Sanju Review (No Spoilers): Emotionally Hollow

I’m back!  From an incredibly hot drive to the theater, back to the sanctuary of my nice cool bedroom, with Dog Hazel stretched out panting on the floor.  Time to start writing some kind of a review of this thing.

We were talking in the comments about all the things Raju Hirani puts into his films, especially the triumphal sunny moment as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the characters below.  This whole film feels like those moments.  A bunch of filmic tricks in order to force us to feel something, but there isn’t actually anything at the center of it for us to feel.


I could pick apart the little things, the way they gave Ranbir a series of wigs but didn’t bother to cover up his distinctive scar under the eye which just screamed “Ranbir!” to me, the way Namrata mysteriously disappeared partway through, the completely illogical styling of Anushka’s character, the random decision to make Vicky Kaushal’s character American, Jim Sarbh’s lisp for no reason, all kinds of things.  But what it all adds up to is a movie that was afraid of emotional truth.

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(See under his right eye?  It’s not as clear here, but it was really noticeable in the film, and very irritating.  Yet another way that it always felt like Ranbir onscreen pretending to be Sanjay, instead of Sanjay himself, or any kind of a real person)

That’s the problem with a biopic, it can avoid that kind of truth if it wants to.  Because the audience will forgive it in a biopic where they won’t in any other movie.  If this movie had been named, I don’t know, “Sameer”, the critics and audiences would be tearing it apart as viciously as they did Bombay Velvet.  But because it is called “Sanju”, all is forgiven.  If you say “I didn’t feel anything watching this movie”, you are told “no no, it’s a True Story”.  To not feel something for a True Story, for Real Suffering, means you are a sociopath, you don’t care about the world, you are just too stupid to understand that all of this Really Happened.

Well, lots of things in the world Really Happened.  And lots of things didn’t.  And I felt more watching Munna Bhai MBBS, a movie that didn’t happen starring the Real People this film was about, than I felt watching this film.  That’s what a movie is supposed to do, make me care, make me feel something, not because it Really Happened, but because the film is convincing me it really happened, convincing me to care.

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(I care about these people)

In this film, they were afraid of that emotional honesty.  They substitute for honesty perfect imitations of familiar people, or moments of wacky comedy, or flashbacks to underline a moment and take us out of it, and the constant overbearing ridiculous score.  There was never a time when they just let a moment land.  Never a moment when they asked the actors, or the audience, to sit for a second with these emotions instead of watching them flicker past like an instructional video.

Strangely, the part that felt most “real” to me, was the present day with Ranbir as Sanjay and Dia as Manyaata.  Perhaps because that was the one time period that the filmmakers couldn’t completely fake, the audience would know the truth and they knew the truth themselves.  I cared about those people, present day Sanjay and his wife and his children, that was serious and bittersweet and a little bit funny in just the right way.  But once the film goes into the past, once the overwhelming weight of the Dutt legend hits it, it just can’t find the truth any more.

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(Dia was also the only female character that felt like a real person.  Sonam was way too sweet and innocent, Manisha way too saintly and happy, and Anushka was just a mess, in many many ways)

No, that’s not right, it’s not the Dutt legend.  Because the Dutt legend comes with a powerful meaning to it, and this film was afraid of that meaning.  Afraid of looking at why Sunil Dutt was such a respected man, what he meant for the country.  Afraid of giving Nargis her true power, making her a powerful force for social good.  Afraid of looking at the reality of the riots that sent Sanjay to jail.  Afraid of looking at the reality of what Sanjay’s bad behavior did to those around him.  That’s the legend, the “real” legend, the strong self-sacrificing woman and the noble upstanding man destroyed by their tragically broken son.

And so instead this film gives us the legend with all the power stripped out and no truth added.  We are told that Sunil is a Great Man, but not shown it, not allowed to understand what he was doing for the country.  Nargis is minimized to a movie star and a mother and nothing more.  And all of the things Sanjay did wrong were just funny, foolish, boyish.

