While it is no doubt that Sunil Dutt was an extremely popular and charismatic star, he is never really spoken of in terms of his histrionics. Which is extremely unfair if you look at his body of of work. Dutt could play the simple earnest hero – the idealistic young man (Sujata (1959), Hum Hindustani (1960)) or the anti-hero – the ‘angry young man’ (Mother India (1957), Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), Amrapali (1966)) with equal elan. Be it the comedies like Ek Phool Char Kaante (1960) or Padosan (1968) or the Muslim Social (Ghazal (1964)), be it weepy meolodramas (Mehrbaan (1967), Meri Bhabhi (1969)) or personal experimental films (Yaadein (1964) — he did them all and successfully too.
He was born Balraj Dutt in Khurd in Jhelum District (Now in Pakistan) on June 6, 1929. His father died when he was just five and he, his sister and brother were brought up by his uncle. In 1947, during Partition, his family fled to India and lived in Ambala district, now in Haryana. In the early 1950s, Dutt moved to Mumbai to continue his education and joined the Jai Hind College. His involvement in dramatics got him his first job with Keymers, a British advertising agency that hired him for radio programmes. Lipton ki Mehfil, anchored by Dutt and broadcast on Radio Ceylon, at that time the only commercial radio station in the region, became extremely popular.
Dutt made his feature film debut in Railway Platform (1955) opposite Nalini Jaywant. While he did well enough in the film to get his movie career moving, his big breakthrough film was Mother India. Dutt made an extremely strong impact then (even if the performance is dated today) playing the rebellious son, Birju, whom his mother, Radha (Nargis), finally shoots down to keep the honor of the village intact. In a sense, Sunil Dutt’s performance was a precursor to the ‘angry young man’ roles of Amitabh Bachchan. It is a well-known story that while shooting for the film, Nargis was trapped amidst lit haystacks. As the flames got higher and higher, Sunil Dutt ran through the fire and rescued her. He proposed to her and Nargis married Sunil Dutt and quit films after marriage.
As an actor, following Mother India, Sunil Dutt’s star was on the rise. From strong supporting roles in female centric roles (Sadhana (1958)) opposite Vyjayanthimala, Sujata with Nutan), he graduated to becaming a A-Grade hero in the 1960s. Perhaps Dutt’s most well-known work came in his association with BR Chopra (Ek hi Raasta (1956), Sadhana , Gumrah (1963), Waqt (1965) and Humraaz (1967)). The films were among Dutt’s biggest successes at the box office. His most enduring film however would have to be Padosan (1968), one of the best comedies ever made in Hindi filmdom. Dutt plays a simpleton, Bhola, who gives up his commitment to celibacy when he falls for sexy neighbour, Bindu (Saira Banu). Though surrounded by ace comedians Mehmood, Kishore Kumar, Om Prakash and Keshto Mukherjee, Dutt more then holds his own in the film, displaying a fine sense of comic timing. The sequences of him ‘giving playback’ to Kishore Kumar actually singing for him are the highlights of the film, in particular the jugalbandi Ek Chatur Naar. Dutt’s other important and popular films through the 1960s inlcude Main Chup Rahoongi (1962), Khandaan (1965), Gaban (1966), Mera Saaya (1966), Milan (1967) and Chiraag (1969).
