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The Last Anti-Hero: Sanjay Dutt in Life and Art

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Can we expect objectivity from an industry that has always made excuses for India’s most polarising star?

How do you respond when the country’s top filmmaker offers you the role of a lifetime? Well, if you’re Ranbir Kapoor you turn it down via text message.

That’s basically what happened when Rajkumar Hirani, writer-director of the Munnabhai films, 3 Idiots, and PK, sent the 35-year-old actor a message, roughly three years ago, asking him to meet for a film he was planning to make. Ranbir, who Hirani subsequently discovered is “pretty aware of what’s going on in the industry at any given time”, had a fair idea of what the director and his writing partner Abhijat Joshi had been working on. He responded to Hirani’s request for a meeting saying he’d be happy to, but added, according to the filmmaker, “that ‘I hope it’s not [about] the Sanjay Dutt movie’.”

For someone reluctant to take the job (“I was wary. How do you make a biopic on an actor who’s still so relevant today; who’s such a superstar, and who’s still working in movies?”), Ranbir admits he didn’t have to be convinced too hard to change his mind. Although he was already familiar with many of the incidents and stories from Dutt’s life, he says it was the tone of the script, and the manner in which Hirani and Joshi were weaving these stories into the narrative that sold him on the project.

It’s that very tone which has raised many eyebrows since the trailer of Sanju went public. No one expects a critical portrait of the controversial movie star from the director whose two films played a big role in his career reinvention. But many, particularly on social media, have complained about what appears to be an especially sympathetic take on Dutt’s chequered life story—which includes, among other things, a debilitating addiction to hard drugs, two failed marriages, estrangement from his first-born, and possession of firearms linked to the 1993 Bombay blasts case which led to a protracted court case and jail term.

It’s easy to see why Dutt’s life would appear fascinating to a storyteller. But Sanju is not a PR exercise to whitewash the 58-year-old star’s controversial image, the makers insist. “Our greed as storytellers is always and only for a good idea,” Hirani explains. “When we decided there was something here that could make for an interesting film—after we’d spent weeks listening to Sanju narrate those anecdotes and those stories—we went back to him and made it clear that we were not interested in making a movie that would glorify him. We said we would only do this film if we could use everything.” By that they meant the drugs, the women, and the guns. Hirani says Dutt agreed: “He didn’t ask for the script; he still hasn’t read it. And he hasn’t seen the film.”

We’re showing the human side of him; not the film star or icon side. If you feel him, you’ll have empathy for him. Now whether sympathy comes, I don’t know. But empathy, yes” - Ranbir Kapoor

But it’s evident that Hirani, who is arguably one of Bollywood’s most respected film directors, is rankled that this question comes up repeatedly. To drive home the point, he stresses that there was no reason for him to make that kind of film. “As I often say, achchi kat rahi hai,” he laughs, a tad awkwardly, famously uncomfortable blowing his own trumpet. “If one is down in the dumps, one might say, ‘Okay, whatever comes my way, I’ll do it.’ But there was no desperation. We could’ve just made another Munnabhai film.”

Joshi jumps in to emphasise the point. “Our only reason for making this film was because it was so intriguing and amazing. It had all the warmth and the depth and the humour of a typical Rajkumar Hirani film,” he maintains, adding that “Salimsaab (veteran screenwriter Salim Khan) had once told us that koi bhi film banaane ka ek hi reason hona chahiye—ki ussmein ek idea hoga jo kamaal ka hoga. And this story had that.”

Neither Joshi nor Hirani expressly spell it out, but it would seem that the ‘kamaal ka idea’ here is the fact that Dutt’s is ultimately a baffling survival story. Ranbir, whose family has shared a close friendship with the Dutts over many years, says he grew up listening to ‘the legend of Sanjay Dutt’ from friends, from industry folk, and from practically everyone he knew. By the time he was older, Dutt had become something of a mythical figure for the young actor.

Given the rollercoaster life Dutt has led, Ranbir jokes that he frequently refers to this film as science fiction. “For me as an actor, going into this movie, I had to keep reminding myself that all this actually happened. Because [conventional wisdom says] it’s not possible to constantly make mistakes, fall down, and rise. It’s the story of a fallen man who kept rising. A man who kept getting into trouble, making mistakes, owning up to it, and only rising.”

