The movie and the actor, not the actor nickname and his real life father. Although really, we have to talk about both, because one doesn’t make sense without the other. Oh, and also Rosie Thomas, my all time favorite Indian film scholar (tied with Anupama Chopra and Tejaswini Ganti) (oo, I just noticed while adding those links, Chopra’s Sholay book is now available on kindle! EXCELLENT!!! And Ganti’s Producing Bollywood! Oh, that is so TEMPTING! Can I justify buying them a second time just to have a different format?)
Let me back up. How many of you have read Rosie Thomas? Anyone? I feel bad stealing her arguments, so just assume that what I am about to say was said much more eloquently and clearly in her books/articles.
Rosie Thomas talked about how the star personas of famous actors in India, and their onscreen characters, flow back and forth and inform each other. I mean, this is true everywhere, and an established part of media studies, but Thomas pointed out that it is EVEN MORE true in India, because of how closely the media covers every detail of stars’ lives, and how that coverage can carry down through multiple generations as the children of stars grow up and become stars themselves. Her initial case study was Nargis, how Nargis’ had this sort of “tragic other woman” “modern and past outdated morals” persona, with her whole possibly invented background of coming from a Tawaif family, being forced into acting, and then of course falling passionately in love with married man Raj Kapoor. But then Mother India came out and she married Sunil Dutt shortly after, and suddenly her story becomes “tragic noble woman”. Her whole identity turned into “Mother India”. And then it got co-opted by the Congress party and Indira Gandhi’s re-election campaigns and it just got bigger and bigger, until the Nargis Dutt star persona in a real way changed the course of Indian history.
(Also, there is an insane rumor that she and Indira are cousins. I don’t believe it, but they do look alike, right?)
Where it gets really interesting, to me, and also more related to Munnabhai, is in Thomas’ “sequel” article in her book. She talks about how this whole Nargis/Mother India myth has now been carried on to a second generation. In Mother India, and I’m not even putting a spoiler warning because YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS ALREADY, Nargis has a “bad” son, who loves her more than her “good” son, and who she loves more. But her love isn’t enough to save him, and in the end, she kills him to protect the honor of the community as a whole. And then she married the actor who played the “bad” son, Sunil Dutt, and had a child with him, who looked an awful lot like Sunil Dutt when he was in that movie.
And now, in real life, we have a kind of “alternate universe” Mother India. What if Nargis’ mother figure didn’t survive long enough to curb her son? What if she died when he was still merely “naughty”, not bad? What if her “bad” son had grown to be even worse than she could imagine? How could he possibly redeem himself?
The answer is, Munna Bhai MBBS! Oh, and also, Fathers! In Mother India, Raajkumar runs off pretty early on, his children are raised essentially fatherless, but in “real life”, Nargis as Mother India had an active co-parent, and Sanjay Dutt as the “bad son” had a father who was struggling to curb his actions just as much as his mother was.
When Munna Bhai came out, Sanjay was struggling, personally, professionally, and with his relationship with the audience. For years, there had been a sort of unspoken attitude of “well, his mother died, we can forgive him everything, he’s just a poor little boy with a broken heart.” Not saying everyone felt like that, but there was a large contingent that did, large enough to keep his films selling tickets and his career afloat. But by 2003, that argument had worn a bit thin. He had been under investigation on the terrorism charges for 10 years, his second marriage was not going much better than his first (Hey, did you know Sanjay’s 3rd wife, Rhea Pillai, was the granddaughter of the heroine of Alam Ara, India’s first sound film? I did not know that until I looked her up just now! That is FASCINATING!), and he seemed to be estranged from his family.
(Nice looking couple. Too bad it didn’t work out)
It was time for a re-invention, and Rajkumar Hirani provided it. What if Sanjay isn’t the poor little boy missing his mama, but the poor little boy who constantly fails to live up to his father’s expectations? Then there is a whole new rich strain of audience sympathy to draw on!
The reason this strain is so rich is because it is one that Indian film doesn’t usually serve. We are used to the films about the strong fathers and sons in conflict with each other, the estranged fathers and sons on opposite sides of the law, the devoted fathers and sons who go to war for each other, but what about a father and son who love each other and just don’t have that much in common? What about a son who wants to live up to his father’s expectations, but just can’t? A father who has to learn to accept his son for who he is, not what he could be?
