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Sanju: The Master Manipulator returns

By Sreehari Nair
Last updated on: July 05, 2018 13:57 IST
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'In Sanju, Rajkumar Hirani has essentially found a Rajkumar Hirani story buried inside Sanjay Dutt's life.'
'Now if you think that's scary, sample the alternative: Perhaps Sanjay Dutt had been living his life to suit the narrative of a Rajkumar Hirani film,' says Sreehari Nair.

IMAGE: Sanjay Dutt and Ranbir Kapoor in a promotion for Sanju.

For all those sermons about non-violence, Rajkumar Hirani's movies are pretty hot on ideas such as revenge and comeback.

Think about it: No Hirani hero has ever earned his badge without giving it to the inflexible, the unscrupulous, the cold-hearted, and the corrupt.

Rajkumar Hirani may want you to believe that he makes human dramas, but a careful look at the most prominent arc in his movies and you can surmise: The man makes his own versions of the revenge drama.

A Sriram Raghavan may outwardly set out to make revenge dramas, but because he cares for each body that's disposed of and for every ego that's bruised along the way, what he ends up crafting are great human dramas. (That said, Bloody Raghavan would never preach to you the futility of violence).

Rajkumar Hirani sees the world primarily in terms of somebody triumphing over somebody else. And in his continuing pursuit of remaking the world to suit his pet narrative, what he overlooks is the 'human dimension' of his characters.

Now this may have seemed like a harmless artistic choice for the sanitised ideas Hirani has pursued thus far (Even the most violent person walks out of Lage Raho Munna Bhai accepting its message of pacifism), but when it shows up in his latest work, Sanju, this creation of polar positions for 'Good' and 'Bad' hits you like an act of fraudulence -- a deceit so obvious that it makes the movie play out like an abridged version of a poorly written book.


IMAGE: Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir in Sanju.

In Sanju, Rajkumar Hirani has essentially found a Rajkumar Hirani story buried inside Sanjay Dutt's life.

Now if you think that's scary, sample the alternative: Perhaps Sanjay Dutt had been living his life to suit the narrative of a Rajkumar Hirani film.

But this time, Hirani isn't getting off lightly; and that's because there are no Lucky Singhs or Asthanas or Sahastrabuddhes 'evil enough' to atone for Sanjay Dutt's problems.

Sure Hirani slides in easy templates wherever he can.

Sanjay Dutt's drug addiction is attributed solely to a sibilant, Groucho Marx-resembling Parsi character.

Dutt's diminishing public image is credited to the editor of a flimsy magazine.

These are the usual bad guys that populate a Hirani film and they are treated with the usual Hirani scorn.

But Dutt's problems are anything but Hirani-esque; they, in fact, border on the existential.

And Hirani's response to this new form of character crisis is merely to expand the battlefield: It's Poor Sanju Baba Vs a World that's Evil.

Nobody goes to a Rajkumar Hirani film to get their daily dose of guilt (Has Hirani's bad guys ever reminded you of any real person let alone evoked self-comparison?).

And so, this time, when Hirani gets his finger wagging in all possible directions, it's bound to make at least a few loyalists uncomfortable.

His prognosis: You guys are as much to blame for Sanjay Dutt's miseries as anybody (for isn't the 'public' the biggest stakeholder in the Media Ecosystem that the film tries to run down?).

The sweet Rajkumar Hirani, who turns into an avenging angel when telling his stories, gets so caught up in all that finger pointing that he fails to even remotely touch upon that aspect of Dutt which makes his story so compelling.

Sanjay Dutt is a problem child, sure, but what he's most prone to is self-flagellation: If he can't return to his old problems, he will invent fresh ones.

It's this particular facet of his subject that lies outside Rajkumar Hirani's comprehension and his artistic approach.

What we needed here were the services of a film-maker who could see beyond the 'wild, interesting, emotional stories of Sanjay Dutt's life.'

What we needed was a film-maker who possessed the psychological acuity to investigate into the core of Dutt's personality that made possible his shenanigans.

Take, for example, the big confession.

Here, I am ready to give Dutt the benefit of doubt: Maybe he did keep an AK-56 to 'protect his family.'

But as an artist jotting down that testimony as plain truth, you are also obliged to look at the delusion that accompanies the act: Even when it came to keeping a weapon for protection, Dutt could not think of anything less than an assault rifle!

This fact, and this fact alone, tells you so much about Sanjay Dutt and about the specific personality-type that he represents.

It tells you about his kind of innocence -- which is both childish and in its childishness also immensely destructive (Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's killer, was this sort of a 'dangerous innocent').

It makes one wonder: Was 'protection' Dutt's excuse to himself; his justification for the excitement he felt as the proud owner of an AK-56?

The absolute reality of the AK-56 episode was that Sanjay Dutt wasn't acting rationally there: He was just responding intuitively to his darkest impulses.

And understanding all this called for someone who has both a sense of justice and a great command over violent techniques.

Saints, Generals, and Martin Scorsese have it but not Hirani, the cleanest of avengers: He simply rationalises everything that Dutt did!

Critics who are accusing Hirani of whitewashing are, I think, acting out of character. It isn't whitewashing as much as force-fitting your sensibility to a story that demanded something entirely different.

The bare fact here is that if Dutt, when narrating his life-story, hadn't justified his misdemeanors; if he hadn't pitched himself as the big champ who proved his detractors wrong; if he hadn't projected himself as the man who had everything, lost it, and then got it back -- Rajkumar Hirani would not have felt that this was a story worth telling.

Ranbir and Paresh Rawal in Sanju.

I have never been a Hirani fan and so I didn't think of Sanju as a career low as much as a film that strongly brought out the problems in his artistic sensibility (and possibly in his worldview).

