Friday, June 29, 2018


Release date:
June 29, 2018
Rajkumar Hirani

Ranbir Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Vicky Kaushal, Anushka Sharma, Sonam Kapoor, Dia Mirza, Jim Sarbh, Manisha Koirala, Piyush Mishra

As Sanju opens, a chap called D.N. Tripathi reads aloud from a book he has written on Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt to the man himself. In that passage, Tripathi has drawn parallels between the lives of Bapu and Baba. It is a clever line to take in a hagiography since Bapu, of course, is the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi, Baba / Sanju Baba is Dutt’s nickname, and the actor’s most popular screen role till date has been of a modern-day Gandhi devotee. Far from being flattered by the comparison, Dutt is appalled and throws Tripathi out of the house.

Dutt/Baba is on the lookout for a biographer, you see, and what this interaction conveys is that he wants to tell the unadulterated, undiluted truth. The scene offers a precis of what Sanju wants you to believe it is: an honest account of a controversial star. The fact though is that this is one among many moments of insincerity in the film. Because Sanju, writer-editor-director Rajkumar Hirani’s biopic of Sanju Baba, is anything but honest.

Sanju is the story of Sanjay Dutt, Bollywood superstar, acclaimed actor, convicted criminal, son of the screen legend Nargis and the much-respected actor-activist-politician Sunil Dutt. The film skips Dutt Jr’s childhood and takes us through his work on his debut film, his mother’s illness, his rocky relationship with his father, his alcoholism and drug addiction, the allegations of involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, his arrest under the draconian and now lapsed TADA, the acquittal on terror charges and conviction under the Arms Act, his jailing and ultimate release.

Hirani does all this through a well-chosen narrative device: Sanjay Dutt trying to convince an acclaimed London-based biographer called Winnie Diaz to make him her next subject, while she parallelly investigates his claims about himself. The words are Dutt’s, but hey, they are all being verified by Diaz, so you gotta buy into them. Right?

Wrong. Abhijat Joshi and Hirani – who are credited with Sanju’s story, screenplay and dialogues – have cherrypicked facts and bathed their selectiveness in large doses of affectionate indulgence for their protagonist. For instance, we are told that Dutt acquired three AK-56 rifles and bullets without a licence out of fear for his Dad’s and his sisters’ safety following threats to Dutt Sr for his missionary work among Muslim riot victims in 1992-93 in Mumbai. This is a claim Dutt had made on the record in real life. However, the film fails to mention that he had also gone on the record to admit that he already owned three licensed firearms which, he reportedly told the police, he purchased because of his love for hunting. So why did he need any more weapons? (Note: he later withdrew the latter statement.)

Messrs Hirani and Joshi play this game throughout the film.

They are also wise in their choice of issues they do not whitewash. For instance, they make no bones about Dutt’s substance abuse, his sexual promiscuity, his unprofessionalism, his irresponsible behaviour towards his parents and colleagues, and his lies in these matters. But all this is portrayed in a cutesefied, comedified fashion to a fandom that has already forgiven him for these widely known facts anyway, each one carefully presented in such a manner as to elicit an “aww, cho chweet” reaction from us.

The object of the film is two-fold: to project Dutt as a misguided but well-intentioned man and all-round nice guy, and to scapegoat others for his failings. So yes, he was not committed to his work, but c’mon, what is bechara Baba to do when he is under so much strain to match his father’s greatness? So yes, he took drugs and alcohol, and no Ma’am, that was not okay, but c’mon, can you really blame Baba when his work stresses and personal traumas were compounded by that evil drug dealer who tricked him into addiction? Yes, he bought firearms, but did we not tell you it was because of his desire to protect his father and sisters, as any good Indian mard should? And yes of course he slept with hundreds of women and treated them lightly, but that is sho funny and sho cute, na?

The most well-strategised choice of scapegoat is the media, which is skewered in the closing song featuring Ranbir Kapoor and the real Sanjay Dutt himself. For everything wrong that Baba has done, the buck stops at the door of the lying press, according to the lyrics of Baba bolta hain bas ho gaya. This is a stroke of propagandist genius, because vast sections of the Indian media are so disgraceful that it is tempting to cheer when a finger is pointed at them for anything, even if our disgust for media sensationalism is being used to quietly influence us into viewing a movie star’s misdemeanours, vices, crimes and contemptible qualities with fondness.

