Sanju ‘giri’: How the Sanjay Dutt biopic came to be
With the forthcoming 'Sanju', director Rajkumar Hirani is set to mythologize his 'Munna Bhai' actor Sanjay Dutt. But will it tell the real story?
“If you remember it, you weren’t there." That famous line about the 1960s—one that cannot be definitively attributed to anybody, appropriately enough—applies perfectly to Sanjay Dutt. He is the most unreliable of narrators, a self-contradicting superstar with a mythology that refuses to add up. We all know fragments, via headlines and police reports, gossip columns and interviews, but there are too many conflicting versions and voices. The full jigsaw belongs to one man. That man will turn 60 next year and, following a preposterous and excessive life, who knows how much Dutt himself remembers and how much he chooses to forget.
I’m sitting with film director Rajkumar Hirani at his Mumbai office, a cheery space where Chaplin films play at reception to silently soothe and tickle waiting guests, a few weeks before the release of Sanju. It all began when Hirani was at Dutt’s house a few years ago and found the actor, then out of prison on parole, in a talkative mood. Stupefied by his stories, Hirani started visiting every evening to hear Dutt pour his life out in anecdotes. In a life this outsized, even a few puzzle pieces can compel.
Dutt’s wife Manyata then approached Hirani with the idea of making “a film about the life of Sanjay Dutt", but Hirani wasn’t keen. “That world of underworld and guns, that’s not really my territory," Hirani says. “I told her it doesn’t excite me, and she said there’s much more to his life. So I think from Day 2 onwards, he started narrating with that intention."
A funny story did it. Hirani was initially reluctant to think of Dutt’s life as a movie because it might be too dark, but the actor, who can be strikingly self-effacing and candid about his many flaws, won him over with laughs. “I heard one episode which was very, very funny, and I wondered if that really happened. Then I heard another, and that is primarily what I like, humour, and so, after three-four funny anecdotes, I got sucked in," the director explains. “They were stray anecdotes, and, at that moment in time, I didn’t even know how to put it together." But the ears had perked up. Hirani called his writing collaborator Abhijat Joshi and said they needed to hold off on “Munna Bhai 3". A bigger idea was afoot.
Hirani goes for stories he wants to share. Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), arguably the finest mainstream Hindi film this century, was born out of this need. Intrigued by Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) and irritated by the cynical dismissal of the Mahatma in modern times, Hirani read extensively on his subject. “As a human being," Hirani says, “when you get to know something, when you get some knowledge, you want to talk about it." While marvelling at Dutt’s unreal stories, Joshi and he discovered a thread running through them—a deep father-son story about the actor’s troubled, fraught and emotional relationship with patriarch Sunil Dutt—and that became the spine of the film they would write.
One evening, Sanjay Dutt told drinking stories. “We had decided we weren’t going to drink with him," Hirani says. “We sat with him for literally 8 hours, and we just spoke about alcohol. ‘Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol, I did this and I did that.’ We came out of his house feeling like dwarves!" At 3 in the morning, Hirani and Joshi woke a friend who lived on Pali Hill, near Dutt’s house, and demanded a drink. The director immediately adds that he isn’t endorsing this behaviour, but the headiness of the stories is evident.
Endorsement is a primary concern for the forthcoming film. Will Sanju make light of Dutt’s misdemeanours, sugar-coating him in the popular image of the naïve “bad boy" who didn’t know better? Will it serve only to remind us of his easy charisma, and emphasize the harmlessness of his slip-ups?
The facts are not easy. The drugs took him low, and Dutt has spoken of travelling on a flight with heroin in his shoes. The guns took him lower. Dutt illegally stored weapons given to him by people implicated in the serial blasts that rocked Mumbai in 1993, and, after confessing to the police, told his father he did this “because I have Muslim blood in my veins. I could not bear what was happening in the city". Statements like this, reported in Tehelka magazine, colour his crime in less innocuous light.
Consider also this: Nearly a decade after the blasts and his continuing ordeals, Dutt was laughing casually with gangsters, caught on a 2002 phone call recorded by the police. Are we meant simply to giggle at the detail that he whined to Chhota Shakeel about Govinda not coming to the sets on time? Finally, what guarantee is there that Dutt is telling Hirani the whole truth? Even tall men can tell tall tales.
That’s the thing. You, me, Rajkumar Hirani. We weren’t there.
“Within the industry, I was hearing two things," says Hirani. “One was that ‘This will be a dark film, how will Ranbir Kapoor do it?’ and, more importantly, ‘You know Sanju, how will you tell the truth?’"
“My first question to Sanjay was: ‘Can I say it like this?’ Because, otherwise, there is no reason for me to make this film. I can make anything. I’m not out of work that I have to succumb to making this one specific film. And he was brave enough to say, ‘Yaar, bol de. I don’t care.’"
