They collapsed the boundaries between mainstream entertainers and meaningful cinema much earlier in the day and, released at crucial post-lib junctures, came to almost define a 21st century national cinema—passing muster with the masses and the classes alike. Just four films—Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), 3 Idiots (2009) and PK (2014)—make Nagpur-born director Rajkumar Hirani one of the finest filmmakers of his generation. The 55-year-old auteur is now ready with his next, Sanju, a biopic depicting the turbulent life of Bollywood’s enfant terrible, Sanjay Dutt. With Ranbir Kapoor in the lead, the film, due for release on June 29, may well be the master filmmaker’s litmus test, as he has made a foray into the unfamiliar and dicey terrain of biopics with a movie on the life of somebody he has known professionally and personally for years. In conversation with Giridhar Jha, Hirani spells out the reasons behind making the biopic, dismissing the charge that he has made it to glorify his actor-friend, known for his chequered life and career. Excerpts from the interview:
You have delivered four blockbusters on the trot. With that kind of resume, I presume there should be no reason for butterflies in the belly ahead of the next release.
Far from it, I get butterflies with every release. I remember—Boman Irani still jokes about it—how I had called him a week after the release of 3 Idiots, asking him if the film was really working at the box office, or was it just because of Aamir Khan that people were flocking to the theatres.
So yes, I do get nervous before a release. The only time you do not get nervous is when you are making your first film. At that time, just the joy of making a movie is so high that you do not care; you are happy to have finally made it. It is only later that you want your film to be seen and appreciated by people. So there’s some amount of nervousness even now, but I am feeling happy and upbeat that I have made a different kind of movie. I am eagerly waiting for people to react to it.
Making this movie in particular must have been very challenging, if not scary. A biopic is expected to be an objective and dispassionate account of someone’s life. And you have dared to make a movie on someone with whom you have had a long association, both personal and professional. Weren’t you apprehensive that you might end up making a hagiographic film meant to glorify Sanjay Dutt?
There is no reason for us to make a movie to glorify Sanjay Dutt. We are in a pretty good space, and we can make any film we want to. I could have chosen to make the next edition of the Munna Bhai series instead of Sanju. Even if it were a bad Munna Bhai, people would still go and watch it initially. The only reason I have made this film is that I found it to be a very compelling story. I discovered the many sides of it which people did not know.
When exactly did you realise that Sanjay Dutt’s life story had all it takes to make a gripping movie?
Well, I had finished shooting PK and was in the process of editing it. Sanju had come out of jail at the time and I had gone to meet him. He was sitting there all alone and we began chatting about his experiences in prison. Soon, he started talking about the entire gun episode (the AK-56 case he was charged with). Though I had worked with him in three movies, I was never among his close friends, like Mahesh Manjrekar and Sanjay Gupta. He was just an actor I had directed, and we had been cordial to each other, but that day, he just opened up and started talking about his life. I had actually gone to meet him to discuss the next Munna Bhai movie, but after listening to his story, it fascinated me to know that someone can actually have a life like his. I called my co-writer, Abhijat Joshi, and told him the crazy stories I was hearing about. After that, we sat with him for hours over the next 25 days, from early evenings to the wee hours, every day. Then I met former Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria, who had been associated with his case, to know his side of the story. I also met Sanju’s lawyers, family members, friends and others who were part of his life.
But I had a precondition before making his biopic. I asked Sanju if he would have the courage to see a film on his life, which I would shoot exactly the way I had heard from him. I made it clear that if he would ever ask me to change this line or hide that scene, I would not make it. “Yaar, tere ko jo karna hai, kar (go ahead buddy, do whatever you want to),” came the reply. Once you see the film, you will realise that I have not glorified him at all. The truth is that as a filmmaker, I am greedy for content and his life story has amazing content.
Ranbir Kapoor against the backdrop of his many Sanju avatars
What precisely fascinated you about his life: his early bout with drug addiction, the gun episode, the subsequent arrest, or for that matter, his intermittent rise, fall and rise in the film industry?