Mention the fact that there’s a dissonance between the way Bollywood at large and the bulk of the Indian public views Dutt and his life, and Ranbir is circumspect about sharing his precise thoughts. He listens attentively as you point out how the industry has been repeatedly forgiving of ‘Baba’ (as Dutt is affectionately referred to by virtually everyone), rallying around him each time his actions appeared to catch up with him, dismissing his ‘misdeeds’ as the result of his ‘immaturity’. “Industry ka bachcha hai,” they will say. To so many others, however, men like Sanjay Dutt, and Salman Khan for that matter—perceived as ‘bad boys’ who got off lightly perhaps for their connections or their stardom—are symbolic of the larger malaise that is entitlement.

The most amazing thing about Ranbir is that you can’t see his process. He’s constantly striving to get things out of you. Very casually he’s around, just trying to pick up things” - Rajkumar Hirani

Ranbir mumbles that he hasn’t given these things much thought. “It’s not for me to judge whether [Dutt] got off easily, or perhaps paid the price for being a celebrity,” he says. While the script became the starting point for his preparation to play the role, Ranbir has admitted that he drew heavily on his own understanding of Dutt, who had gone on to become a friend “or an older brother of sorts” over the years. “He’s the cool uncle every boy wants; that friend of your parents who makes an effort to have an entirely separate relationship with you,” says a friend of Ranbir, explaining the equation the two men share.

Ranbir has often said that although he’d met Dutt when he was younger, it wasn’t until he was preparing to make his own acting debut that he came into the Munnabhai star’s orbit. He briefly trained at Dutt’s personal gym when he was getting into shape for Saawariya. He frequently accompanied Dutt on late-night drives in whatever fancy set of wheels the senior star had just acquired. On one birthday not long ago, he received a Harley Davidson motorbike as a gift from Dutt, which Ranbir has admitted he had to hide from his own father for weeks. When Rishi Kapoor discovered the bike, the famously volatile actor promptly called up Dutt and tore into him. “Stop spoiling my son. Isse tu apne jaise mat bana,” Kapoor Sr told Dutt, as Ranbir has recounted.

big part of Sanju reportedly focuses on the relationship between Sanjay Dutt and his father, the late movie legend and Congress Party member Sunil Dutt. It’s a well- known fact that Duttsaab (as Sunil Dutt was respectfully referred to by practically everyone) stood firm as a rock by his son’s side as he struggled to kick his drug addiction, and rallied over years for his son’s acquittal in the Bombay blasts case. Father and son last appeared together on screen in Hirani’s own Munnabhai MBBS, and an emotional scene from that movie has been recreated in Sanju between Ranbir and Paresh Rawal, who plays the senior Dutt.

Ranbir says that although the circumstances and situations are different, his relationship with his own father is very similar “in many ways” to the one between the Dutts as portrayed in the film: “There’s fear, respect, and a lot of love.” He believes the father-son dynamic in Sanju “is something a lot of Indians will relate to”. Elaborating, he says, “I think a lot of sons have a very different relationship with their fathers. It’s not the same relationship they have with their mothers. There’s a certain distance, there’s a certain respect, there’s also that feeling that ‘I want to be this person but I want to be better than him.’ All of that is very complex, but I think Raju Sir has dealt with this complex relationship very beautifully and simply.”

Much has been said and written about Ranbir’s physical and vocal transformation to play Sanjay Dutt at various points in his life. After umpteen look tests, multiple disappointments and tireless experiments—all of which took the good part of three months—Hirani settled on a specific ‘look’ of Ranbir as Dutt, with greying facial hair and receding hairline, similar to the controversial star’s own appearance while leaving Yerwada Jail on his release in 2016. He likes to tell the story of how he SMSed the picture to Dutt, who confused Ranbir for himself, responding with a question mark and enquiring why the filmmaker was sending him his own pictures.

