While 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 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 Kante (1960) or Padosan (1968) or the Muslim Social (Ghazal (1964)), be it weepy melodramas (Mehrban (1967), Meri Bhabhi (1969)) or personal experimental films (Yaadein (1964)) – he did them all and successfully too. His two Filmfare Awards for Best Actor for Mujhe Jeene Do and Khandan (1965) bear testament to his acting ability.
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. At the time of Partition, Dutt was the only one in what became the Indian side of Punjab. The rest of his entire family were in their ancestral village of Khurd at the time. As tensions grew between the Hindus and Muslims, army tricks helped in evacuating the Hindus to refugee camps in Jhelum. The family left, leaving behind his uncle and their gold, in Pakistan. His uncle joined them later, his life saved by a Muslim friend, Yakub, in the village. In India, the family, lived in Ambala district, now a part of Haryana. In spite of what the family had gone through, his mother advised him that he should try to forget the nightmare of the Partition and think of the present as a new life or a rebirth. She said that those who wallow in the past never get over hate and thus, never move ahead or progress. She also reminded him that there were good people like Yaqub too in this world. It was a humane message that would stay with Dutt for the rest of his life.
In the early 1950s, Dutt moved to Bombay, now Mumbai, to continue his education and joined the Jai Hind College. He also took up a job as a supervisor with Bombay public transport system, BEST, at a bus depot in Dadar. His involvement in dramatics – he wrote plays and acted in them and was also the Secretary of the Cultural Society – got him his first job with Keymers, a British advertising agency that hired him for radio programmes. Lipton Ki Mehfil. It was a star oriented programme anchored by Dutt and broadcast on Radio Ceylon, at that time the only commercial radio station in the region, and became extremely popular. The first person that Dutt interviewed for the programme was Nimmi. Later on, he also interviewed Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand among other stars. Dutt recalled that the programmes were recorded on discs. The first time they used tapes was when he covered the premier of Do Bigha Zamin (1953). According to him, this was the first time he saw actress Nargis, who would later become his wife, at close quarters. Keymers put Dutt on another programme, also broadcast from Radio Ceylon. For this programme, he would not only interview stars but also cover film shootings. It was while he was on the sets of Shikast (1953), that director Ramesh Saigal asked him if he was interested in films. Dutt said that he was but only as a hero. According to Dutt in an interview, Saigal retorted, “Fine, let us turn you into an actor.” A screen test was subsequently held where he was made to wear Dilip Kumar’s clothes from Shikast. With trousers that barely came to his ankles and a jacket whose sleeves were way above his wrists, he performed well enough nevertheless and Saigal offered him a film contract. However, Dutt insisted his mother wanted him to finish his studies and much to his pleasant surprise, Saigal told him he’d wait for him.
A tall and lanky Dutt then made his feature film debut in Ramesh Saigal’s social-realistic film, Railway Platform (1955), opposite Nalini Jaywant. It was a big break opposite one of the top heroines of the day. Still as a precaution, he continued his job with Keymers for a while. However, he made enough of an impact in Railway Platform to be offered more films – Kundan (1955), with the first actress he interviewed, Nimmi, Kismet Ka Khel (1956) with Vyjayanthimala, Rajdhani (1956), again with Nimmi, and BR Chopra’s sensitive take on widow remarriage, Ek Hi Raasta (1956), with Meena Kumari. In the last, he played Meena Kumari’s first husband, who dies in the film leaving her a widow. She is then ‘remarried’ by Ashok Kumar, something that was still largely regarded a taboo in Indian society at the time. The film was a big success and reiterated once again just how adept Chopra was in mixing pertinent social issues of the day with entertainment.
Dutt’s big breakthrough film came with Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. Dutt made an extremely strong impact then (even if the performance is admittedly dated today) playing the rebellious son, Birju, whom his mother, Radha (Nargis), finally shoots down to keep up 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 in the 1970s and ’80s. 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 then proposed to her. Nargis agreed and married Sunil Dutt, quitting films gradually after marriage.
As an actor, following Mother India, Sunil Dutt’s star was on the rise. From strong supporting roles in female centric roles (Sadhna (1958)) opposite Vyjayanthimala, Insan Jaan Utha (1959) with Madhubala and Sujata with Nutan), he graduated to becoming an A-Grade hero in the 1960s. Perhaps Dutt’s most well-known work came in his association with BR Chopra that had begun with Ek Hi Raasta. Sadhna, Gumrah (1963), Waqt (1965) and Hamraaz (1967)) were some of the films he did under the BR banner. These films were among his 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 his sexy neighbor, 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 himself. 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 Rahungi (1962), Khandan (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 stereotyped conventions. The first film he produced, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963), takes off from the real life sensational ‘Nanavati murder case’ that led to the abolition of the jury system in India and deals with the then taboo topic of adultery. Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), co-starring Waheeda Rehman and one of the best ever dacoit dramas of Indian cinema, is a humane and realistic tale shot on location in the Chambal valley, 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 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, tragedy struck the Dutt family when Nargis passed away due to cancer, just shortly before Dutt launched their son, Sanjay, as an actor with Rocky (1981). Dutt could never really get over her death and in her memory, he even 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 soldiers 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 becoming the Sheriff of Bombay in 1981. He stood for Lok Sabha elections in 1984 from the Bombay North-West Constituency. He 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 Bombay 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 Maharashtra state 1993, Dutt rallied around and collected and handed Rs. 4.2 million over to the Maharashtra Chief Minister for the earthquake victims 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 had to combat son Sanjay’s wayward life – the latter’s battle with drug addiction and arrest in 1993 for illegal arms possessions and suspected links to the Mumbai blasts – but Dutt always fought whenever down and what’s more, rose to the occasion each time.
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).