When Sanju broke for an interval, I hurried out to buy that cup of coffee without which a 160-minute film feels like, well, a 160-minute film. When I returned, the 20-something man in the seat next to mine asked what I’d been writing in my notebook. I told him they were notes, and asked why he was at an 8 am show when he could’ve watched the film later in the day. “In a way, this film is my story," he said. He told me he’d been on drugs. He was in a coma for 15 months. He’d attempted suicide, gone to jail for accidentally firing a gun while running from a hospital. He was three years clean now, and finishing college. He hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night out of excitement. There was a faint smell of alcohol on his breath.

I have no idea if anything my neighbour told me was true. But it was a useful reminder that what might seem to one person an impossibly exaggerated story could be as real as documentary to someone else. I looked at the screen and saw Ranbir Kapoor doing an often-uncanny Sanjay Dutt impression. He looked up and saw his past missteps. Somewhere in between these two viewings and a theatre-full of others, Sanju was unfolding.

When it was announced that Rajkumar Hirani was making a Sanjay Dutt biopic, there was a good deal of scepticism. Hindi biopics are nearly always uncontroversial, and often worshipful—and this was a film about the star of Hirani’s breakout film, Munna Bhai MBBS. The prospect of Hirani, expert locator of the surreal in the everyday, taking on a real-life subject was admittedly intriguing, but it didn’t seem like there was any way the film wouldn’t go soft on its subject.

Sanju isn’t a hagiography—but it’s also careful about how it takes Dutt to task. We’re shown the actor’s struggles with drugs and alcohol in graphic detail, but the blame is eventually pinned on his supplier (played by Jim Sarbh). Similarly, though the film doesn’t paper over the time he kept AK-56 rifles, sourced from a terrorist, in his home, this too is put down to a combination of fear, naïveté and bad advice. Often, when Sanjay is shown doing something truly horrible—like turning up high to meet his ex-girlfriend when her father has just died—the scene is given a comic tone. It’s a warts-and-all film that hedges its bets: Sanju baba is rarely kept apart from the viewer’s sympathy.

Hirani is one of the great deflators of solemnity in Hindi film. When his instinct to subvert works, it works beautifully. But it can also result in scenes that push for laughs while being actively distasteful. If you laughed at the “balaatkar" scene in 3 Idiots, you’ll probably find the sequence in Sanju where Dutt sleeps with his best friend’s girlfriend amusing. Sanjay Dutt is trying to help Kamlesh (Vicky Kaushal), a virgin, “open his account". He’s there in the build-up to the big night; he, not Kamlesh, hands the girlfriend lingerie to wear; and when she emerges to find Kamlesh passed out, he’s still around. He confesses the next day, but it’s a comic moment, and there’s a terrible echo of a punchline later in the film when Kamlesh jokes that they’ll be even when he sleeps with Dutt’s girlfriend after he passes out.

Sanju is recognisably a Hirani film—you see it in the eccentric touches. A roomful of militant goons stand with their fingers in their ears, like kindergartners. A barber explains in a few crisp lines why he’s in jail, and Dutt decides against getting a shave. Sanju is dancing with his dead mother in one scene; in the next, he’s cha-cha-cha-ing in rehab. Also characteristic of Hirani and his long-time co-writer, Abhijat Joshi, is the emotional directness. Dutt might be a complicated guy, but this is a simple film, with a phalanx of violins to alert you whenever it’s time to shed a tear. At one point, Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal) is called “terrorist ka baap". After his son makes good, someone calls him “Munna bhai ka baap".

A clue to how the makers would like Dutt’s story to be received by viewers is there in the evolving attitude of Winnie (Anushka Sharma). Hired by Dutt to write his life story, the frizzy-haired writer is ostensibly a sceptic, initially refusing the project and, later, walking out on it. But she’s also moved to tears by his reminiscences, does no research of her own, and seems to take everything her subject says at face value. For a film that casts an acerbic eye at news media, Sanju presents a thoroughly compliant alternative.

It makes sense that Hirani would get Ranbir Kapoor—whose characters are often directionless—to play the ultimate lost boy of Hindi cinema. The imitation (astonishing at times) takes over the performance; I found myself more impressed than affected by it. There is one scene that stood apart, though. Sunil Dutt has just finished telling Sanjay a story about his mother, Nargis, and smuggler Haji Mastan. He starts singing “Na moonh chhupake jiyo"; his son joins in reluctantly. After some time, Rawal stops, and Kapoor continues, rapt, in a voice that sounds nothing like Sanjay’s. The audience in the theatre responded to this moment with appreciative shouts, as if encouraging him to take wing.

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