Who is the original Dutt? Sanjay or Sunil?

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If Sanju throws up any valuable lessons, it is that biopics ought to be objective depictions of legendary individuals — like Sunil Dutt, for instance — and explore their life and art in conjunction.

“The senior Dutt was an actor-filmmaker who saw the highs and lows of life in the industry, and put all his efforts into making a hero out of his son, an unknown quantity.” | Images courtesy Reuters, Special Arrangement

What connects Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) with Celluloid (2013), Bhumika (1977) and Mahanayika (2016)? It’s not just the fact that they were biopics/part-biopics. It is not just that the lead characters of these films had tumultuous personal lives. It is the fact that these films were not just about high achievers in cinema, but also about the artistes’ relationship with their art. The likes of Dadasaheb Phalke, J.C. Daniel, Hansa Wadkar, and Suchitra Sen did not just experience personal difficulties, they surmounted them to achieve excellence in their art form. The screenplays of these films alternatively focussed on the personal and professional lives of the lead protagonists but the fact that they were artistes and the films intended to give us a glimpse into their creative labour was among the central points. This is one factor — the relationship of the actor with his art and how his personal life fed into his performances — starkly missing in Sanju.

 

 

The film claims to be on the life of Sanjay Dutt, a middling actor who has done some good work in the post-2000 period. That the film largely whitewashes his peccadilloes to present a sanitised version of his present does not come as a surprise; Rajkumar Hirani is not an Anurag Kashyap to make a docu-drama feature. What comes as a surprise is the fact that unlike many other films about artistes having troubled personal lives — like, say, Lust for Life and Pink Floyd: The Wall — the film does not show how the tragedies in Dutt’s lives fed into his cinema. For instance, was his early brush with the law one reason for the anti-hero-like roles he was offered in the ’80s, in films like Naam, Kabza and Hathyar? Did his incarceration and purported links with underworld, for which a lot of documentary evidence is available, make filmmakers offer him don-like roles in the ’90s, the best of which came in Vaastav? There is almost nothing shown on how the publicity extracted out of his jail time in the early ’90s led to the stupendous opening for Khalnayak (1993). Sanju does give some emphasis on the bad choices Dutt junior made in his life, but what about the movie choices — good and bad — that ran in parallel?

That said, the best film-within-the-film moment, I felt, does not involve Dutt junior at all. It involves his father, Sunil Dutt, during the shooting of Rocky, circa 1980. The senior Dutt was by then a widely respected public figure who was trying to give his son a star vehicle; in the scene, he is shown explaining how to bring verisimilitude to a song sequence while shooting the song ‘Kya Yahi Pyar Hai’. Here was an actor-filmmaker, who had begun his film career as a radio journalist and who had seen the highs and lows of life in the industry, trying to put all his efforts into making a hero out of his son, an unknown quantity. Here, I strongly felt that if there was one individual whose life deserves not just to be made for the big screen but also is worthy of the big canvas and huge budget that it entails — it is Sunil Dutt.

Here, it is important to reflect the very meaning of the term “biopic”. Among different definitions, one is provided in the book The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture:

“The term ‘biopic’ is used to refer to a fiction film that deals with a figure whose existence is documented in history, and whose claims to fame or notoriety warrant the uniqueness of his/her story. [In a biopic...] personality and point of view become the conduit of history in stories that often boil down complex social processes to gestures of individual agency”.

In this regard, Hirani assumed that Sanjay Dutt’s claim to notoriety deserved telling. However, while bringing the younger Dutt’s point of view, Hirani chose to keep Dutt’s profession solely in the background, giving emphasis on making him play the victim in different ways. Further, the fact that the subject of the film is still active in the profession and closely linked to the makers of the film serves to tarnish whatever little authenticity the biopic deserved to claim. In the big, informal, almost mafia-like set up of the film industry, the film amounted to little more than a lavish exercise in image-rebuilding. However, the places where the film can claim to have been somewhat true is the points where the larger-than-life figure of the elder Dutt is presented. The film has managed to provoke outrage from many sections due its portrayal of the junior Dutt; but even these sections are unanimous in their view that the best character in the film, someone who brought forth some truth amidst the PR building, was the older Dutt, a revered figure, the rise of whose career coincided with the rise of India as a nation-state.

