during the most troubling times. Priya Dutt’s character has 15 scenes and 1 line in the movie. Where is the story of Manyata who apparently has been the woman standing behind him through thick and thin and raising their children while he’s in and out of jail? 

Sanju is a glorified version of the tale of the prodigal son, one of the oldest in the book. We’ve been served at least a thousand versions of the tale, with Ranbir Kapoor starring in at least a dozen of them. I can bet that Salman Khan will get a biopic before we get to see a film on the life of Nargis – one of India’s most brilliant actresses with a life story more inspiring; or a biopic of Meena Kumari – the woman who went from supporting her family as a child actress to becoming the superstar ‘tragedy queen’(a label I hate) and an extremely accomplished Urdu poet; or Rekha or Madhubala or even Helen. But men hold the reins to all stories in this world, a world where women are only paid attention to when they have to remind the audience that Sanju has had sex with over 350 of them, “not counting the prostitutes”. And that’s the only moral takeaway from this film. 

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