I don’t mind stripping the legend of its power, so long as you replace it with truth.  If you want to focus on Sunil as a father above all else, fine, but make that feel emotionally true.  Show us his struggle to get past his own grief and support his son.  Show us his anger, letting go and being furious.  Show us him feeling SOMETHING, ANYTHING.  If you want us to forgive and understand Sanjay, then don’t dance around the tragedies of his life.  Don’t turn him into a cheerful tapori-speaking clown instead of a man who had loss after loss in his personal life and kept going.

The fake characters in this film end up being more “real” than the real ones.  There’s a reason Vicky Kaushal’s performance is already being called out, he was the only actor in this film to provide real heartbreak, real drama.  And Jim Sarbh, he was the only one to give any kind of darkness to it.

Image result for vicky kaushal sanju

(Vicky Kaushal was great, really)

But Priya Dutt, she just sits silently in the background, hardly acknowledged.  The girlfriends and wives, of course, don’t exist at all.  And Sanjay himself doesn’t exist, not really, not the man of tragedy, not the loving father, not the loving son, not the dedicated actor, and not the generous man of the people.  Not even the addict, not really, it’s a film version of addiction, full of twitches and triumphal moments, and manic overacted moments.  Sunil Dutt doesn’t exist most of all.  It’s Pawesh Rawal in a bad wig spouting philosophy made up by Rajkumar Hirani, because it wouldn’t be a Hirani film without a simplistic life lesson to solve all your problems, “Jaddoo Ki Jhappa”, “Ghandigiri”, “Aal Izz Well”, “Wrong Number”, and now “Question Mark”.

But the audience applauded in my theater when the film was over.  Because they felt good, they felt wise and good and knowledgeable, they had seen Truth onscreen.  And because it made them feel good, this will be the version of Sanjay Dutt’s life that lives on from now on.  And slowly the old legend, and the reality of it, will drift away and be forgotten.  And all that will remain is these in this film, people going through the motions of a life instead of a life as it was actually lived.

13 thoughts on “Sanju Review (No Spoilers): Emotionally Hollow

  1. Saw this last night too. Non spoiler thoughts :

    This really comes across like a propaganda film, a campaign film, hence the lack of emotional depth and the sense of artifice and very clear motive. A grit-free movie about a gritty life usually only makes sense as either a comedy or as a propaganda film.

    It’s meandering narrative style reminds me more of PK than of other Hirani movies.

    Despite the above two comments, I was really sucked in and engrossed with this movie.

    Ranbir had a tough job and really did his best with the sugar coated direction given by Hirani.

    I loved seeing Manisha Koirala on my screen again! IMO her 2D portrayal of Nargis was on point, designed to show us how Sanju experienced her, not how she actually was. He barely had an adult life or relationship with her, so he experienced her as a child would.

    This is a star making turn for Vicky Kaushal. Jim Saarb was hammy – maybe would have been better without the lisp. Paresh Rawal just redefined his career – we’ll probably see him in more Dad roles now, Anupam Kher will have competition lol. Is Sonam supposed to be Tina Munim? Agree about Diya’s performance – demure yet strong, felt organic. Glad that Hirani has used her more than once in his films now. Did Boman Irani play more than one role here? In the first half as Rubys dad?

    I’m sad that everyone is knocking Anushkas hair/wig. My hair grew like that naturally for 2 decades and only relaxed with age and a move to a drier climate. My daughter’s hair has grown line this her whole life. I think it’s fab and looks fab on her. It was a little bushier than it needed to be, otoh many ppl with this sort of hair have bushy hair. Her costuming really showed off her impossibly perfect curvy yet tall and slim figure (my jaw dropped several times!) but was anachronistic for anything but modern day.

    Watching this movie really makes me want to see the Anurag Kashyap version of this same film. Even with the exact same script, he would have brought us a more layered, greyer, grittier, realistic story. Better yet, maybe a Sanju Stories anthology, with the four Lust Stories directors each contributing their takes on various aspects of Sanju’s life.