 

 

Sunil Dutt was a man of, well, truly many faces. He was a teenager whose affluent parents lost more from the Partition than they gained as they shifted from Jhelum to Hisar. He was a young BEST employee who doubled up as a radio jockey and interviewed Nargis, among the most successful actors of the period, eventually going on to marry her. He was an actor who, despite getting hero roles right from his first film, did not much insist on his own character being the central one in the film, a factor that made him shine in roles like SujataDidi and Sadhna in the ’50s and Gumraah and Humraaz in the ’60s. As a producer-director, Dutt believed in not just experimenting, but making a social statement through his cinema. His Dard ka Rishta (1982) succeeded his wife’s death due to cancer and was aimed at showing the difficulties she faced while battling the disease; his Yeh Aag Kab Bujhegi  (1991) was about the dowry system.

Dutt senior was also a philanthropist who entertained Indian troops during the wars of ’62, ’65 and ’71 ­­­­­­(but was ironically labelled a traitor when his son got arrested under TADA). Finally, he was a social-worker who tirelessly worked for the riot victims in the difficult ’80s and ’90s, conducting peace walks. On the political front, he was a leader who won in his constituency a record five times, ending his innings as a Sports Minister. Dutt’s life with all these factors have enough scope for great drama. This is drama of the kind that would serve not as a confessional statement but as inspirational art. The fact that he has been an uncontroversial figure and that it has been more than a decade since his passing would help filmmakers view his life from a distance and add some objectivity to the depiction.

There are numerous episodes in the senior Dutt’s life which have been documented in writing but still would make for interesting cinema material. The first episode is his relationship with Nargis, who was at the top of her career when they got married while he was just three films old. Their relationship, documented in books like Darlingji and Mr. and Mrs. Dutt, has been much discussed and written about. However, what would serve as an interesting vignette for cinema is the upturn Dutt senior’s career took post his marriage, when he got on to dominate the industry for nearly a decade.

 

Some of the best artistes have had a dark and troubled personal life, one that makes for great cinema. However, few artistes have lived a life as filled with empathy and compassion amid tough situations as the senior Dutt did.

 

The second episode concerns his life as a filmmaker, one with both a patriotic and an experimental streak. His second production, Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), is about a dacoit who wishes to reform after falling in love. His first directorial venture, Yaadein (1964), is among the very few single-actor films. His later productions — like Reshma Aur Shera (1971), a Rajasthan-centred take on the Romeo and Juliet story, Dard ka Rishta and Ye Aag Kab Bujhegi were also in some ways reflective of his approach to life — full of compassion with no bitterness or malice.

Dutt’s career graph as an actor can be segmented into various phases. In his early years played two broad categories of roles — one was the idealist and the other was the rebel. The role of Birju in his very third film Mother India (1957) acted as a template for many famous writers, including Salim-Javed, in creating the characters of angry young men with a troubled childhood seeking redemption for themselves and their family through violence and gore. The second type of role, that of an idealist in the form of a journalist or a writer, were backed by strong lyrics from Sahir Ludhianvi in many cases, whom Dutt Sr. identifies as an ustad in Sanju.

Dutt’s tribulations due to being the father of a drug addict and an accused is shown in Sanju. However, what is not shown is: why did a patriot like Dutt, who swore by honesty, go out of his way to save someone whose life looked irredeemable, efforts that made him compromise on his values and approach someone like Bal Thackerey? Was his love for his son the only reason? Was he a Dhritarashtra blinded by an unconditional affection for a son whose wrong choices were affecting more than just his immediate family members? This is one aspect a film on the older Dutt has to explore.

 

 

Another interesting bit of trivia concerning the senior Dutt’s life that can be shown concerns the role Dilip Kumar inadvertently played in his career. When Dutt went to director Ramesh Saigal for an audition in the mid-1950s, he did not own the right kind of costume. Saigal, who had done some films with Dilip Kumar by then and was filming Shikast with him, asked the aspiring actor to try the ill-fitting clothes of the senior actor. Saigal went on to direct the senior Dutt's debut, Railway Platform (1955). The senior Dutt's first major role was one Dilip Kumar walked out of, the role of Birju in Mother India. Even as politicians, their careers had a somewhat similar arc. They both served as Sheriffs of Mumbai, were both lifelong Congressmen, and worked in the difficult ’90s to rehabilitate the riot-affected Mumbaites.

Some of the best artistes have had a dark and troubled personal life, one that makes for great cinema. However, few artistes have lived a life as filled with empathy and compassion amid tough situations as the senior Dutt did. This is one factor that makes his story truly worthy of the big screen.

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