Losing out on an engineering seat might have been the best thing to have happened to Rajkumar Hirani. The student from Nagpur, who endured commerce and the drudgery of chartered accountancy, decided to follow his passion for theatre and the visual arts and trained in editing at the Film and Television Institute of India. Having directed Munnabhai M.B.B.S. and Lage Raho Munnabhai, found global success with 3 Idiots, and broken box office records with PK, Hirani has taken up his first biopic. Sanju, a retelling of the colourful and dramatic life of actor Sanjay Dutt and starring Ranbir Kapoor, will be released on June 29. But the 55-year-old writer, director and editor is not waiting quietly. Restless to continue telling “stories that resonate”, he’s already working on the script of the third Munnabhai instalment, he told Scroll.in.

This is the first time you have opted for reality over fiction. What were the challenges in crafting a biopic?
The primary challenge was structuring the film and putting it as a screenplay. Biopics tend to be anecdotal in nature, going from one nugget of information or from one event to the next. Also, in a biopic you cannot say everything.

For example, even in Gandhi, which is my favourite biopic, they focussed on the freedom struggle and not on his personal life. You have to structure the story to flow seamlessly. Another challenge is that you cannot change anything. You can’t change the climax, for instance. In fiction the character is in your control. But the journey in Sanju cannot change. In that sense, this is a different film from my others.

Then, in a biopic, you need to compress time and imagine composites of characters. Most biopics are about achievers. But Sanju is not. It’s the story of all the mistakes Sanjay Dutt made. How do you make a film with honesty and make people like the film – not necessarily like the character – when the central character is doing things like taking drugs and picking up a gun? That was another challenge.

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Sanju (2018).

Sanjay Dutt is a controversial character. Why do we need to redeem him?
We have not made an effort to redeem Sanju at all. The story is told as seen from our point of view. Let people decide who he is. There is enough evidence gathered from his chargesheet, lawyers, the police, friends and family. So the audience will be able to make up its mind.

In this world of social media, there are cynics all around and people will pass judgment. But we cannot worry about that. I could have made a film that was easier to make. I am not an out-of-work director, and I don’t need to make something that does not interest me. The only reason to make this film was because the stories we heard from Sanju were so engaging. After that, we did our own research including speaking to [former police commissioner] Rakesh Maria and lawyers, we read his chargesheets, the judgment and spoke to many people who know Sanju well.

Were there any no-go areas?
My first question to Sanju was: this is interesting, but do you have any reservations about what can be said and what cannot? He was fearless and replied, don’t hold back. If he had put any conditions then I would have thought twice, because then we might have faced more trouble through the journey. Till date, he has not seen the film, which gives us the strength and space to say what we feel, from our point of view. We have started with Rocky, his first film, and ended with his coming out of jail.

Paresh Rawal as Dunil Dutt in Sanju. Image courtesy: Rajkumar Hirani Films/Vinod Chopra Films.
Paresh Rawal as Dunil Dutt in Sanju. Image courtesy: Rajkumar Hirani Films/Vinod Chopra Films.

While putting together the cast of ‘Sanju’, what did you look for in the actors?
To represent someone who is in the public domain and whose face is well-known you need to cast actors with resemblance. Casting Sanju’s part right was so important. It took a huge effort to make Ranbir Kapoor look like him. I went to Ranbir because if you look at Sanju in the ’80s – in the Rocky days, and if you see Ranbir during Saawariya, their physique is similar. Sanju acquired all the peculiar mannerisms only in the ’90s when he made his body. Half the film is the ’80s, and that was sorted with Ranbir. For the rest of the look, Ranbir put in a lot of effort to make it believable.

Anushka Sharma plays a biographer and her character is Abhijat and me. At first, we were sceptical about this film and so is her character, who has been asked to write a book. Through her interactions you discover the story and the man.

Casting Sunil Dutt was tough. We couldn’t find anyone to match his physicality. So we had to match a character rather than matching an appearance, which brought us to Paresh Rawal. Manisha Koirala does have a resemblance to Nargisji, which we could accentuate with a little bit of make-up. However the film starts in 1981, when she was already ill.

What was your experience working with Ranbir Kapoor?
He is a fantastic actor. He surrenders. He is submerged in the film and quietly absorbs. Sometimes people don’t tell you their process so you don’t know what all they have done to get there. Ranbir did some crazy things, which I have begun to discover now. For instance, he called Sanju and asked him what perfume he uses, saying he also wanted to use the same one. He called Sanju before every major scene.

Before we shot his mother’s death scene, he called Sanju and asked him what exactly he was feeling. Just wait till you see that scene. Ranbir is a quiet guy who lurks around, but he has a method and it’s great for a director when an actor puts in that much effort and is not completely dependent on him. I would love to work with him again.

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Main Badhiya, Ranju (2018).

What do you make of the tag of ‘genius director’?
It scares the hell out of me, very honestly.

I spoke to Subhash Ghai about this once. He said you work well but you work too slow. It’s true, we take our time. Abhijat [Joshi, co-writer], Vinod (Chopra) and the entire team have one thing in common – and that is that everybody is willing to take their time in order to deliver good work. I don’t know about our talent, but we are definitely patient.

After delivering so many commercial successes, do you feel the weight of expectations?
Yes, I definitely do. The first film is the only one you make without any worries. The first one is just a dream come true. But when you garner appreciation and, though I feel odd to mention it, box office success and appreciation do matter because they give you the liberty to make whatever you want to make next. The second film can be a bigger battle if the first film does not succeed.

The only thing Abhijat, Vinod and I say is that we should make the film we want to make and just hope that commercial success follows. If you start thinking of adding an item song or doing other things to make a film commercial, it would be doomsday.

You favour humour and satire to get your message across and to illuminate difficult questions.
I don’t think I do anything consciously. The idea is to tell the story in a way that is engaging and entertaining. I don’t even know the process. Abhijat and I keep writing and figure what works and what doesn’t with candour. It’s trial and error. Humour is a natural liking, though. Even when I watch a movie, the natural instinct is to watch comedy. But Sanju has more drama.

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3 Idiots (2009).

Given the current political climate in India, how do you think a film like ‘PK’ would be received today?
PK is about fake godmen. It’s about how people have become messengers of god and try to sell religion, even though religion is something else entirely. I think the film might actually find more resonance today. After all a couple of godmen are lying in prison right now.

Do you have plans to continue producing films too?
I did produce Saala Khadoos in 2016 because Madhavan is a friend. I do want to produce more films because many people who have worked with me are ready to make films. The tragedy is that people don’t come to me with scripts – neither writers nor studios approach me with scripts. They say, you write your own stuff. But please, I am writing because you are not bringing scripts to me. I will be able to make more films if you bring scripts to me. Not that I might pick up everything, but even if the script is 50 per cent there, I have a starting point to build on.

Please write this in the interview: I want scripts. I am happier to direct and edit films. Writing has many dark days when you doubt yourself.