Of Azhar and Sanju and Hagiographies

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I get it. I really get it. Now stop beating me over the head with that.

Azhar never fixed matches. Or rather, as the film Azhar tells us, he pretended to fix matches so that he could catch the real match fixers.

And Sanjay Dutt was never a terrorist.

And that car was self-driven.

I have often wondered why some of our flawed heroes, and let us all agree, Bhakts and Sickulars, that Azhar and Sanjay Dutt are as flawed as they come, have this obsessive need to establish that they are innocent.

Whether they got away lightly or took more than their share of punishment, the truth is that they have done their time. They don’t need to sway public opinion just to get a good verdict.

Sure, Azhar might have a political career and Sanjay Dutt may be contemplating embarking on one, given that his salad days of flexing muscles and Ey Shivani-ing is almost all but over, and that might seem to be reason enough to go all heavy with the PR.

But I don’t think that is the reason “Azhar” exists. Or “Sanju”.

They exist because the enormous egos that have their names in the titles of the films actually, really, deeply want you to believe they are good people.

And only when you do, only then, can they themselves believe they are.

In a way this is human nature. Our sense of identity is affected by the way our environment perceives us, we fish for Likes and RTs on social media, because we are never really happy till people know we are, and we get off on envy too, which is why we post about our checkins to First Class lounges and share pictures of our vacation in the Bahamas. We feel obligated, in this age of “always-on” social media, to project an aura of success, because if there is anything that amplifies the misery of failure it is when people are made aware of that failure.

Of course the richer and more famous you get, the less you need to worry about bills and project deadlines, and more time you have to obsess about how others perceive you.

So Amitabh Bachchan, pretty much the greatest superstar of Hindi movies ever and who you would think should be above and beyond this all, has a public meltdown on Twitter because they removed some of his followers, it affected his state of well-being so deeply.

And then there is Donald Trump. Here is the most powerful man in the world, who watches only news programs that praise him, and hires sycophants and removes them the moment they do something he thinks is less than loyal, and whose single point of concern, and this has been confirmed by multiple sources, is what the headline are saying about him. Trump’s actions are driven  by an obsessive need for continuous validation of his awesomeness, and you would have thought being a President and being surrounded by yes-men and women would have satiated that drive but no. Here is a grown man, the President of a country, who has to repeat in speech after speech “ I am very smart”, “I am very rich”, “I am very successful”, “I beat Hillary Clinton”, and “More people came to my inauguration than they did for Obama’s”, the last being a demonstrable lie,   but he says it because it makes him happy, and when you are the President of the USA with the nuclear button, even the truth trembles.

Azhar and Sanjay Dutt are not Donald Trumps. To feel better about themselves, they can only get hagiographies made.

Of course, in order to make their audience believe the central premise “I did not fix matches” and “I am not a terrorist”, the heroes have to fess up to lesser crimes. Otherwise how will they establish their fundamental honesty, their desire to “say it as it happened”?

In Azhar, the lesser crime is being disloyal to his first wife. Even here, the film tries its best to maintain Azhar’s halo, and in trying to do so, it degenerates into unintentional hilarity. [Link]

There is a scene in Azhar where Azhar has gone to watch a film with Naureen, his first wife. As Nargis Fakhri playing Sangeeta comes onto screen, her lips swollen like she walked into an Ambrose bouncer, it is Naureen who almost gets aroused, commenting to Azhar “kya khoobsoorat aankhein hai uski” and for those who have grown up in Bollywood,  we know that”aankhein”is often an euphemism for some other components of a woman’s body. While wife getting turned on by another woman is a long-standing fantasy among Indian men, and by this time you should be thinking of Khulbhushan Kharbanda’s spontaneous eruption in front of bottles of “Crush”  after stumbling upon his wife Shabana Azmi writing sensuously with Nandita Das in Fire, Azhar is immensely distraught by the licentiousness of the dance, and looks uncomfortably from side to side, like he did when the ball was bouncing near his head on fast tracks.

