Revisiting Sanju, 2018’s worst film, before movie action begins this year
The first week of 2019 is awfully quiet with no significant Hindi film release. Before we head back into reviewing action next week, here’s a column damning the worst Hindi film of 2018. There were some solid clunkers — from the juvenile jingoism of Satyameva Jayate to the inanely worded Race 3, from the pointless excess of Thugs Of Hindostan to the unwatchable Namaste England — but there is only one champion catastrophe. We look at it now to reassure ourselves that things can only get better from here. (Please don’t consider that a dare, filmmakers.)
There is a scene in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju which starts off cute. In it a young Sanjay Dutt (the Ranbir Kapoor cover version) is having trouble lip-syncing to a romantic song, protesting to father Sunil Dutt that he can’t gaze romantically at the cameraman. Dutt Sr laughs this off and says actors have to pretend, making goo-goo eyes at the spotboy to prove his point. Meanwhile Sanjay sneaks a furtive drag of a cigarette. When he returns for another attempt, the cameraman has an idea, and asks the spotboy to stand next to the camera holding a copy of Stardust open to a picture of Hema Malini. Sanjay starts the shot and merrily blows kisses at the photograph, the plan working till the magazine falls from the spotboy’s hand and he accidentally holds up a picture of Malini’s Sholay co-star, Gabbar Singh.
Now there are a few clever ways to resolve this scene cinematically. The most obvious one is that Sanjay’s expressions start faltering when he sees Gabbar, causing the spotboy to panic, and hurry to find the right page to save the take. Another is that Sanjay looks past the Gabbar picture and smiles at some girl on the sets, basically establishing his womanising interests early on, and completes the take properly. Yet another would be to show that he didn’t take a drag of a cigarette but instead a hit of marijuana, which relaxed him for the shot, so it was the drugs and not the movies, which would also explain the star’s heavy-lidded eyes we remember from those early songs.
Hirani opts for none of the above. Instead, the Gabbar page has no consequence whatsoever. Sanjay nails the take, utterly unimpeded by Hemalessness. There may be a laugh or two from the audience at Paresh Rawal’s exaggerated daddy bravado playing Dutt Sr, or at Kapoor’s simpering lips, but this scene is symptomatic of the entire film Sanju: it is a sloppily written, thoughtless film made of half-baked ideas. A film that never adds up.
Hirani has always been a filmmaker of broad strokes, a merchant of masala we have gladly indulged because his strokes always built up to something bigger, and his over-the-top cinematic approach — one that prioritises intent over content — allows us to shamelessly shed tears the way we do at unashamedly sincere Pixar movies. He makes us check our cynicism at the door.
Sanju deserves not just cynicism but scorn. It is an utterly dishonest film, one trying to make its severely flawed protagonist seem like an essentially nice guy who fell into bad company because of enablers. It is a film that tries to explain away an act of terrorism by blaming it on a question-mark in a headline. It is a film that holds media attention responsible for the fall of Sanjay Dutt, and a film that ends with a unforgivable song about how horrible the media is — a song where Dutt shows up alongside Ranbir to talk trash about newspapers — for paying attention to Dutt, an actor who may never have had a legacy if not for the many opportunities at failure he was afforded by a smitten Hindi cinema media.
Worse still, contrary to the example I began this article with, the film sometimes amuses. This makes it the most lethal kind of propaganda vehicle, a film that people can buy into and choose to believe. The director Ram Gopal Varma told me how he was stunned that his mother, who has watched the film twice, believes in its many falsehoods — including the singular and all-important Bestest Friend character played by Vicky Kaushal — because ‘how else would Raju Hirani show it on screen?’
That is the truly scary part. Nobody took those self-aggrandising MSG films by Gurpreet Ram Rahim seriously, and we know better than to believe in Azhar, a biopic that tries to paint match-fixing as an act of self-sacrificing nobility. Coming up in the next few weeks, we have a Thackeray film written by a Shiv Sena leader and a film on Manmohan Singh tweeted by the BJP’s twitter handle. We shall enter theatres with bagfuls of salt in hand. Hirani, on the other hand, earned our faith with earnest feel-good mantras and cinematic hugs. The country trusts him.
In another Sanju scene, the actor sleeps with his best friend’s wife. This film is smug about the notches on Dutt’s bedpost — there is a boast about the number of women he has bedded, mentioned purely for laughs — and yet it shies away from showing his behaviour as contemptible. Instead, the friend’s girlfriend, depicted until now as sweet, suddenly turns into a harlot after the friend passes out, as if a pink négligée is shorthand for vamp. In Hirani’s world, it is naturally she who seduces Dutt instead of the other way around. A womaniser he may be, but he is apparently a passive one. Bechara.
Dutt’s crimes are mentioned, but dealt with most dismissively. Everything is made out to be the fault of a speculating media and evil newspaper editors, while Dutt himself was misled into holding onto some guns. The film tomtoms how Dutt was finally declared by the courts as “not a terrorist,” conveniently skipping the fact that accessories to the crime, with much lesser involvement than Dutt, were tried and punished far more harshly.
Occasionally, Ranbir looks and walks remarkably like Sanjay Dutt. His body language is spot on. But only occasionally. Kapoor is a gifted actor, but like the rest of the film, he is inconsistent — even before the drugs show up — and mostly looking like he was acting in a bad spoof, a Dutt parody. Which, to be fair, he was. Anushka Sharma played an r-rolling curly haired prize-winning biographer who literally knew nothing about investigation or the subject of her book. It was Rawal, meanwhile, who reliably put across Hirani’s brand of papa-preaching.
I had written that Sanju should have been called One Idiot. It is a grotesquerie, wrong on every level. It is a shameful, inept caricature and while it may have made ill-gotten millions, we must heed its blatant irresponsibility, misogyny and sheer tackiness. With 2019 kicking off and much to look forward to, I wish filmmakers and audiences the best of luck at the movies. May the unexpected come forth and dazzle us. Anybody can step out of the shadows and knock it out of the park. We must believe in the movies. We must remember that in 2018, everyone made a better film than Rajkumar Hirani.
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