People already know much of these stories. I am going to show the chapters from his life which are not in the public domain—what happened between the father and the son, for example. As writers, we are sketching people all the time when we write fiction. In his case, the character was already there. I was joking with Sanju the other day that he had been writing a script for us for the last 50 years. I would say I turned greedy after listening to his story because somebody was giving us such material. Most biopics are about achievers; this one is about a guy who made bad choices in life.
Was it more challenging than your previous movies?
Yes. When we started on the film, we thought it would be easier since we had so many episodes from Sanju’s life that could easily be converted into scenes. But while writing, we realised a movie cannot simply be made with 40 or 50 episodes from somebody’s life. Mere anecdotes would not work until they were seamlessly woven into the narrative. With fiction, you can do whatever you want to, but if you are making a film on someone, you have to stick to the truth. You cannot just say that I will change the climax because I do not like it. That is why the structuring of the story turned out to be a bigger challenge than writing itself.
Did Sanjay open up to you because he had implicit trust in you as a filmmaker after all the work you two have done together? He could have gone to any of his close director-friends, the ones who are part of his inner circle.
I’m assuming that he must have had some kind of trust in me, but that trust was definitely not stemming from the fact that we would show him in good light. That was never his fear. There was no precondition from his side. He said his life was an open book. Actually, just Googling him will give you everything—his drug days, the gun episode.
Were you concerned about the consequences of making a biopic on such a popular, contemporary film star, someone who has been romantically linked with well-known actresses in the past? The risk of treading on too many toes...
See, we have touched more on the drugs phase and the gun episode of his life. Other stories are there in the backdrop and we have dealt with them carefully, in order to not hurt anyone. The idea was to make a film on his life and not something sensational.
Has Sanjay Dutt seen his biopic? If yes, what was his reaction like?
Sanju has seen only a few scenes. He was left teary-eyed after watching some parts featuring his father, Sunil Dutt (played by Paresh Rawal). I keep telling him to see the entire film but he says he will see its final print only. I had, of course, narrated the script to him earlier. I wanted him to know what we were making. When I finished the narration, he said his whole life had flashed in front of his eyes in three hours. I asked him if he had any objection to any part. “Nahin yaar,” he said, “go and make whatever you want.” At times, he would get amused by the fact that someone was actually making a film on his life.
His relationship with his father, I believe, forms an integral part of the narrative.
Two relationships are integral to the story: one, between the father and the son and the other with a friend (played by Vicky Kaushal), who represents a lot of his friends from real life.
Initially, some reports surfaced saying you had offered Sunil Dutt’s role to Aamir Khan…
Aamir is a friend. Any script I write, I bounce it to him. When I narrated Sanju to him, he loved it and said, “Main bhi kucch karta hoon (I should also do something in it).” Then I said, do this. But he was already doing the role of an elderly man in Dangal (2016) around the same time.
One question I’m sure you must have been asked many times by now—why Ranbir Kapoor as Sanjay Dutt?
When we began writing the script, we were thinking about who can play Sanju. Then, just by instinct, I felt Ranbir would be the right choice. We needed somebody who could easily fit into the Sanju’s shoes during the various phases of his life, right from the time he was shooting for Rocky (1981) to when he came out of the Pune jail. Ranbir himself comes from a film family and is exposed to that sort of life. I never thought of anybody else for this role. But the bigger battle was how Ranbir would look. We spent a lot of time working on that. That is why we shot the film in different phases, giving ample gaps between shoots during which he lost and gained weight to get into the skin of the character. He has done a fabulous job. In fact, Ranbir has far surpassed my expectations. Merely looking like someone is one thing; you can ape somebody but it can look like a caricature. The performance of mimicry artistes is different from that of the real performers, the former can go overboard. But mere looks were not enough. Ranbir’s challenge was to look real while still managing to give a glimpse of Sanju, otherwise it would have looked like plastic surgery. Ranbir is so dedicated. If he was required for a 5 am shoot at a lonely place, his make-up man would be there at three. For a whole year, he was available for us all the time. And his dedication is finally showing.
From Munna Bhai MBBS to Sanju, how has Sanjay Dutt evolved as a human being? Did you ever notice him turning bitter or cynical because of the upheavals in his life?