The idea of Hirani, a director who has shaped Dutt’s legacy, making a biopic about his prized actor is unprecedented. It feels like Prakash Mehra making a film about Amitabh Bachchan, or Karan Johar making a film about Shah Rukh Khan. Johar, an admirer of Hirani’s work, weighs in on the phone from New York: “I know that Raju Hirani is too bright and too astute a mind to walk an obvious, objective path. His connect is always emotional. He’ll definitely not make it a puff piece."
The industry appears more hungry for fiction than fact. “If the film is mostly fictional," says trade analyst Amod Mehra, “then it will work in a big way. God forbid, if it’s based only on Sanjay’s true life, then it will get critical acclaim but the big numbers at the box office will be difficult."
The truth of the matter is that even if Hirani is presenting an unfiltered view, he is presenting Dutt’s unfiltered view. Hirani applauds the creative freedom and the fact that Dutt said he’ll only watch the final film, when everything is locked and in place, but, hypothetically speaking, what if he had started changing things? What if Dutt—a man who reportedly went to thrash Rishi Kapoor out of possessiveness towards then-girlfriend Tina Munim—saw the film’s promo and decided Kapoor’s son, Ranbir, wasn’t good enough? How much should a hero be allowed to shape his own mythology?
The director is confident the film will silence doubters. “We’ve not hidden facts," Hirani assures. He speaks of cross-checking facts with policemen and journalists, and how his film—which will not feature any of the rumoured Dutt affairs—leaves them out because it is not about gossip. “People know the stories. Sanju’s life has been written about so much. What I found the most fascinating was the father-son story happening in that household. This is something people don’t know. We’ve not glorified him. We’ve gone out and said everything as is, and then it’s up to you to judge him."
“The father-son dynamic is the most turbulent and most resilient relationship in the world," says Johar. “By taking this angle, Hirani has changed the spin of the narrative. The genius is back."
“We keep saying wrong choices make good stories," smiles Hirani, “and Sanju is the classic example."
The character Munna Bhai was written for Anil Kapoor. Hirani lists the reasons like a now obvious checklist—an actor well into his 40s, known for playing a “loveable local goon", famously called Munna, in Tezaab (1988). But the casting didn’t fall into place, and the choice for his first leading man swivelled, first to Vivek Oberoi and then Shah Rukh Khan. Dutt came aboard but for a cameo, the role of a dying man played eventually by Jimmy Sheirgill.
“When nothing else was clicking, we thought of Sanju," says Hirani, who started watching the actor’s films more appraisingly. Vaastav (1999), in particular, made Hirani think twice. “He has the personality of a gangster, there is some warmth in the face, there’s some innocence in his drooping eyes." Hirani didn’t change the script for Dutt, tweaking the actor instead of the words, even as other first-film hiccups continued. Makarand Deshpande, the actor cast to play Munna’s sidekick Circuit, dropped out to direct a film, forcing them to cast Arshad Warsi 10 days before the start of shooting. “We didn’t have time to make costumes for him," laughs Hirani. “So throughout the film Circuit is simply wearing a black kurta and gold chains."
Munna Bhai brought Dutt love. Hirani had created a marvellous fool who believed in the magic power of hugs, and his lack of cynicism was special. He was an unlikely, irresistible hero. Dutt had occasionally been admired, imitated and successful, but this big lug—free of artifice and agenda—won over the country in unprecedented fashion.
“They were the biggest turning point in Dutt’s career," says Mehra about Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003) and Lage Raho. “The franchise not only resurrected his career but also helped him erase his ‘bad boy’ image." Munna Bhai changed Dutt’s life. And what a life it had already been.
“Most biopics are stories of people who achieve something," explains Hirani. “It’s an easier graph, a rags-to-riches story, or wanting something and reaching that. Sanju’s life is not actually a case like that."
Hirani, as always, is putting it mildly. He is a disarmingly modest man, not given to showy directorial flourishes. “I’ve been told, ‘You should take better shots’ and things like that," he grins. “Scale is very easy actually. Put a camera on a jib or a drone and get bloody big shots on big sets, it’s very easy. But then you’re distracted. If you’re looking at the shot, you aren’t following the story any more."
“It’s what Raju does," says Johar. “He catches social messaging, gives you a dose of Hallmark goodness, but always with progressive thoughts, and genius writing. Even when he’s not being cinematic, he’s still being profound. He hits the jugular with his narrative."
The Dutt story is far odder than fiction. Originally named Sunjay after the winning suggestion in a magazine poll, Dutt was born to iconic actors Sunil Dutt and Nargis. He embraced substance abuse early, and oscillated between rehab and body-building. He was too strung out to remember his mother’s death, just days before the premiere of his first film, Rocky (1981). Many an actress and many a drug later, as if life was not excessive enough, came the guns, gangsters and politicians. During the 1,445 days he spent in prison, he doubled up as a behind-bars radio jockey for the amusement of his inmates.
