Incorrect for ‘Sanju’ to blame the media?

03 Jul,2018


By Ranjona Banerji


I am not a fan of Bollywood or Bollywood films. My heart goes out to fellow journalists who have to watch and review these films. I know that they neither want nor need my sympathy and that they enjoy what they do. At least, I assume they do. Reading through the reviews of Rajkumar Hirani’s “biopic” about film star Sanjay Dutt,  several seemed unsettled by the whitewashing (my word) of some aspects of Dutt’s life – especially his involvement in the Bombay bomb blasts of March 1993. Some were also critical of the portrayal of the media as the main villain in the film.

For anyone who lived during those times of riots and bomb blasts, that is of course laughable. And for anyone who knows the way the film world works, it is doubly funny. The relationship between film stars and film journalists was always interesting: incestuous at times, love-hate at others but often, there was some sort of integrity visible. But as PR took over a couple of decades ago, what you most often got was journalists as fans and “journalism” depending on the money paid to the journal they worked for.

I watched some part of this “biopic”. I found myself unable to agree with the reviewers that this was a great one from Raj Kumar Hirani if only because I know nothing about film and my idea of a great biopic is more “Milk” than “Sanju”. Also, I am too old to be caught up in the post-fact hero worship of a controversial character, no matter whether he is a Bollywood star or not.

How far was the media to blame for Sanjay Dutt’s incarceration? In those days, we did not have the sort of private 24-hour news television we are so used to today. Even the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 was seen on the BBC by many of us, not any Indian channel. It was newspapers which ruled.

When the bomb blasts ripped through Bombay on March 12, 1993, Sanjay Dutt and his future was thrown out of the cosy world of film magazines. To most editors in those days, Bollywood stayed on the Bollywood pages, if anyone today can try and imagine such a time. But when a film star – already controversial in his personal life – was accused by the police of storing RDX and buying assault rifles in connection with a series of bomb blasts, it is a story among several others. It was not the only story – much as Bollywood may want to imagine itself – it was one of many. If I look back it is the stories of the victims that still resonate. And by “victim”, I mean people who died and whose families were ripped apart, not a privileged badly behaved film star who had gangster friends and played a role, however small, (he stored explosives and weapons for gangster Abu Salem) in the attempted destruction of Bombay.

In one of those bizarrely ironic moments, the top Sanjay Dutt starrer of 1993 was Subhash Ghai’sKhalnayak, starring Dutt as the villain. Was the media to blame for using that word (villain) in their headlines? Or was there no other option?

Dutt had access to India’s best lawyers. His case also went through the highest courts in the land to the top court. If all those were unable to combat the evil media, then us journalists are much more powerful than we imagine ourselves to be.

That the film looks for an easy target is hardly surprising. The media is so large and so amorphous that blaming it can be justified in any number of ways. That some aspects of Sanjay Dutt’s story were sensationalised by some of the media is also undoubtable. But to combat those, we were subjected to several sickly-sweet stories of him being a perfect prisoner and making papad or baskets or some such.

It is important to establish that the bomb blasts case took years to come to trial. Dutt was jailed as an undertrial in April 1993, released in October 1995, re-arrested in December 1995 and then released in April 1997. The verdict in the bomb blasts case came in July 2007, a full 10 years later. And this is July 2018, 11 years later. The time frames of the Indian judicial system have given Dutt enough time to appeal to a new generation of fans, journalists and film makers. He went to jail again as a convict in May 2013 and was released in February 2016 with some controversial parole in between.

His Munnabhai films, also by Hirani, established him as a lovable rogue, an image that the film Sanju attempts to fortify.

The problem is that however you sugarcoat it and whoever you blame, Sanjay Dutt played a part in one of India’s darkest chapters. The fantasy work of Bollywood is the easy part of life. The scars that Bombay still bears are deeper and more real. Even for Sanjay Dutt.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal.



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