New Delhi: An actor par excellence, a political leader, a philanthropist, a doting father and a loving husband — Sunil Dutt had donned many hats and done incredibly well in all these roles.
The younger generation might have recalled the actor after the release of the 2018 Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Sanju, a biopic on his son Sanjay, in which actor Paresh Rawal played the role of Sunil Dutt.
But, revisiting the journey of Dutt will remind the readers of the experimental and diverse works he had done in the Hindi film industry with more than 100 films to his credit, including achieving the feat of registering his name in the Guinness Book of World Records for his 1964 film Yaadein.
ThePrint recounts the actor’s life and work on his 14th death anniversary on 25 May.
A challenging childhood
Dutt, whose original name was Balraj, was born on 6 June 1929 in Punjab’s Jhelum district, which was back then a part of undivided India. But life soon took a difficult turn for him.
Dutt lost his father at the age of six and if this wasn’t enough, Partition created troubles for the family that had to relocate to India, leaving behind their property and house in Pakistan, and settling in Haryana.
Author Anuradha Guha in her book Great Women of India: Nargis Dutt wrote that Dutt’s family did not have resources to send him to a school beyond Mandoli village in Bhiwani district of Haryana.
Before he got his first break in the Hindi film industry, Dutt had worked with Radio Ceylon, the oldest radio station in south Asia, and gained popularity as an announcer. He, subsequently, took admission in Bombay’s Jai Hind College.
Career as a filmstar
Dutt landed his first role in the 1955 film Railway Platform directed by Ramesh Saigal. His next films, including the 1956 film Ek Hi Raasta starring Meena Kumari, Ashok Kumar, among others, did not particularly do well, but Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) changed his fortunes on both professional and personal fronts.
The film centered around Nargis (Radha), who brings up her two children (actor Rajendra Kumar as one of the sons and Sunil Dutt as the other) despite all odds, including poverty and social exploitation. It went into the annals of the Hindi film industry as a historic film garnering critical acclaim for its story and performances.
It was this film that also brought Nargis and Sunil Dutt together. A fire mishap on the sets of the film, which could have cost Nargis her life, was averted when Dutt jumped in to save her. They eventually got married in 1958.
Some of Dutt’s most notable films have also been those that explored different themes and not just limited to the confines of formula movies.
Gumrah (1963), Waqt (1965) and Hamraaz (1967) were one of those movies that explored various themes and all these movies were part of a collaboration with director and producer B.R. Chopra and were successful too.
As a producer, Dutt’s two films released in 1963 — Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke and Mujhe Jeene Do. Both these movies dealt with non-conventional themes. The first film explored the idea of a woman engaging in adultery (the plot is said to be based on the K.M. Nanavati case in Mumbai, on which actor Akshay Kumar’s 2016 movie Rustom is also based on). In the second film, Dutt’s character was that of a dacoit in love with Waheeda Rehman, thus bringing a humanist angle at a time when films only showed dacoits as devoid of any emotions and feelings.
In 1964, Dutt, in his directorial debut film Yaadein, essentially a one-man act movie made in black and white where he, as the solo character, depicts a narrative by using the combination of artistic elements like background music, silhouettes and cartoons to portray the situation of a lonely man, who is disappointed to find his wife and children missing after he returns home.
On Yaadein, Manish Gaekwad, in an article in Scroll, writes, “the movie’s mix of arthouse and commercial elements divided critics and movie goers”.
The film ended up finding a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the category of ‘Fewest actors in a narrative film’.
His other films in the coming years such as Padosan (1964), Heera (1973), Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye (1974), Nagin (1976), Jaani Dushman (1979), Shaan (1980) did well at the box-office and also established Dutt as a versatile actor.
His plunge into politics
Towards the 1980s, a number of other developments took place. This was the time when Dutt launched his son Sanjay in the movie industry with the film Rocky in 1981, which he himself directed.
In 1984, Dutt entered politics by joining the Congress. He remained a Member of the Parliament for five terms, until his death in 2005, from the Mumbai North West constituency.
In 1981, Dutt founded the Nargis Dutt Foundation, in loving memory of his wife, who died of pancreatic cancer the same year. The foundation has since then worked in the field of health and education.
When Rajiv Gandhi asked him to join politics
Writer and journalist Rasheed Kidwai in his book Neta—Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics mentioned it was after request from former prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Congress veteran Murli Deora that Dutt joined politics.
Kidwai also wrote that former Congress president Sonia Gandhi “appreciated” Dutt’s work in politics.
Kidwai further wrote how Dutt was made the president of the ‘Sadhbhavna ke Sipahi’ movement by Sonia Gandhi in 2002. This was aimed at promoting a sense of secularism amid an atmosphere of religious intolerance and bigotry following the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat the same year.
At one of the rallies of the movement in Rajasthan in Jaipur, Dutt reportedly said there was “no politics” behind this initiative. “I am myself a victim of Partition. I know how painful it is to lose one’s family and get uprooted,” he had said.
His last film was Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003) directed by Rajkumar Hirani, where he shared screen space with his son Sanjay and this came after a long hiatus of 10 years. Before this, his last movie Phool came out in 1993.
Dutt was appointed the minister of youth affairs and sport in 2004, but was in office only for a year as he passed away the following year on 25 May 2005 due to heart attack.
He was laid to rest with full state honours at the Santacruz moratorium in Mumbai, which was attended by people from various walks of life — some of whom were personalities from the Hindi film industry and some from politics, including, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi.
He is survived by three children — son Sanjay and daughters Namrata and Priya. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1968 and is a recipient of three Filmfare awards.