Dutt himself, the man of the moment, the man at the centre of this conversation, was expectedly effusive in his praise for the young actor when asked recently: “I’m not just saying this for effect, but when I watched the trailer, I really felt like I was watching my own life unfold. I don’t think anyone other than Ranbir has the skill or the maturity to have done justice to this film, and I feel privileged that he’s playing me.” Dutt is not worried about how he comes away looking when the film releases this weekend “because my life is an open book”. But he admits he’s hoping people will see “the humour, the irony, and the love” that his life has been filled with, “instead of focusing only on the controversies”.

My relationship with my father is very similar in many ways to the one between the Dutts as portrayed in Sanju. There’s fear, respect, and a lot of love” - Ranbir Kapoor

oshi, who, at the film’s teaser release event in April, compared Ranbir’s process to Daniel Day Lewis’ legendary transformations, describes what he witnessed as Ranbir went about his business on set. “It wasn’t merely a transformation from one look to another, between six looks in the film. He was getting into the soul of the character and it was incredibly nuanced. So it was in his eyes, it was the way in which he walked, talked, everything. And each time he was startling us by doing something different in the scene.” Joshi adds, “Raju [Hirani] was of course guiding him in terms of how he had visualised each scene, but each time he was going a little further than that. Very soon we began to realise that we had thought we had cast an incredibly talented actor, but we didn’t really know how talented he was.”

Hirani weighs in here, insisting that “the most amazing thing about Ranbir is that you can’t see his process.” The director says of his leading man that “he’s constantly striving to get things out of you. He’s never questioning you, never debating with you. Very casually he’s around, just trying to pick up things. He’ll make a casual conversation, which you’ll think is innocuous but he’s picking up things.” In addition to the look tests, Hirani says Ranbir was speaking with Dutt constantly, studying old videos of the actor at various stages in his life, and trying to get the voice and the walk right while making sure he didn’t go so far out that the performance slipped into caricature.

The filmmakers have said that Ranbir called up Dutt before shooting key scenes, asking him to recount what he was going through at those moments in his life. Like his mother’s death, for one. Nargis Dutt, who had been ailing in the months leading up to her son’s film debut, had insisted on attending the premiere of Rocky (1981) even if she had to be carried on a stretcher. Sunil Dutt had made arrangements for a wheelchair, and an ambulance was on standby, but the actress passed away three days before the film’s premiere, plunging the family in grief. The Dutts have always maintained that Nargis’ passing hit Sanjay, her golden boy, the hardest. Over the years a narrative has emerged linking his descent into drugs, alcohol and debauchery to the emptiness in his heart since his mother’s death. Ranbir will not reveal what the actor shared with him about that incident and the impact it’s had on his life, but Manisha Koirala, who plays Nargis in the film, says she was dumbstruck by the “level of Ranbir’s performance”. She says it broke her heart to imagine how Dutt, her old colleague and friend, “had dealt with that kind of pain”.

But, going right back to where we started, the film does not make excuses for Dutt’s mistakes according to Ranbir. “I think if you just bring a human side to any personality, you will have empathy for him. I don’t think this is a sympathetic film, or that it is a propaganda film for Sanjay Dutt that people will watch and say, ‘Oh, poor guy!’ No, this is not that.” He says, “We’re showing the human side of him; not the film star or icon side. It’s the human side of Sanjay Dutt, and you will ‘feel’ him. And if you feel him, you’ll have empathy for him. Now whether sympathy comes, I don’t know if people will feel that. But empathy, yes.”

Empathy or sympathy, Ranbir’s tryst with his childhood idol will not end when Sanju opens on June 29th in theatres. The actors are expected to play off each other in Shamshera, a dacoit movie in which Dutt has been cast as the antagonist to Ranbir’s leading man. The film goes on the floors later this year, and “we’ve been joking that we’ll be fighting each other and bashing each other up on that set,” Ranbir says. “But blood and wounds are relatively easy. It’s digging deep and finding the truth within oneself that is harder,” he adds, explaining why this biopic will always be the most challenging journey he’s taken. “To find your own truth, and some sort of universal truth in another person’s life…boy, I need to do something light right after this,” he says. “Getting into fights as a dacoit seems like a holiday in comparison.”