    • I agree about the propaganda film, but I think the timing is wrong for it. They planned the movie and started making it when Sanjay was in jail, thinking they would have to reintroduce him back to the public afterwards. But now, we know him again already, he’s been working steadily and a public figure and all that for the past 2 years. So it feels a bit lost in time, addressing a question (“can India learn to love Sanjay again?”) that is now out of date. You know?

      The narrative was ridiculously loose. They knew the stories they wanted to string together, but the connective tissue just wasn’t there.

      Ranbir is going to get accolades and it is going to bother me like crazy. Because there was nothing there! He did a spot on imitation, but every true emotional moment was resisted or hidden, and so there was nothing for his performance to do, no where to go. And yet I know he will be praised to the skies as the greatest actor of our time. Again.

      I loved seeing Manisha too! And she was perfect for the role. But I still want there to be more there for her or from her. At least a moment of motherly sadness over his drug addiction, something of the bitter with the sweet.

      Yes Boman was in here twice! Very confusing, he was Sonam’s father, and then the used a clip of him as himself in Munna Bhai. Rajkumar definitely has his regular cast of actors he likes to call on. Although I missed Jimmy Shergill. But I am glad he gave Dia something interesting to do and I thought she was wonderful and hopefully this turns into more for her. And for Vicky, I thought Vicky easily stole his scenes from Ranbir, clearly the more talented actor.

      Anushka’s curly hair didn’t bother me, except that it was so strangely unlike her natural hair, but her eyes really distracted me, and the lightening to her hair. I just don’t see what they were going for with the blue eyes and curly light colored hair. Was she supposed to be non-desi? But she spoke Hindi, even recognized colloquialisms. Maybe it was supposed to tell us that she was only half-desi and explain why she didn’t know the details of Sanjay’s story. But they could have just said “I grew up in England, I don’t know your story”. Why this strange kind of white-face effect?

      I also want to see the Lust Stories version!!!! That’s almost what this film was going for, it seemed like, such strange tonal shifts between segments. Or, you know what it should really be? Have you heard of the British miniseries Red Riding? It was 3 different hour and a half episodes, each covering a different year, each shot by a different director in a different film quality (different film stock, different aspect ratio), one set in 1973, one in 1980 and one in 1983. That’s how Sanju’s story should be told, 3 separate feature length episodes with the same cast but different directors and covering different eras. I want to see Anurag Kashyap take on the drug years, Karan Johar take on the romantic agony of the early 90s, and Neeraj Panday do the complicated details of the court cases.

      On Sat, Jun 30, 2018 at 8:33 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



    • Meant to add – an actor being outfitted with hair or hairstyle that isn’t their own is usually either mimicking a real life person or else channeling a certain era. Either there is a famous author or biographer with similarly curly hair that Hirani is copying for Anushka, or he’s telegraphing the disco era (for westerners, late 70s, for Indians, mid 80s). But this doesn’t match with her modern-day bodycon outfits.


      • Maybe everyone else on set, stuck in their fake wigs and make-up and all, was resentful of Anushka’s freedom to just look like herself, so Hirani had to throw a wig on her in order to maintain cast solidarity?

        On Sat, Jun 30, 2018 at 8:57 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • I can try but no guarantees.
        I recently joined film companion film club a channel by fc for discussions so was thinking of posting over there for a different view.


  2. Well written review! I personally loved the movie.

    Being from the U.K. though, and as a long time Sanjay Dutt fan, I’m curious to know the “true” story, which you didn’t cover here (haven’t read the spoiler review yet so apologies if it’s in there). How bad his haalat really was, how much he damaged those around him, etc. Basically the parts that some of the public are deriding the movie for leaving out. Can you please share some of these, or point me towards some honest articles that explore these points?

    Many thanks and looking forward to reading through the rest of your blog. Especially the stuff on Sacred Games which I just finished last night and really enjoyed.


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