'Sanju': Film Review

A glorified infomercial about the life of a Bollywood bad boy.

Ranbir Kapoor transforms himself into '80s superstar Sanjay Dutt in this Dutt-approved biopic from director Rajkumar Hirani.

As the writer-director of some of India's freshest, most provocative and heartfelt films, Rajkumar Hirani has built up a level of trust among moviegoers that's enjoyed by few of his colleagues.

PK, his 2014 satire about the absurdity of religion, broke box office records worldwide. 2009's 3 Idiots spotlighted the phenomenon of India’s ultracompetitive race for academic success, and became a cultural phenomenon. And his hilarious Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., about a lovable Gandhi-quoting gangster hiding out in a medical school, single-handedly rejuvenated the career of Sanjay Dutt in 2003.

But that's why Sanju falters. Given Hirani’s longtime professional relationship with Dutt, it may be unreasonable to expect a warts-and-all depiction of the actor's unsavory sides. But the film's whitewash approach deceives no Indian movie fan familiar with his real life and career.

Despite opening on a record 256 screens in North America and 4,000-plus in India, Sanju may not live up to its box office expectations thanks to word-of-mouth among Indian moviegoers — like one fan who tweeted, "Make me understand why we need a Sanjay Dutt biopic?"

After his debut in the hit Bollywood film Rocky in 1981, Dutt became a major star, but he also had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, womanizing, and fraternization with underworld dons. When a series of bomb blasts killed more than 250 people in Mumbai in 1993, the actor was convicted of arms possession in connection with the terror attacks and served five years in prison.

Seen through Hirani's lens, the whole scenario comes across like a big misunderstanding, perpetuated by ratings-hungry media. This big-screen version of Dutt's life leaves out two of his marriages, blurs his own published admission of his involvement with the terrorists, and seemingly blames his years of drug abuse on his bad choice of companions.

Hirani also squanders moviegoers' trust with his choice to cut corners with technical details. A dime-store wig on a leading actress and obvious Australian accents and locations in America-set scenes are jarring distractions, while the background score is intrusive and cringe-inducing.

Despite the filmmaker's missteps, he coaxes beautiful performances from his cast. Ranbir Kapoor’s lead performance is nothing less than dazzling — the young star of Barfi! and Tamasha nails Dutt's booming voice and hulking physicality with uncanny accuracy. More important, Kapoor captures the bad-boy charm that served Dutt's public image so well — until it didn’t.

Paresh Rawal delivers a charismatic and authoritative performance as Dutt's estranged father, movie icon Sunil Dutt; and Anushka Sharma conveys warmth and intelligence as a biographer who's not sure if she wants the job. Vicky Kaushal is vibrant as Dutt's best friend, but Manisha Koirala, in the role of Dutt's mother, beloved Mother India star Nargis Dutt, is hampered by an inadequately fleshed-out role.

As maddening as its flaws are, Sanju grabs the viewer's attention and delivers performances that glow long after the film is over. As one character says to Dutt: "Bad choices make good stories. You are the king of bad choices." How can you look away?

Production companies: Vinod Chopra Films, Rajkumar Hirani Films
Distributor: Fox Star Studios
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Manisha Koirala, Anushka Sharma, Sonam Kapoor, Dia Mirza, Vicky Kaushal, Jim Sarbh, Boman Irani
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Screenwriters: Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani
Producers: Vinod Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani
Director of photography: S. Ravivarman
Production designer: Shashank Tere
Costume designer: Eka Lakhani
Editor: Rajkumar Hirani
Music: Chinmay Harshe, Rohan Pradhan, Sanjay Wandrekar
Choreographer: Ganesh Acharya

In Hindi

158 minutes