Other facets of Dutt that are conveniently papered over include his difficult relationship with his siblings – Priya and Namrata are marginal, virtually dialogueless characters in Sanju – and his misogynistic, patriarchal mindset. I guess because you cannot expect to drive an audience to tears over Baba’s wish to bachao his behnas if you point out that their equation is so troubled that when he married his current wife Manyata, sister Priya Dutt appeared not to be aware of the development till the media asked her for a reaction; or if you remind us that he once publicly snubbed Priya by famously telling a newspaper reporter: “There is only one Mr and Mrs Dutt of Pali Hill (in Mumbai), and that’s Manyata and I. Girls who become part of a new family after marriage must assume their new surname and all the responsibilities that come with it.”

No doubt with the goal of painting this portrait of virtue, his first marriage to Richa Sharma, who died of cancer, is completely ignored. His second marriage finds no mention either. Manyata Dutt, on the other hand, is presented as his only pillar of strength once his father is gone and his best buddy leaves him.

How unfortunate that this should come from Hirani, creator of the brilliant Munnabhai films (both starring Dutt), in addition to 3 Idiots and PK, which, whatever their flaws may have been, had very relevant points to make.

This is not to say that Sanju is a lost cause. Initially, when its intent is not yet clear, it is often funny. There are several moving portions right through the film, interestingly all of them involving the late Sunil Dutt – perhaps because these are the only parts that come from a place of genuineness (Duttsaab, from every available account, was indeed a great human being, so the film is not lying about him) – and/or Baba’s friend Kamlesh Kanhaiyalal Kapasi.

The latter is played by Vicky Kaushal who is thoroughly convincing as the once innocent, now disillusioned Kapasi. He is particularly wonderful in a drunken scene in which he begs the father to understand the immense pressure his son is under because of the larger-than-life figure he is expected to live up to, and to tell the boy that it is okay to be ordinary.

Sonam Kapoor has not much to do in Sanju, but is still sweet as the girlfriend who gives up on Sanju Baba early on, understandably convinced that he will never emerge from the depths of decadence he had already sunk to. Anushka Sharma as Baba’s biographer Winnie Diaz has a decidedly unchallenging role in which her charisma is wasted. Paresh Rawal has the film’s best-written role, but is only okay as Sunil Dutt. A terribly miscast Manisha Koirala is awkward as the barely-there Nargis.

Sanju belongs though to Ranbir Kapoor who drowns out his own personality so completely in favour of the Baba persona, that in that closing song when he appears as himself – slim, handsome and not looking ravaged like his character – I had to remind myself that this is actually what he looks like.

Kapoor’s turn as Sanju Baba rises far beyond his physical transformation though. He delivers an immersive performance, especially in scenes of emotional intensity when the script is not using a farcical tone to soft pedal the hero’s life choices. But even this gifted star cannot camouflage the reality of Sanju being little beyond a PR exercise for Sanjay Dutt (and Manyata).

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
161 minutes 45 seconds 

A version of this review has also been published on Firstpost:

Sunday, June 24, 2018


Release date:
Kerala: June 16, Delhi: June 22, 2018
Shaji Padoor

Mammootty, Anson Paul, Renji Panicker, Kanika, Siddique, Yog Japee, Kalabhavan Shajon, Suresh Krishna, Tarushi, Sudev Nair, Shyamaprasad

To review a Mammootty film these days, you can either analyse it in the context of the rest of Malayalam cinema, or you could acknowledge that Mammukka appears to occupy a separate universe in his mind and in the minds of his die-hard fans. Option 2 will result in less heartache if you erase the legend’s iconic performances from your mind and stick strictly to his works in the last decade. Option 1 is, of course, inviting heartbreak since it requires you to accept that he has been confining himself to the tried and tested and boring, unlike his young contemporaries like Nivin Pauly and Fahadh Faasil who are redefining what constitutes mainstream or even Prithviraj Sukumaran and Mammukka’s own son Dulquer Salmaan who are conventional in comparison with those two yet push the boundaries of commercial cinema.

