Sanju and the Question of Morality in Biopics!

In Indian cinema, it’s raining biopics of late, the latest, much talked about and at the same time reviled one being Sanju, the biopic on Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt by Rajkumar Hirani.  As we speak, this film is running to packed houses even 1 week after it hit the theatres and has already crossed Rs. 200 Crore in collections! For Hirani, this will be another big super hit and will keep his record clean as a film maker sans a single flop so far in his career!

Since the film Sanju released, there have been many pieces trashing the film by experts and commentators. As far as I saw, the critiques are around the following points:

  • What has Sanjay Dutt done in his life to deserve a biopic? How can a “gun wielding terrorist” be celebrated through a biopic?
  • How can his life, steeply mired in controversy after controversy around Drugs, Women and Guns, be “Ariel washed” with a biopic?
  • How can the film be very selective in depicting Sanjay’s life, leaving aside many inconvenient truths?

Even many of the reviews of Sanju by professional film critics spent a lot of space on the above moral questions and less on the film itself.

In this piece, I attempt to answer some of these questions in defence of the film and its film makers.

To the question, what has Sanjay Dutt done to deserve a biopic, the answer is quite straight forward. Sanjay’s life has never been a straight line. It’s been quite eventful with ups and downs, taking along even many of his family members like his dad, wife and sisters through his journey.  The chapters in Dutt’s story around his involvement in the Mumbai blasts make it certainly interesting. It’s not common for a script writer to get a story with so many twists and turns. May be Salman Khan’s life is another opportunity! So, just from a story stand point, there is no doubt that Sanjay’s was a winner right at the story board stage itself!

Can a film manage to white wash a person’s sins? Though the film could be an attempt to white wash one’s sins, it is obvious that a biopic release is not river Ganga where one takes a nose dip snan and be cleansed of all sins in life! There could be people who get swayed by the character in a biopic but my guess is that majority know that they are watching a film and just that. As far as I know, cricketer Azharuddin has not been excused by the public for his involvement in betting just because his biopic said he was innocent!

Can a biopic be selective and choosy in its narrative? This is the most asked question on Sanju, considering the fact that the film omitted all references to his earlier wives, his grown up daughter and the actual motivation behind the AK-56 episode. The point is when a film maker chooses to do a biopic, his/her 1st constraint is time unless, the format is some Netflix series! The many aspects of the subject’s life has to be fitted under a 3 hour film. Secondly, among various tracks available, he/she needs to choose the track/s that makes the script and screen play interesting to the viewer and probably suit the film maker’s narrative. Even Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi only covered his life from a freedom movement leader perspective. Many of his internal conflicts with his family members,… were left out. (Another film – Gandhi, My Father, chose to focus on that track!)

In another biopic (Mahanati/Nadigayar Thilagam) released in the South on the yesteryear actress Savitri recently, it was felt that the film was unfair to her actor husband Gemini Ganesan. Here again, I do feel that the film maker chose to concentrate on a track which shows her as a victim of sorts!

In Sanju, Hirani chose to focus on drugs, gun and his comeback while weaving the story with the relationship with his dad Sunil Dutt and a very close friend in the backdrop!

I watched the film and my take was essentially focussed on the film alone, leaving aside the moral conundrum. There were many responses that a biopic cannot be judged just by the way the film is made but also should be, by the way the subject has lived his/her life.

On this, I get reminded of one Tamil actor by the name – R.S.Manohar, who was a popular villain in the MGR/Shivaji era. He was also a famed stage actor and had his own theatre called National Theatres. One standout feature of his troupe was that all his plays were mythological and centred around “villain” characters. Some of his very popular plays were Lankeswaran (on Ravana), Duryodanan, Kamsan, Narakasuran and so on. Needless to say, the hero in his play who is actually the villain in the mythological story was shown as a victim of circumstances and all of his soft side and goodness were projected in abundance.

In his time, Manohar and his National Theatre were a top draw not just in Tamil Nadu but even in countries with large Tamil population. His plays usually ran to packed galleries. Did a conservative society like Tamil Nadu shun his plays because they were based on villains and negative characters? Certainly not! People flocked to his plays for the content, very rich production values (the sets, the grandeur, special effects,…) and entertainment. So sanitising a subject’s life to present a certain version is nothing new is my opinion.

Hence, my approach was to watch the film for its cinematic values rather than its moral values. On that ground, I found the film entertaining and engrossing. Here, I must add that a similar attempt at a biopic on the gangster Arun Gawli – a film named Daddy bombed due to its poor scripting.

So, even if it is an attempt at image building, the scripting, the screen play, casting, writing and overall film making need to be good. That’s where Sanju scores with some great performances and other aspects of film making. It may not be Hirani’s best or may not even come close to his other film with Sanjay Dutt – Lage Raho Munna Bhai, nevertheless it’s a well-made film. Not that there are no flaws.

Considering the fact that there are more biopics around politicians like N.T.Rama Rao, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, sportsmen like Saina Nehwal,… coming up, it may be worthwhile to keep the morality aspect aside and judge the film on its making merits.

Postscript: The opening part of the film Sanju shows this day’s Sanjay Dutt and his wife Manyata listening to an author who comes up with this weird idea of drawing a parallel between Bapu (Gandhiji) and Baba (Sanjay Dutt). Sanjay castigates him and chases him out of the house and is then seen desperately looking for a writer who will write a more balanced and authentic account of his tribulations. My guess is that the Dutts could not find “that” author but, they ended up finding a Director in Rajkumar Hirani, one of Bollywood’s most talented, successful and credible directors, to make a film instead! And that opening scene was Hirani’s way of obtaining an anticipatory bail!!!

2 thoughts on “Sanju and the Question of Morality in Biopics!

Add yours

  1. Anand,
    You think very differently and your argument is very compelling for agreement. At the end of the day, film makers want to make money and it is fair from that point of view. For them, it will be the same whetger they make film about acharya or a serial killer, right?
    Well done

    Liked by 1 person

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