Okay, let me back up, before I get to the huge themes I have to acknowledge that this film is just straight up FUNNY!!! And I really really don’t like most Indian film comedy. But this one just works! It’s not mean, it’s not obscene, or body humor based, or even super wordplay based, it’s just funny characters doing funny things. I just watched it with a few friends, and we had to pause, rewind, and rewatch the Japanese tourist bit at least 3 times. Partly because we were laughing so hard we kept missing parts of it.
The Japanese tourist joke, and the joke that opens the movie when Sanjay kidnaps that guy, and the jokes at the ragging, they all rely on the very specific kind of character that Sanjay is playing, both in this film and in real life. He’s a soft little teddy bear in a big scary body, a sweetheart who doesn’t know his own strength, a lunkhead who always wants to do the right thing. And it’s set up right there in the very first sequence.
Sanjay and Arshad Warsi work together to kidnap a guy, Arshad playing the heavy and Sanjay playing the taxi driver who helps him escape, but really just tricking him to get him back to their hide out. Where his debtor is waiting, demanding that the kidnappee pay him back. Only, then Sanjay finds out that the kidnappee did pay the debt after all, so he lets him go, and decides to take the guy who hired them captive instead and get payment from his wife.
Such an interesting opening to introduce us to the characters! Arshad Warsi all obedient and enthusiastic, scary to those who don’t know him, and immediately subservient once Sanjay takes control. Sanjay, playing the antithesis of his standard tough guy role at the beginning, when he pretends to be the scared taxi driver, and then instantly switching to large and in charge once they arrive at the hide out. And, making the immediate judgement call of switching victims once he learns who is really in the right and who is in the wrong.
Sanjay is so smart but stupid through out the movie. He’s, like, stupid-smart. Or, smart-stupid. One of them. Either way, he’s not your usual comic hero who is so stupid it’s unbelievable, or so clever you can’t believe he would ever have problems. But here, he has this clever non-violent plan for getting the kidnap victim, he makes a quick decision to switch victims and successfully carries on the plan, all of that is smart and good. But it never occurs to him to ask for the details of the motivation for the kidnapping before the last minute, and it never occurs to him that they could have just as easily snatched the guy with brute force without having Arshad roam around with a fake gun, and him in a fake taxi.
That’s where the humor comes from, seeing this big soft-hearted lug move through the world in his own little bubble, unaware of how he presents himself, unable to think through the consequences of his actions, but still strong and smart and capable in his own way. With, of course, his faithful lieutenant blindly carrying out his every wish, Arshad Warsi.
Bringing it back to the father-son theme, I think that’s why the Arshad-Sanjay relationship is such a shining light in the film. Not that the romance is bad, I think Sanjay and Lagaan-lady are real cute together, and I like that she gets his number so quickly and loves him for who he is. But that’s not what you walk out of the movie remember, you walk out remembering Munna and Circuit.
(Notice, Arshad Warsi got to come back for the sequel, but Lagaan-lady did not. They know what relationship we want to see more of)
Sanjay spends the whole movie trying to please his father, bending over backward to change himself, to change the world, to make his father smile. And Arshad spends the whole movie trying to make Sanjay happy, to make things work out for him, to do everything from moving an air conditioner into his dorm room to killing a Japanese tourist to help him study. The difference is, Circuit is doing things that are natural to him. He is good at violence and threatening and all of that. He loves the gangster life!
And Sanjay doesn’t want him to change. Even when Sanjay decides to give up his criminal life and become a doctor, he leaves Arshad in place to run the business and be just as he was before. He may never say “thank you” or be grateful, but his actions tell Arshad that he is appreciated for just who he is.
Which is the kind of appreciation Sanjay desperately craves from his own father. But Sunil isn’t able to see Sanjay for who he is, isn’t able to let him be who he wants to be and what is natural to him. So Sanjay is left to constantly chase after his appreciation and wait for his love, never feeling really worthy.
Which is why the ending is Sanjay NOT becoming a doctor. Because this isn’t a movie about Sanjay going to med school, it’s a movie about Sanjay trying to change himself into the son his father wants, and failing, because that is impossible. What is possible is for his father to finally accept Sanjay, for Sanjay to reject med school and any possibility of becoming a doctor and for his father to see the value in that.
Which brings me back to Sanjay in real life. After 2 decades of playing gangster roles on film, and hanging out with gangsters in real life, while his father continued to be the moral and respectable politician and art actor, here is Sunil, finally approving of his choices, meeting him in the middle, in a movie that manages to wrap a social message up in a gangster flick.