A little over 15 years ago, Sanjay Dutt was shooting with a debutant director at Grant Medical College in Mumbai. “I don’t know what to make of him or this film he is making,” Dutt grumbled to me about his director in between takes. The film was Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. and the director was Rajkumar Hirani. That film went on to become a landmark in Dutt’s career and began a relationship that’s resulted in Hirani’s fifth film as director — Sanju. In a first of its kind, the director’s new film is a biopic that traces the life of one of Bollywood’s most controversial actors. And it all started on the sets of Munna Bhai.
During a recent conversation with Hirani in his quaint office that has the 3 Idiots’ ‘bum chairs’, the scooter from Munna Bhai and the radio from PK on display, I tell him about Dutt’s initial scepticism. The 55-year-old director laughs and recalls: “Sanju comes from a very dignified family and he’ll always be very respectful to all directors. He might question what you’re doing when you aren’t around, but he’ll always be nice to you on your face. I got to hear that the minute I stepped out, he’d start asking my assistants why I was doing so many takes and stuff like that.” Over black coffee, Hirani spoke about seeing his first ever “full house” board, how his collaboration with writer Abhijat Joshi has shaped his films and what made him pick Ranbir Kapoor to play Dutt.
This is your fifth film in 15 years. Is this a pace that you are comfortable with?
Obviously I would have liked to have made more films. The reason I haven’t is that I end up writing my own scripts. I’ve never had a bank of scripts. I’ve had many ideas but every idea needs time to get into your system and then get written out properly. The problem is that people think that I only make films based on scripts that I have written, so nobody sends me any scripts. I keep bumping into writers and ask them why they don’t send me scripts but they just laugh.
We should then get the word out to all the writers to send you scripts.
Please do. If I do get a script from somebody else and if it’s good or even half good, I’d build on it and would love to make more films.
Do you remember your first day as a film director?
Yes, very vividly. It was Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. and I remember the first shot was with the character called Rustom Pavri. He comes running into his house and Munna (Sanjay Dutt) and Circuit (Arshad Warsi) are playing carom with him, but the first shot we did was of him running up the steps. I also remember it clearly because we were supposed to start shooting in January and on December 31, Sanju called me from South Africa saying he wouldn’t be able to make it on the 2nd and my world collapsed. It was my first film, we had planned everything so meticulously… down to the minute; and he didn’t even tell us whether he’s coming on the 3rd or the 4th, we had no idea when he’d be back. It was the first blow and that’s when you realise that making cinema is like this, when something can get cancelled at the very last minute. But when Sanju came, it was pure joy.
The first day I was very worried that I’d written the film in a particular way, but how would the actor actually perform it. Things have changed now, and people rehearse — Aamir (Khan), Ranbir, Boman (Irani)… all rehearse a lot, so there are no surprises on the day of the shoot. But with Sanju and all, there were no rehearsals and I was very worried about what we’d end up with. The second shot was with Arshad. He had to open the door and smile and when he did it, it was 10 times better than what I had thought would happen — those little joys of the character having found the correct path. Even Sanju, when he had to do his first shot, he had to take off his shirt and sit there in a banian.
I remember Binod Pradhan was shooting that film. The film he had done before that was Devdas, and that was an expansive film, shot very lavishly. Munna Bhai was a small film, so I told him we had to do 20 shots for the day. He looked at me and said: ‘20 shots? That’s what we did in one month for Devdas.’ (Laughs) But he came and we took 22 shots that day.
What was your impression of Sanjay Dutt when you met him in the initial days?
I think our relationship changed when I showed him one hour of the film and he saw it all coming together. Sanju comes from that old school where they didn’t read the whole script and went along with somebody’s belief. Today’s actors are very focused and know what’s going on around them; those were different days. But by my second film (Lage Raho Munna Bhai), he was a completely changed man. He had a small role in PK and we shot with him for 15 days in Rajasthan, and Sanju coming at 7am was unheard of, but with Aamir we were doing 12-hour shoots. He’d come before Aamir and wait there, and then say to me: ‘Look I’m here but Aamir isn’t.’ He had never done that for any other film before!
Munna Bhai has achieved cult-like status. At what point did you realise that the film has worked?
We were so naive that it didn’t matter whether the film succeeded or not. The film released on December 19 and I was sleeping till lunch on December 20. I was so relieved that the film was over and done with. For me, the joy was that I’d come to the city to make a film and I’d done it; my parents had seen it, my friends had seen it... people liked it... I hadn’t made something rubbish. It didn’t matter whether the film did business or not.
Rajesh Mapuskar (director of Ferrari Ki Sawaari, produced by Hirani) called me at 1pm and asked me whether I wanted to go watch the film in a theatre and see people’s reactions. So, we went to Gaiety and as I was running up the steps, I asked the gatekeeper how the film was, and he gave me a thumbs down, and my heart sank. And then I went up and stood in the last row while the carom board scene was happening, and people were jumping in the seats and clapping, and I wondered why the gatekeeper said that. Then it occurred to me that I was asking about the film, but he was telling me about the collections.
From there we went to other theatres and saw great reactions happening all over the place. By evening, we reached New Empire, and I called Boman and told him to join us. I told him to wait outside, and took him in once the film had started and the carom board scene was happening. Suddenly I heard someone sobbing behind me, and it was Boman who was in tears after seeing people’s reactions to the film.
