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Believe it or not, but nobody in Bollywood makes films like Rajkumar Hirani. He is a one-off. From Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003) to Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) and 3 Idiots (2009) to PK (2014), his movies take audiences on a joyride that promises loads of emotions, drama, humour, and much more. He knows how to sew up the special moments of life and create magical cinematic experiences for audiences to cherish.

His new film Sanju is a biopic on actor Sanjay Dutt, headlined by Ranbir Kapoor. This is the first time when he has stepped into a territory he does not belong to. But then facing new challenges and emerge as victorious is what a filmmaker lives for. In an interview with Eastern Eye correspondent, Mohnish Singh, Hirani reveals what inspired him to make a biopic on a flawed man, how did he come about roping in Ranbir for the lead role, which has been the most challenging film of his filmography, and much more.

What inspired you to make a biopic on Sanjay Dutt? Biopics are usually made of icons and idols.

Actually, Sanju’s wife (Manyata Dutt) was the one who first said to me that why don’t we make a film about Sanju’s life, and my reaction was that Sanju’s life is dark, there were gun and underworld in his past life and that is not my territory. This was my first reaction. But you are right it’s not a film about an achiever, so that was a much bigger challenge. There was no objective that the protagonist wanted and the film could be about if he got that or not. So, we have taken up a big challenge to tell a story of somebody who is not an achiever, but I thought there is something in the story that needs to be told. I think it was due to the fascination with the question can somebody’s life be like this?

How did you piece together various chapters from Sanjay Dutt’s life to make this film?

Sanju went to jail and then he came out on parole once. So, I went to meet him and I was curious about life in jail and he started telling me stories about his time there, and we talked for the whole day. Next day, he called me again and asked to visit him. I went and we talked about his time again, he was venting out. Him and I have done films together though I never thought we had a close relationship, we didn’t hang out together but when he started telling me these stories, I knew he was telling true stories because there was no agenda to it. I got so fascinated with it that I sat with him for 25 days. At some level, we filmmakers are greedy for some content. With fiction, you have to make up each thought to each word, and each scene is a struggle for it to be entertaining, and here is a man who is giving me scenes after scenes and everything seemed like a film story.

Was there any specific set of characteristics you were looking for in an actor who could play Sanjay Dutt onscreen?

For the casting of the role of Sanju, we needed an actor who was young, who can play a 21-year-old till the age of 55-year-old when he came out of jail. So, neither I can take a very old actor, nor I can take a very young actor. Physicality should match and the major chunk for the film was Sanju in the 80’s. If you see Ranbir Kapoor’s Saawariya (2007) and Sanju’s Rocky (1981) phase, you will notice the similarities. Other than the look to match there is also the need that the actor should feel as the character itself.

Why did you choose Ranbir Kapoor to play Sanju despite the fact that his career has seen a decline in the past few years?

When casting, you must never think how is his career going? That is the biggest mistake we all can make. You see who fits the best for the role, you have to cast very carefully and, in the end, I thought Ranbir Kapoor was the right choice. The reason I thought Ranbir was the right casting because the height was same, there is similarities with their looks, they both have had stardom, they both were born in film families, both of their fathers were actors, Ranbir has seen that world and he knows Sanju, he has spent time with him. So, I thought he would be able to pull off this role and he seemed like an apt choice for this role.

What was Ranbir Kapoor’s initial reaction to being cast as Sanju?

When I first messaged him saying, “I have got a script, whenever you have time let’s meet up”. To this, he replied, “I hope it’s not the Sanjay Dutt’s biopic”. He knew I was meeting Sanju and the works for his biopic was on track. I didn’t know he knew about it. I told him to let’s meet up first and let me tell you how I am framing this story. We met and I didn’t show him the whole script but the skeleton of the script. When he heard it, he said that he knew all these stories but didn’t realise you can put it in this way. So, he immediately said yes.

What was the biggest challenge during the making of Sanju?

Ranbir’s immediate worry was how would he resemble Sanjay Dutt? We said let’s try for two-three months to check if he could look like him. Then we devoted three months for the look, hired the best makeup artist and used prosthetics, but we failed every time. We all were frustrated by then but one day we tried again. He got makeup done. I was waiting to see him. He came out to see me and I thought Sanjay Dutt was walking towards me. That day we felt we pulled off Sanju’s look.

Which was the most difficult role to cast?

We were struggling with the casting of Sunil Dutt, we tried so many people for the role. There was a time where we thought to cast Sanjay Dutt for the role of Sunil Dutt, but then we thought that is the most stupid idea because it will look ridiculous for Sanjay Dutt to call Ranbir Kapoor Sanju beta. We go through this brainstorming phase and sometimes it stretches to a year and we start making the movie.

What difficulty did you face with Sunil Dutt’s character?

When we achieved the look of Sanju for Ranbir Kapoor, we became ambitious and thought we could use prosthetics and makeup for the other cast too to look like their characters, but for Sanju, we had the tools. If you want the character to look old, you grey the hair, use a beard and grey that too, have some under eye makeup and that can make the person look older. But Sunil Dutt never kept a beard and he never had white hair, so we didn’t have the tools to achieve that. We can work with the clothes so we had to give up on that.

How did you come to cast Paresh Rawal and Manisha Koirala?

As we couldn’t match Sunil Dutt look wise, we decided to get a father figure. We decided to accentuate the fatherly traits rather than the look and Paresh Rawal played into the fatherhood of the character. With Manisha Koirala, we could still play a little with the hairstyle and the clothing style and we achieved some resemblance of Nargis ji.

How did you manage to chronicle Sanju’s full journey and show it within 3 hours? Was it a challenge?

You can’t show the whole life journey in a biopic. You have to finally choose what you think is the most relevant story in his life. To me, the most relevant story was the gun story and the drug story, so, we chose that and had to leave a lot of it out, and even after the shoot, we had to remove some scenes because it was going in a different direction. And finally, you have to choose very little and follow that path.

Are you worried that people will compare Sanju to your previous works?

Sanju is more drama than humour. There is a tad bit of humour here and there in the story, but you have to be true to the story. Like when he was taking drugs, I can’t add humour to that. So, it’s a tremendously emotional film and I tried to be as truthful to the matter as I can be. I think it’s a problem how people compare your current work to that of the past one and I can’t do anything about that. But I don’t think that’s fair because every story is different. If I make the same kind of movie as I did in the past, people will say my work is repetitive. It’s a very different story form those that I have done before.

Is there any genre that you would like to explore but haven’t found any good script yet?

I don’t think that way that now I have touched this genre, so now I want to try another one. You do films whose story you like. There is a natural attraction to your projects that you make. My natural attraction is towards human interest stories or stories on human relationships with a little humour. Like so people love thrillers so, even if you give them 10 scripts, they will be attracted towards thriller ones. It’s the same with me, but if in the future there is a great horror script with a little emotion present, then I would pursue it. But I don’t specifically go from genre to genre for the sake of it.

Whenever you make a film, the audience has blind faith in your work. Does that scare you?

Of course, I feel scared. By the end of the film, you lose your objective because you have seen too much of the film then you have to depend on others. There is that fear, you are giving your all to the film but you don’t know if it will connect to its viewers. You are making it for the people, you want them to be entertained and engaged, so the only thing you can do is work hard.

Sanju is running successfully in cinemas near you.