Mayank Shekhar: In defence of Sanju (or not)
How Rajkumar Hirani excels in exploring emotions without burdening audiences with excessive depth
Actor Anushka Sharma plays director Rajkumar Hirani in Sanju. He's said so himself. She's an international bestselling writer, instead of a filmmaker, of course. Since Sanjay Dutt can't write, and generally people don't read books, as he puts it in the film, both Dutt and his wife chase down Sharma's character, who's reluctant throughout, so she can put out his own version of the truths of his life based on interviews held with him, and others, too.
Now if the film is indeed an authorised biopic, one would rightly assume the events taking place in it are all true, and therefore it appears, it took Dutt a lot of cajoling to get Hirani to film his version.
Is it a life well-lived/loved? Maybe that's not important. The fact that this is a film by Hirani, India's most commercially successful filmmaker, who miraculously enough remains an auteur, is more significant.
Drawing a distinction between Hindu mythology and other traditional canons, writer Devdutt Patnaik argues that while Greek/Roman mythology is essentially centred on a hero - a form of story-telling that continues to shape mass culture-the story that defines monotheistic religions, say Christianity/Bible for instance, are basically about God (or messenger of God) guiding his flock to the promised land. Hindu mythology follows neither pattern.
There are characters in them, often with flaws, going about their life. There is a lot of action, questions. The message, in multiples, is left for the reader to derive. Hirani's movies, right from Munnabhai MBBS (2003), seem to follow a similar axiom of discovery, rather than a 'hero's journey'. Sanju is not an exception.
Is it a film that must be watched? Lakhs of people have, and rightly so. For Hirani ensures that beyond whatever messages the audiences derive (or not) - with a lightness of being, and a strong sense of humour, they feel entertained first. And they always do.
There is a 'chicken soup for the soul' sort of homilies, often a hook-line, to take away. In the case of Sanju, a set of old, classic Bollywood songs - Duniya mein rehna hai toh kaam kar pyare; Kuch toh log kahenge -that can tide you through life's lows. They sound inspiring. I plan to listen to those lyrics more carefully.
Hirani is likely to chuck anything that comes between light-hearted entertainment and his audience. Why would a memoir of man-child Dutt interest a lot of people like me though? For the fact of him being the original rockstar, bedding hundreds of women (since rock-stars can), collecting guns, making friends with the mafia, getting into brawls, living it up on a fancy motorbike, while citizens of posh Pali Hill (many of whom became movie-stars later) observe him from a distance in awe? Maybe.
But more so to look inside a rich brat, floating in air (on drugs), vacant in disposition, only too happy to be consumed by evenings of nothingness. It's a trait Dutt shares with some people I know; and God knows, you and I have been through it ourselves. It's a complicated thing to explore. Or at least it would take away from the simplicities of shallow causal effect - dad scolded, mother unwell, friend fooled ya, took drugs, alcohol, destroyed the night.
Fine pieces of journalism that prides itself on distance, and semblances of objectivity, excel in investigating/revealing such complexities. No, I'm not going to crib about how journalists are shown in Sanju to be the tribe that did Dutt in - never mind that cringe-worthy music video in the end. News media is one of the few institutions left that can handle criticism of its own (and it should remain that way). My only grouse is that I've never seen a newspaper editor working out of a frickin' printing press!
Where does that leave Sanju? Wholly in the filmography/world of Hirani, who holds a super-power to stick to some basic emotions - dad-son, hero-buddy - without burdening the audience with excessive depth. He enchants them before the big screen equally by drawing out some of the most stellar, award-winning performances from actors Ranbir Kapoor and Vicky Kaushal. Yes, it is tough to be simple. It's also easy to tell why so many people liked the movie. It is what they walked in for. It is more or less what they got.
The filmmakers also never hid the fact that Sanju is a film that Sanjay Dutt participated in, and wanted made. As for whether or not he was "whitewashing" his story - whatever the hell one means by whitewashing? Even if sub-consciously, would you not - if it was your own version, of the truths, of your own life? Hell, yeah.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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