Yes that’s how innocent and honorable Azhar is, in his approved eponymous hagiography. Why did he take money from bookies? So that he bankrupts them, and prevents them from offering the same money to other players. Yes. You read that right. That’s the final reveal. Why was his career finished? Because some player suspiciously called “Manoj”, himself suspect in his loyalties, resented Azhar being the boss, and carried a grudge of having been seen nude in the dressing room. Why the extramarital affair? Because the first wife was unavailable, and how do we know that? Azhar sits down to a dinner with Naureen, asks her about the biriyani, she says “it’s good”, and Azhar asks “What about it is good? The rice? The spices? The flavor?” and Naureen says “It’s all good”, and Azhar loses his cool because no husband likes a wife who can’t deconstruct biriyani and the next thing you know he is in the arms of his mistress. Not convinced that he is an amazing person? Here is more. Azhar wants to tell his wife the marriage is over, but there are people at the house, so what can the poor man do except announce it on TV, leaving his wife not just heartbroken but also embarrassed?

Because you see Azhar did nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing. Everyone around him was bad, a resentful “Manoj”, a philandering “Ravi”, a difficult “Navjot”. And if throwing mud at everyone else in order to make him look good isn’t bad enough, there are bare-faced lies. Matches Azhar was accused of having fixed, are mixed with other matches, like the one in Bangalore where he got a bad decision, so that unless you lived through the Azhar era or read Cricinfo while others go to Pornhub, you would not realize that the game that started was not the one that finished.

 

Now Sanjay Dutt is no Azhar. He is way more influential, the archetype of Bollywood royalty, and for him nothing but the best will do.

So he gets Rajkumar Hirani, the one Bollywood director who has never made a flop film, and who understands, perhaps more than anybody else, how to package a product. And he gets arguably the best actor of the new generation to play him.

So yes, there is the lesser crime angle here too—that Sanju was a drug-addict and a philanderer, but even here, this is not a genuine mea culpa. Sanjay Dutt took to drugs because he is a sensitive man. He bought arms because he was impulsive and because he loved his parents. He slept with women in the hundreds, but that was just to fill the hole in his heart. Sure, he made some questionable calls, but he has suffered for that. Sure, he displayed lack of judgement, but then he is a big affection-seeking man-baby, he didn’t mean any harm. Sure, you may have heard some bad things about him, but the media made it up to sell magazines. Any incident in his life that does not feed the narrative Hirani just doesn’t go there. In the same way he never went into the uncomfortable aspects of Gandhi-ism in the Munnabhai series, instead choosing to present an antiseptic happy-touchy-feely adaptation called Gandhigiri.

This is a way more sophisticated narrative than the one in Azhar, also because it lets you take whatever you want from it.

If you want to see it as the story of a misunderstood man, cursed by fate, who took a wrong turn in his life, and paid the price for it, you can do that.

If you want to see it as the story of the uber-macho man who lived a life that would be the envy of a rockstar, guns and drugs and booze and seedy places and luxurious living, and more women than anyone can reasonably be expected to remember, a life to aspire to rather than run from, well, nudge nudge wink wink, you can do that too.

Whatever it is, just remember, that one thing.

He didn’t do that.

 

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Of Azhar and Sanju and Hagiographies

  1. This reminds me of Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” whose was based on Michael Milliken, intended as a cautionary tale of greed and hubris. But instead it lead to young ambitious kids making a beeline to Wall Street. Cricket and Bollywood loom large over Indians, and people like Azhar and Sanjay are larger than life figures. So it is almost expected that they will be extraordinarily bad in keeping with their image, which most of us cannot be without losing everything. Nobody buys the whitewashing and rationalization and talented young guys want to go there precisely because they get the freedom and indulgence to get away with outsized bad and criminal behavior, just like Azhar & Sanju.

  2. This reminds me of Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” which was intended as a cautionary tale of greed and hubris, but instead “inspired” bright young whizkids to aim at Wall Street careers. Bollywood and Cricket loom large over India and Indians everywhere, so we expect the larger than life characters who populate these worlds to be extraordinary when they are bad. Nobody is getting fooled by the whitewashing and rationalization. Talented young people want to go there precisely because they want to be rich and famous enough to get away with terrible and even criminal behavior without losing everything.

    • Churchill wasnt alive to see it get made. Also with Churchill, his crimes arent well known, he doesnt need to have a movie to tell people that he didnt do something that people, in any case, dont know he did.

  3. Gem 💎 of a writing, Arnab!
    No wonder, MSM steers clear of you. BTW, one interesting incident:
    My wife went to watch Sanju on a Wednesday morning. The lady at ticket counter showed on the booking-system that only six seats are empty. Rest of the seats were shaded occupied on the system.
    In reality the hall was almost empty. Only 9 to 10 people watched the show. I always suspected the 100 crore/300 crore/etc to be a bluff. I do not exactly understand what people get by padding the collection numbers.

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