I am going with Option 2 for this write-up. Abrahaminte Santhathikal (Children of Abraham) directed by debutant Shaji Padoor is better than most Mammootty films of the past couple of years, but nothing compared to his best. It is not horribly misogynistic like Kasaba (2016) and last year’s The Great Father and Masterpiece, nor is the camera as entirely enslaved by its star as it was in these films. On the Mammootty spectrum of Malayalam cinema, it lies in the vicinity of Shamdat Sainudeen’s Street Lights which was released this January: a suspense thriller with a somewhat engaging storyline that could have been more than it turns out to be if it were not so fixated on underlining its hero’s coolth, yet is not so obsessed with him as to be nauseating. 

Abrahaminte Santhathikal requires Mammootty to play a policeman for the nth time in his career. Here he is ASP Derick Abraham, investigating a spate of serial killings when we first meet him. Not long after we are led to believe that the case has been concluded, he is caught up in another. Derick is not very well liked in the force because he is such a stickler for rules that he has refused to bend or skirt them when his own colleagues have been in a tight spot. Adding to his fleet of enemies is Public Prosecutor Diana Joseph (Kanika) who has not forgiven him for an old romantic relationship gone sour.

Derick has the support of SP Shahul Hameed (Renji Panicker), but several senior cops (played by Siddique, Yog Japee and Suresh Krishna) have for long been waiting for a day when their bête noir becomes personally vulnerable. Their moment comes when Derick’s brother gets caught up in a heinous crime.

The nice thing about Abrahaminte Santhathikal is that Mammootty allows himself to be made up and styled to look older than he usually does in his films. Just when you think there is hope yet and start celebrating that baby step forward in his evolution, you realise that at 66-going-on-67 he has as his younger sibling Anson Paul who, the Net tells me, is 29-going-on-30. Okay then. This is as funny as Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai playing brother and sister in the 2002 Bollywood film Hum Kisise Kum Nahin.

So the cases Derick is called to investigate turn out to be not what they appear to be. They are reasonably enjoyable and would have been more so if so much time was not being wasted on DoP Alby giving Mammootty slow motion shots and fancy-schmancy camera angles to highlight his height, build and striking personality.

Even the usually excellent Mahesh Narayanan makes a couple of questionable editing decisions while presenting the timeline of the second case in Abrahaminte Santhathikal, I guess on the instructions of a director intent on scaling up the epic feel of his film. The shaky shift from the first to the second case is a jump that should be blamed not on him though, but on the writing.   

That said, Haneef Adeni’s story of the mystery involving Derick and his brother is not half bad and does throw up some surprises. This is the kind of narrative that would have been enhanced by greater zip and zing. But no siree, instead let us drag back the pace to let that moving vehicle gradually glide on to the screen, then for the door to open at a snail’s pace, then for one stylish shoe to be placed on the ground and then the next before the camera rises to reveal … OMG, you will never guess who!

Well at least there is not as much of this nonsense going on in Abrahaminte Santhathikal as there was in Masterpiece, White (2016) and their ilk which have, over the years, ODed on close-ups of The Big M’s sunglasses, bracelets, footwear and profile in addition to slow-mo shots of him sauntering towards the camera. At least Mammootty’s swag is not offensive here, as it was in The Great Father where the central plot – a serial rapist killing the hero’s daughter – was sidelined as the hero strutted about in leather jackets.

What do I know though? Mammootty fans in the hall where I watched Abrahaminte Santhathikal went hysterical with happiness during that introductory scene, cheered wildly in anticipation of a sighting, and at the appearance of the star’s first shoe began yelling, “Mammukkaaaa, Mammukkaaaa!”

For the record, the film’s title is a clever play on words because it implies a lofty reference to Abraham in the Old Testament of the Bible, which is in keeping with the ominous tenor of Derick’s opening case, but you later realise that santhathi is being used here not simply to literally mean children or offspring but also in its disparaging avatar. Like I said, the story of this film is not half bad. On the weighing scale of its pluses and minuses in the Mammoottyverse, Abrahaminte Santhathikal counts as passable fare.

Rating (out of five stars): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
131 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: