Sanjay Dutt, Charlie Chaplin's lives have much in common — from iconic career in films to run-in with the law

Archita Kashyap

June 04, 2018 17:23:24 IST

Biopics are tricky to make. Portraying the life of a living person onscreen, one who has been in the public eye, compounds this challenge. From the trailer of Sanju, one can safely say that Ranbir Kapoor and filmmaker-writer duo Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi have fared well on authenticity. Glimpses of Ranbir as Sanjay Dutt in the film’s trailer closely resemble the controversial star in different ages, and different stages of his film career.

The Sanju trailer also sticks to one’s mind for its uncanny similarity to another biopic of an actor - Chaplin by Richard Attenborough. Starring Robert Downey Jr, the film chronicles a lifetime of workaholism, salacious liaisons, broken relationships, and a man who was bent on clearing his name in the end.

Sanjay Dutt and Charlie Chaplin. Images from Twitter.

Despite living out entirely different lives in entirely different times, the commonalities in the lives of Sanjay Dutt and Charlie Chaplin come to relief prominently because both now have become films that will remain in posterity. Both are deeply flawed people, with limited scope of redemption. Only one has made cinema that is impossible to replicate in terms of universal entertainment.

That is not to say that Sanjay Dutt’s life resembles Chaplin’s alone; in fact, as movie stars or showbiz icons go, his battles with drug addiction, alcoholism, hard partying etc are seen fairly frequently in the lives of many. But the fact that both these icons, with huge fan followings and awesome star power, had to struggle to clear their names of serious wrong doing, makes one compare both.

Comparing performances of Robert Downey Jr as Charlie Chaplin, and Ranbir Kapoor as Sanjay Dutt, would be unfair. Downey Jr stood out for his authenticity in recreating Chaplin’s vaudeville and film sketches and his troubled performance that is both funny and brilliant in parts. The film, widely criticised as windy, flat and superficial, is a eulogy to Chaplin’s greatness as actor and filmmaker, and his salacious love life; with dramatic accentuation of his conflict with J Edgar Hoover’s era of a paranoid FBI.

Despite excellent production values, Attenborough’s celluloid take on Chaplin’s life fell short of offering a true picture of who this man actually was, beyond an obsessive artist and at times, a cruel, relentless and promiscuous person.

What Ranbir Kapoor will hold out in Sanju is as yet undetermined, but it piques curiosity.

The narrative technique that the Sanju trailer shows reiterates these similarities. Both need a chronicler to state certain facts for them to become consumable. Chaplin is held together by a conversation between the master artist and a fictitious book editor, George Hayden, played by Anthony Hopkins who is editing his autobiography. In Sanju, Anushka Sharma plays the journalist conducting an interview. Hirani and Joshi have stated that her character represents their wonderment with Dutt’s life as it unraveled. In this interview, Sanju states matter of factly that he has slept with an average of 350 women in all; Anushka’s character smiles, crestfallen.

Sanju poster. Image via Twitter

Sanju poster. Image via Twitter

In Chaplin, the question is never directly addressed but the diminutive movie star is known to have stated that he might have bedded around 2000 women, irrespective of his marital status. The book editor draws attention to his Catholic and impoverished upbringing to highlight Chaplin’s tendency to marry young leading ladies that he impregnated. Neither seem to address the fact that ‘Scoring’ with girls was a natural extension of both men’s star status, and morality wasn’t a factor. Chaplin married four times, starting with a 16-year-old Mildred Harris, then the 17 year old Lita Grey. He divorced her after having two kids. Next up was Paulette Goddard, his only ex wife with whom he stayed close friends after their divorce; and then came Oona O’Neill, daughter of author Eugene O’Neill. Together, Oona and Chaplin lived in happy exile in Switzerland after having made his best films and they had eight children. Oona was the only woman he married that wasn’t a leading lady in a film of his. Chaplin also had a torrid affair with Edna Purviance, another co-actor whom he reportedly mistreated.

One wonders what will be the rationalisation, if any, behind Sanjay Dutt’s insatiable sexual appetite in his biopic.

A second common factor between both films seems to be the focus on childhood influences.

Chaplin and Dutt had completely different growing up experiences. Chaplin’s mother was declared insane, his brother and him were sent off to a workhouse to do hard labour and he learned to survive on his vaudeville skills by entertaining on the street. Dutt had a privileged and spoilt childhood, adored by both his movie star parents. But both were impacted by the grief of the loss of a parent for life.

For Chaplin, immortalising a clumsy regular man — his trails and travails — became his global calling card: be it films like The Kid, City Lights, Modern Times or even, The Great Dictator. For Dutt, his father’s excellence as an actor and as a leading politician, combined with his mother’s terminal illness, pushed him over the edge. He became a drug addict because he couldn’t deal with losing his mother and the pressures of living up to his father’s expectations.

Charlie Chaplin and Sanjay Dutt are at polar ends in their approach to work.

Chaplin would spend hours, days, nights, weeks, working on his films. A perfectionist, he would exclude himself from he world and lock himself in his studio to make the perfect film. Chaplin was known to be exacting on his crew, his leading ladies and his children. When he made the last of his two films, including A Countess From Hong Kong, his regular berating and insulting of his son Sydney was noticed by everyone. He didn’t spare actors either. The star of the film, Marlon Brando, called him the “most sadistic man that I’ve ever met.” In seeking excellence, Chaplin became so addicted to his work that he left behind humane sentiment.

On the contrary, Sanjay Dutt is an accidental star, one who had so much natural born talent that his lack of discipline and focus on work never seemed to interfere with his stratospheric rise.

If one looks beyond their completely different approaches to films as work, Chaplin and Dutt share the biggest commonality in their hunger to clear their names.

Ranbir Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt

Ranbir Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt

As the biopic shows, Chaplin’s promiscuity and his loosely left-leaning politics brought him to the attention of J Edgar Hoover, the hawkish FBI chief. He was taped, followed, investigated, and marked out as a card-carrying Communist (this was never proven). A mentally unstable young actress under provocation from the FBI also filed a paternity suit against the actor. And then Chaplin was penalised when his entry to the United States was revoked. The actor moved to Switzerland, wrote, made and re released his films and lived life like a family man. He returned to America once more — to receive a special Academy award. By this time, FBI and relevant US authorities had cleared Chaplin’s name of all wrongdoing. And he never came back.

Just like that, Sanju comes across as Dutt’s attempt to clear his name. He owns up to his promiscuity, his drinking, drug habits and lack of discipline — but also states that he is not a terrorist. The film, made by a close friend and one of our finest filmmakers, might be his attempt to clear his name and tell his side of the story once and for all.

Famous folk often want to be remembered as good people. Charlie Chaplin, despite biopics and biographies, didn’t quite succeed in concealing his massive personality flaws but his films remain unmatched and evergreen. Will the Sanju biopic clear Sanjay Dutt’s name of cavorting with terrorists? Perhaps that’s too much to ask of a single film, however well made it might be.

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 17:23 PM