It is, by any account, quite a life. Yasser Usman’s Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story Of Bollywood’s Bad Boy, a recent biography that has irritated the otherwise placid Dutt, starts by mentioning how Dutt won a gold medal at an air-guitar competition in Atlanta, in 1982. It’s typical young tomfoolery, but the stunning thing about this particular triumph was that Dutt was participating anonymously in air-guitar events a year after his highly publicized Hindi film debut. He chased the weird and the weird chased him.
It is also a hard life to label. The AK-56s and hand-grenades, harmlessly code-named “guitars and tennis balls" respectively, were stashed at Dutt’s house by those implicated in the serial blasts in 1993. Dutt was immediately branded a terrorist by several politicians and publications, particularly by Shiv Sena periodical Saamna, which changed its tone as soon as Sunil Dutt appealed to Balasaheb Thackeray for help. Thackeray is largely considered the man responsible for Dutt’s release on bail at the time. The popular narrative became that the actor naïvely held on to these guns in an act of foolish bravado. The general belief is that Dutt was stupid, not sinister. One is not, we must remember, exclusive of the other.
Johar tells me he was dumbstruck when he saw the Sanju teaser. “Raju showed it to me on his phone. I saw the shot of Sanju walking out of jail and I said, ‘Oh, you’ve used some footage of Sanju, cool.’ And he said that was Ranbir. And I couldn’t believe it."
“Ranbir was the early and only choice," asserts Hirani about casting an actor who could play Dutt from the ages of 21 to 55. “Both are born into film families, and they’ve lived that life, so they’re secure about it." The parallel is intriguing, and not just because both are tall men. Kapoor, in a September 2016 interview to me for Vogue, confessed to the possibility of “an alcohol problem", and Hirani feels the younger actor understands Dutt’s stories.
He also understands the swagger. Hirani shows me early test footage of Kapoor doing the droopy, shoulder-swinging Dutt walk, and it looks like a good-natured caricature, a mimic exaggerating the movements. “But you can’t do that in a film," explains the director. “So for him to strike the right balance was tricky. He worked hard on it, and we also decided to declutter and drop many things, saying you don’t have to be a 100% like him. Just a semblance is good enough. But somehow his voice changed, and he picked up some mannerisms, two or three, which are typical of Sanju but they don’t look like a caricature." He then showed me a scene from the forthcoming film, with Kapoor as Munna Bhai in a classroom talking to Boman Irani’s character, wearing that orange shirt and smirking like Dutt. It’s preposterously impressive.
Hirani was sheepish about recreating scenes from his own Munna Bhai. “It was strange, working with a different set of actors on the same location. I was feeling like a narcissist, saying, ‘Look what I made,’" he laughs. “But ultimately Munna Bhai is integral to this film, because this is a father-son story and that is the only film they have done together. And I was there when we had cast Dutt Saab, I know the reasons he did that film. He hadn’t acted for 16 years, and it was important to show this in the film."
Sanju may possibly be a more affectionate portrayal than the subject deserves, but at least we all know where Hirani stands. Even if this film disappointingly turns out to be propaganda—as is usually the case with Hindi biopics, like Azhar (2016), which tried to show cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin’s match-fixing as an act of self-sacrificing nobility—it will not come from a hidden corner. This is a film made by a friend and collaborator, who certainly has a unique vantage point. The amount of salt we choose to take with it is on us.
The day Munna Bhai was supposed to start shooting, Dutt didn’t show up. Vacationing in South Africa, he pushed the shoot back by three days. “My whole life crashed in front of me. The whole schedule! It was just too much trauma," Hirani takes a deep breath, and smiles. “The first time, you get overwhelmed by many things."
“If you remember the film," Hirani describes the first shot he filmed, “there was this character Dr Rustom, and Munna was playing carrom with his father. So Sanjay just came and took off his shirt, sat in his vest and turned to the camera. And the camera loves him. When I saw it, aah, I was happy. In one shot, on the first day, you come to know whether something is working. Your character has come to life."
The first shot of Sanju was a different experience. Kapoor was at the production’s beck and call, coming to the sets 5 hours before the rest of the unit in order to work on his make-up and prosthetics, and spending more than a year exclusively on this film.
“It’s a long shot, where he’s dressed in a Pathani suit. He comes out of the bathroom and comes walking to the living room. Of course, he was very ready. When he walked out that first time, it was absolutely proper, that walk... Especially in the long shot, it just looked completely like Sanju." Hirani looks dreamily into the distance, before breaking into a smile. “And yeah, it was actually pretty smooth. And when everything happens pretty smooth, stories are boring." Here’s to the ones who keep it rocky.
Sanju releases on 29 June.