Hirani works very hard on his movies, but he works hard to get you to react a certain way.

And if you felt this exploitation for the first time in Sanju, well, perhaps the growing up process has just begun!

At his best, Hirani is a Master Manipulator and at his worst, he drops the adjective.

His strength may be that he makes philosophers out of backbenchers. (This is also why he's not a total bore).

In Hirani's films, all the virtuousness is given to the backbenchers, the foul-mouthed, the trouble-makers and the oddballs; while the front-benchers and teachers are made stiff-necked and starchy.

There's an authority-hating part in each one of us, and it's to this part that Hirani's formula speaks.

When this Master Manipulator is racing, he moves you at the most obvious places and by delivering the shamelessly sentimental like an artful turn of phrase.

In Sanju, I did choke up on that bit in Sanjay Dutt's speech where you are led to expect a Thank You Dad, but what you get instead is the prodigal son pulling out his gut and laying it out before his father -- all in one line: "You deserved a better son," says Dutt Jr to Sunil Dutt.

That scene is manipulation -- but masterful manipulation because it's not dependent on Paresh Rawal's performance as Sunil Dutt (a cursory one), but pulled out from our image of the real Sunil Dutt -- a man who went about his duties tirelessly and without registering as much even a murmur.

And again, it's a line delivered by a 'backbencher,' and so the virtuous nature of the acknowledgment is easy on the taste.

In that scene and every scene he appears, Ranbir Kapoor seems to be channeling Hirani's version of Sanjay Dutt (which essentially is Sanjay Dutt turned into his graphic novel avatar).

When he occupies a frame, without moving much, Kapoor nails whatever phase of Dutt it is that he's portraying (like, say, Dutt 1993).

However, when he moves, Ranbir Kapoor's natural fluidity and his 'particular brand of grace' starts anointing the character he's playing.

IMAGE: Ranbir Kapoor and Vicky Kaushal in Sanju.

In terms of finding an axis and never leaving it, Sanju is, however, a Sancho Panza movie than a Don Quixote movie.

And Vicky Kaushal's Kamlesh is an outstanding turn because despite being dished out in razor slices, it still emerges as a great, broad, grand Hirani movie performance.

Kaushal is perhaps one of the very few actors we have who knows how to use his teeth -- and he uses them often to convey the dramatic truth of a scene.

The man's a star and may his pearly whites shine bright, always!

In the presence of men like Kamlesh and Dutt, the women in Sanju lose all personality. (If you are careful, you can notice Sanjay Dutt's sisters hanging by the edge of certain frames).

It's not entirely a deficiency in Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi that their women are so outlinish -- I don't think Hirani or Joshi are, as such, interested in the world of women.

The men in their films spend their time playing with each other's gonads or 'mooning each other'-- you know, the view of fun that boys develop in the locker rooms of boarding schools.

After they have pleasured each other in such ways, Hirani and Joshi's men then 'talk' about what they 'might do' to a woman.


If you really want to corner Hirani and Joshi over the portrayal of women in their movies, don't drive that #MeToo Nail into their bodies -- for all you know, they might make their next Munnabhai movie on the topic of 'Women Empowerment' and beat you at your own game.

The problem, as I see it, is more artistic: You don't get any semblance of a real man-woman relationship, or even a fleeting view of how women behave in each other's company, when you watch a Hirani and Joshi project.

IMAGE: Anushka Sharma in Sanju.

Their lack of curiosity for women is almost inartistic.

Anushka Sharma's 'World's Best Biographer' character shedding a tear for Sanjay Dutt's crappy my-drug-dealer-did-me-in story is subjugation enough for strong-minded women, worldwide!

But try saying all this to Rajkumar Hirani, and he'll probably shut you up with a, "Hey! I had a story to tell."

And yet, it's this penchant for neat, well-oiled, well-tooled, three-act stories that a rapidly evolving Indian movie-watching audience may see as the single-most problematic feature of Raju Hirani's films.

We've had political parties and their marketing machinery approach us with such 'yarns' and 'arcs' and their failure to see their narratives through may have led us to expect a little more than just 'Stories' from our mediums of mass entertainment.

The Indian movie-watching audience isn't quite as innocent as it was about three years back.

And Hirani and Joshi's LCD (Laugh Cry Drama) Principle, where character development and psychological tautness are all considered okay to be compromised as long as Entertainment is delivered in huge dollops, scene after scene, may not be the right principle to seduce an art-literate Indian audience of 2018.

IMAGE: Director Rajkumar Hirani and Writer Abhijat Joshi. Photograph: Pradeep Bandekar

At a MAMI event featuring Hirani and Abhijat Joshi, an audience member had raised, what I thought was a very valid quibble.

His question was the following: "Do you guys find yourself doing enough exploration toward the thought that let us not conclude for the audience; let us not tell them what's right or wrong?"

To this Abhijat Joshi had replied, "What if we leave this answer inconclusive?"

The shrill laughter that that reply elicited from the panel made me hate everyone on that stage at least momentarily.

Joshi may have skirted the question with a seemingly witty remark (and topped it with a quote from Bosley Crowther -- the phoniest of movie critics), but the question raises itself again with greater vigour through the many problems in Sanju.

Does this thinking for the audience nourish the audience in any meaningful way?

Rajkumar Hirani takes all such questions as a sign of the cynicism our times. Such questions, he believes, only show that we're not in touch, anymore, with the 'child in us.'

But that's yet another easy conclusion: That there's only one kind of child in this world -- and that he's angelic, cherubic, and easily woo-able.

In reality though, not every child falls for temptation; most are trained to politely turn down strangers who approach them with 'sweets.'

Surely children are smarter than we think, but what do we do about those adults who are queuing up for their candies at the ticket counters?

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Sreehari Nair in Mumbai