Q. When you were first offered this character, the protagonist in Sanju, what was going through your head? Did you believe you could pull it off?
Ranbir Kapoor: At first I was extremely thrilled and excited that Rajkumar Hirani was offering me a film, but then I was also disappointed that it was a biopic of Sanjay Dutt. I didn’t have faith in myself that I could be even remotely close to him. Our personalities are very different and also, I didn’t understand how you can make a biopic on an actor who is still so relevant, who is still acting in films, who is still so famous. But once I read the script, all those doubts and fears just vanished, because it was a completely different Sanjay Dutt. It wasn’t a Sanjay Dutt I knew. It was a story which was waiting to be told. It was a story which was inspirational, aspirational. It had so many lessons to learn from. As an actor, it had so much of depth for me to get into—entertainment, comedy, emotion, drama… It was just a dream-come-true part for me.
Q. Your team trusted you with the role. But how important was it for you to speak to Sanjay Dutt before you did the film?
Ranbir: It was very strange because I used to work out with him at the same gym. So I have known him quite closely for a long time and he always told me, “If there was a biopic made on me, I would always want you to do it.” So he and his wife, Manyata Bhabhi, used to tell me that. I would say, cool, if there was ever a biopic made on Sanjay Dutt I would be cool to play him. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would actually happen. So yes, I have known Sanjay Dutt very closely over the years but when I read the script and I understood this side of him, my respect and admiration for him just changed. And Vidhu Sir said an interesting thing before starting the biopic. He said, “Yeah, you know Sanjay Dutt, you meet him as an actor, but now you have to detach from that Sanjay Dutt. You have to believe another story of the script because what he is right now is very different from his life from his 20s to now. So this script is your truth.” That put things into perspective for me.
Q. Vidhu, you were skeptic about Ranbir playing this role. Tell us about that.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra: Yes, I thought Ranbir was too gentle. I thought he is too good. But he has completely hit the ball out of the park. It’s just unbelievable.
Q. Many people are questioning the timing of this biopic, as Sanjay Dutt is still active in the industry. What was it about the timing that was crucial for you?
Rajkumar Hirani: Somebody long back said to me, “You’re making a biopic on Sanjay Dutt? He is still alive.” So I thought to myself that there is no rulebook for making a biopic after the person passes away. I was getting firsthand information from him only. If you make a biopic of a person who is dead and gone, then you’re dependent on other sources. I was blown by the story when I heard it, so I thought this is a great story and we have to make it.
Q. When you’re telling a story, you have to make it crisp as at the end of the day, there is a time limit for a film.
Abhijat Joshi [screenwriter]: Our transcript was 730 pages or so. For the first 8-10 months, the battle was about how to compress it. We were trying to include everything and it just didn’t work. And at some point I set it aside and decided to just trust my memory because whatever had a claim on my memory or Raju’s memory was likely to appeal to the audience because it would have either humour, or drama or it could be incredibly moving. That’s how we remembered it. So once we started stringing those scenes together, it just blossomed. And then it was a fast process because the story Sanju had given us on a plate was just astonishing. There were so many great things in it. They were to die for. Any writer worth his salt would want to deal with material like that. So that was the easy part. The difficult part was what to leave out. And once that was achieved, it was great.
Q. You are essaying Sanjay Dutt’s life in the film. Were you talking to him through the filming process?
Ranbir: I think Sanju Sir showed immense faith, belief and trust in all of us. He kept talling Raju Sir that I will see the film later. So he trusted these gentlemen. But there were times like the verdict, when I called him a night before to ask what was going on in his head, to understand that the scene is on the paper, but maybe I could bring another layer to it as an actor which can make the moment more real, more alive. Once I did that, I realised that he is giving me stuff which could be hard for him to reveal—like what happened to him before his mother’s death or his father’s death, and all the time he spent in jail. He would graciously tell me those things and give me these powerful things that an actor needs. He was giving me free emotions. I remember the first day of the shoot, we were shooting the old Sanjay Dutt portion and I had a scene where I had to look in the mirror and Sanjay Dutt was there looking in the monitor. It was so surreal. So the obsession level went to the point where I was looking at him all the time. How he is scratching his beard, how he is crossing his legs, how he is talking and stuff like that. It’s because you are so inspired. But he has just shown so much of love and support through the process of the film.
Q. What was Sanjay Dutt’s reaction when he watched the film?
Rajkumar: For me it was a tough film to show him because I was worried how he would react to it since he has not been a part of the journey of making it. So I had no idea how he was going to respond. It was a small screening where we showed him the film and while he was watching the film, I was watching him. Initially it was okay, but at one point I heard some sound. He was trying to hold back and he held back throughout the film and once it got over, he hugged all of us one by one and then he broke down. I can’t imagine how it is when your whole life flashes in front of you in two-and-a-half hours, where you see your dad, your mom who are not there with you anymore and the other tough times like the jail. I can’t even imagine the emotions he would have gone through. But for us it was a great feeling that he enjoyed the film.