I still remember, we were shooting PK when he was about to go to jail. Only a day’s shoot of an important scene with him was left when the judgement came. He had a month to surrender and I kept on postponing the shoot. But it had to be done and we could eventually do it only a few days before he left for prison. I could see that he was completely shattered and depressed. He would wonder whether he could survive the ordeal. He was around 54-55 at the time and he wished that it had happened when he was younger. He had already spent one-and-a-half years in the jail in the past. His depression was reflected in some of the handwritten letters that he wrote to some of us from his prison cell. But gradually, he began to take his sentence in his stride, even joking around, showing his sense of humour. In one of his letters, he wrote, “Raju, I just went to New York and what a lovely time I had with my family there”. In the next paragraph, he goes, “Hahaha, you know what I dreamt about last night.”
I call him a survivor. I remember his sister Priya (Dutt) telling me once how they never got to stay for long with their brother. First, he went to a boarding school and when he returned after eight-nine years, he was taken to a drug rehab centre. Later, the gun episode got him entangled in legal cases for years. Given these circumstances, I feel he managed to retain his sanity. He not only survived but bounced back. Internally, he is a strong man. While shooting Munna Bhai MBBS, he was supposed to appear in the court every alternate day and also report to the local police station once a week. We used to shoot in the afternoons or evenings those days because of that.
(Clockwise from top) Munna Bhai MBBS, PK, 3 Idiots, Lage Raho Munna Bhai
Looking back, did you expect your debut movie, Munnabhai MBBS, to be such a success, both critically and commercially?
No, we never thought of that. We were all new and naive at the time. While we were filming Munna Bhai MBBS, we didn’t think we were doing some kind of mainstream cinema. I only knew that I was doing a different kind of cinema. More than its commercial success, it fetched us a lot of love and affection from people. I was happy that my family and friends saw it. That joy itself was enough. Never in my life had I thought of anything like this.
You apparently put the third edition of the Munna Bhai series, with Sanjay, on hold to make Sanju? There were also talks of a Munna Bhai Chale America being made in the past…
We wanted to do the third Munna Bhai film and even wrote a lot of it, but we were not able to match the script with the first two. Now, I have found something, though we still have to write it.
These days, a lot of small but content-rich movies are doing well? You have been a pioneer of sorts in this regard. Do you think the taste of Bollywood audiences has finally changed for the better?
Who is an audience? You and I. They are us—some of them are intelligent people, some are dumb. Whenever somebody comes with something good, something that’s different from the prevailing trends, we always appreciate it. When Ardh Satya (1984) was made, I was a student. It cannot be called a mainstream film but it blew my mind. Great films have been made in every era. In recent times, the multiplexes have, of course, played a great role in promoting content. My dad had completely stopped going to cinemas in Nagpur because they were in bad shape. But now, people are stepping out to see movies. And today, every film is a different film. We are living in good times.
As a filmmaker, you must have been influenced by a few directors …
Yes, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a big influence. Then, there were Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif, Manmohan Desai, and Vijay Anand, whose technique I loved. But Hrishida influenced me the most with his simplicity of story-telling.
This is your fifth film in 15 years. You have not been quite prolific despite your 100 per cent box-office record.
After I finish any film, I move to the next one. It takes about a year to write and another six months are for pre-production and other things. You need a minimum of two-and-a-half months for the shooting of a new film. Then, I also edit my own film. To be honest, I would love to make more movies, but I don’t get enough good scripts. Since I write my own scripts, people don’t send scripts to me. I would be more than happy to get scripts from outside. Even the ones which are only 50 per cent ready would do as we can work on them.
Munna Bhai MBBS, as we know, was offered to Shahrukh Khan first. During the making of Sanju, did it ever occur to you that this movie was destined to happen? What if Shahrukh had done Munna Bhai?
I never thought of anything like this. See, I got to know Sanju because of Munna Bhai, but as I told you earlier, I was never among his close friends. I knew him as much as the rest of the world did. He never led me into his darkest secrets. Even if I had not done the three films with him, I would still have been fascinated by his story and made a film on his life. Knowing him gave me that opportunity. As I told you, as a filmmaker, I am always greedy for content and can go anywhere for it.