Finally, at 9pm we saw the first ‘house full’ board and we both broke down and hugged each other. Shyam Shroff, our distributor, called up and said it had become a world of mobile phones these days, and people message each other, so word spreads very quickly and that we’d start seeing full houses then on. I called Sanju and Vinod (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the film’s producer) and we went back to Gaiety during the 9pm show, and from the projection room saw people’s reactions again. That was the joy of that time.
Your collaborations with Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Abhijat Joshi are the two constants in your filmmaking process. How did it start and what do they bring to the table?
I consider myself fortunate to have two rock-solid people around me. Abhijat, whom I write with now… I met him during my second film. He used to write with Vinod, and I met him at his house when I had gone there to narrate the first draft of Munna Bhai. He said it was very interesting, and that he wanted to work on it. I had my inhibitions because he lived in America, and I wasn’t sure what his writing would be like, but he said he’d keep sending me scenes every day.
He went back and sent me a scene and it was very different from how I’d imagined it, but it was very interesting. We then started writing over emails. He’d write a scene and send it to me, and go to sleep at night. I’d be waking up here and read it, work on it and send it back to him. We worked like that for a month, and I found that we were thinking alike. Half your battle is won when your entire crew is on the same page. When you’re narrating a script, everyone listening is making a picture in his or her mind, and that picture could be completely off; it’s not a question of right or wrong. Abhijat and I, however, thought alike — he’s also grown up in a small town, we’ve had similar pasts, so some tuning happened there.
Finally I told him to come to Mumbai for 10 days. He used to teach in a college, but he came and we got out of the city and wrote together and that’s when I really got to know him well. Since then, we’ve been working together and I can say that we’ve never had a single day of conflict in the past 14 years.
Vinod, on the other level, is outspoken, doesn’t mince his words and knows he doesn’t need to please anyone. In the journey, while we’re making the film, he’s not there. So when he comes to watch the film finally, he comes with a lot of objectivity. And he’s also a director, which really helps. He points out what’s working and what isn’t. As a team, it comes in handy when we all work together and support each other on one another’s films. We share stuff with each other. Films are a collaborative effort — it’s the only art form where you have to work together; you don’t have a choice. It’s great to have good people around you.
The idea of making a film on Sanjay Dutt’s life came after a few drinking sessions at his house. Do you remember what it was that made you think ‘this is a story that needs to be told’?
While he was in jail, Sanjay was writing letters to people. Apart from me, I knew that he wrote to Ajay Devgn, Vinod, Abhijat, and, of course, his own family. I still have those letters saved. In the initial months, you could make out how depressed he was. I would even wonder whether he’d survive jail this time around. But over a period of time, I saw the tone change. By the end of the first year, humour had crept back. Like he wrote a whole letter to Abhijat that started like this: ‘I just came back from New York…’ and it was full of details of where he ate and what he did. He ended the letter with: ‘And then I woke up.’ We knew he survived that ordeal.
When he was out on parole, I had just gone to meet him. This is a guy I work with and he’s in jail, so I was obviously curious. I asked him what it was like — what he ate, how he lived, what his routine was, and he started telling me. The first day it was just stories about the jail. The next day he called and asked me to come over. That day he started talking about other stuff and how he wished he hadn’t picked up that gun. Though I’d worked with him, he had never opened up and shared like this, while this time he was really venting. That’s when I realised that what he was talking about was really interesting, and later I called Abhijat and asked him to join me. We literally ended up spending the next 25 days with him, every evening, and then we saw a film in that.
Why Ranbir Kapoor?
I didn’t even think about anyone else. The primary reason is that the Ranbir of Saawariya and the Sanju of Rocky have tremendous similarities in their lean body frame and physicality. Since a chunk of the role is from that age of 21 onwards and then slowly getting older, you need an actor who’s at the right age to play that, plus the 55-60-year-old who comes out of jail. Also, he comes from a film family, his father’s (Rishi Kapoor) an actor, they’ve known each other and he knows Sanju, they’ve spent time together. And he’s a great actor. I thought he’d fit the physicality and judge him and play that well, and he’s done it.
You have clarified that this is not a propaganda film that will gloss over Sanjay’s past. But when you are telling the story of someone you know and love, isn’t it tempting to show him in a good light?
Not at all. I keep saying that I have no reason or compulsion to make a propaganda film on his life. I’m doing pretty well; I can make any film I like. If I were an out-of-work director, had to do a film to survive and Sanju was asking me to make a film on his life, I’d say fine. I could have been compelled to make a propaganda film.
I was writing the next Munna Bhai when I heard this story and it’s a great story. I could have easily continued with the franchise and made lots of money. Sanjay is brave enough to say, ‘This is my story. You want to tell it, go ahead.’ And I told him the reason I’m inspired to make this film is only because he’s willingly and openly telling me he made bad choices and that he’s not scared to put it out there for the world. If at any level he wanted to censor anything, it wouldn’t be worth it. And he told me to go ahead and make it however I wanted.
All these things worked for me, otherwise any guy who’s alive would want to censor it; would want to have a say. And if you see the trailer, we’ve given out everything. But I saw the pain he went through, I saw the father-son relationship in that story and that’s what attracted me to make it. I told the story the way I saw it and there’s no special effort to create any sympathy for him. If that happens, it’s automatic.
Do you know what you’re making next?
Munna Bhai. I promise this time I’ll make it.
ALL OF HIRANI’S FILMS ARE IN THE RS 100-CRORE CLUB!