While his films as an actor and star fitted comfortably by and large within the conventions of mainstream Hindi Cinema, Dutt as Producer-Director always attempted to break out of these conventions. The first film he produced – Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963) – takes off from the real life Nanavati murder case and deals with the then taboo topic of adultry. Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), one of the best ever dacoit dramas of Indian cinema, is a humane and realistic tale shot on location, while Yaadein is a one-of-a-kind film with just a single actor – Dutt himself – who returns home to find his wife and two sons out and thinks she may have left him. The film ‘s highlight was a sequence where the man is attacked by a bunch of toys berating him for neglecting his family! But perhaps the best film made under his banner Ajanta Arts was the Romeo-Juliet type drama set amongst the deserts of Rajasthan, Reshma Aur Shera (1971). The film is a retelling of the famous Rajasthani legend about the love of Reshma and Shera amid violent feudal conflict between their clans. The film has stunning on location cinematography amid the sweeping sand dunes, unforgettable music by Jaidev (Tu Chanda Main Chandini, Meethi si Chuban etc) and fine lead performances by both Dutt and Waheeda Rehman (who won a National Award as Best Actress), even if by then they were both too old for the roles. Sadly however, the film flopped miserably leaving Dutt in debt of about 35 lakh rupees – an astronomical amount in those days.
Dutt returned to more formulaic fare to repay his debts with films like Heera (1973), Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye (1973), Zakhmee (1975), Nagin (1976) and Nehle Pe Dehla (1976). While not challenging the actor in him at all, fortunately these films did well at the box-office thus enabling him to pay off his dues.
In 1981, Nargis passed away due to cancer, just shortly before Dutt launched their son Sanjay as an actor with Rocky (1981). Following Nargis’s death, he made a film with cancer as the backdrop, Dard Ka Rishta (1982). He continued acting into the 1990s playing mainly the tough patriarch (Laila (1984), Faasle (1985), Parampara (1992) and Kshatriya (1992)) often in films set against a Thakur background involving family feuds. But by now, he had greatly reduced his film assignments and began to concentrate almost totally on Social Work and Politics. He raised funds for the Nargis Dutt Foundation and used them to fund equipment and medication to treat cancer patients. In 1987, at the height of the crisis in Punjab, he walked 2,000 km from Bombay to Amritsar, accompanied by his daughter Priya and 80 others, and prayed at the Golden Temple for peace. In 1988, he went from Nagasaki to Hiroshima in Japan to protest against nuclear weapons. He also travelled through Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal as part of the Hands Across the Borders peace expedition. In fact, even earlier Dutt entertained the Indian army after conflicts with China (1962) and Pakistan (1965 and 1971) by organising the Ajanta Arts Welfare troupe and visiting various sectors where Indian army jawans were wounded in action.
Sunil Dutt entered Politics as he became the sheriff of Mumbai in 1981 and stood for Lok Sabha elections in 1984 from Mumbai North-West Constituency.He has stood and won every time he stood from the same constituency. After his victory in the 2004 General Elections, he was made Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs. Dutt was a committed secularist and said once in an interview, “My concept of secularism is to be a good human being who respects all religions”.
In 1993, after the communal conflagration in Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Dutt resigned his seat as a Member of Parliament in protest against his party’s mishandling of the situation. That his commitment to social issues superseded his loyalty to his party was evident even in 1985, when he led a protest against a Congress government for its neglect of slum dwellers. After the killer quake in Latur and Osmanabad districts in 1993, Dutt rallied around and collected and handed over to Maharashtra chief minister, Rs. 4.2 million for the earthquake victims of Maharashtra and personally visited and provided blankets and utensils to the quake victims.
Sunil Dutt was a recipient of numerous awards, including the Padmashri in 1968, the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Award for National Integration and Communal Harmony in 1997, the Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan Award for International Peace, Communal Harmony, Unity and National Integration in 1997 and the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award in 1998. He was one man who maintained an extremely clean image in whatever he did. He has had to combat son Sanjay’s wayward life – the latter’s battle with drug addiction and arrest in 1993 for illegal possessions and links to the Mumbai blasts but Dutt has always fought whenver down and risen to the occassion.
Sunil Dutt passed away in his sleep due to cardiac arrest in Mumbai on 25 May, 2005. He is survived by son, Sanjay and two daughters Priya and Namrata. His last film was the comic Munnabhai MBBS (2003) wherein he played father to son Sanjay, though he did do a ‘special appearance’ via computer graphics in Om Shanti Om (2007).