Radio announcer, actor-filmmaker and cabinet minister - Sunil Dutt led an eventful life for 75 years. From a Partition immigrant in 1947 to a man who embodied creative excellence and championed humanitarian causes, he remains a name to reckon within the annals of Indian cine history.
He was born on June 6, 1930 in Khurd village in Punjab which is now in Pakistan. Named Balraj Dutt, his family moved to India after Partition to settle down in Yamunanagar, Haryana. Later he moved to Mumbai to pursue his studies. He joined Jai Hind College and took up a job as an interviewer on Radio Ceylon.
Dutt turned out to be a hugely popular announcer on the Hindi service of Radio Ceylon , the oldest radio station in South Asia. During his stint on radio he interviewed the biggest stars of the day including Dilip Kumar and Shammi Kapoor. There was one star who played hard to get, one star who turned him down four times before granting him "not a minute more than half-an-hour". That elusive star was none other than Nargis!
Balraj to Sunil
With his impressive personality and deep voice, he was screen-tested by noted filmmaker Ramesh Saigal. The maker of hits like Shaheed and Samadhi approved of this young hero instantly. He cast him as the hero of Railway Platform in 1955. "But this name won't do, there is already one Balraj - Balraj Sahni. You will be known as Sunil in films," he proclaimed. Thus Balraj Dutt became Sunil Dutt. Ek Hi Raasta followed, but Sunil was yet a lesser-known name in films. It was the 1957 classic Mother India that changed the course of his career as well as his life.
Flight up four floors
Dutt shot to stardom in the guise of hot-headed Birju, Nargis' younger son in Mother India. Reportedly Nargis, the huge star was paid a handsome monthly fee of Rs 5000 as opposed to Rs 1000 each to Rajendra Kumar and Sunil Dutt and Rs 750 to Raaj Kumar. The famous fire sequence from which Dutt rescued Nargis had already set hearts aflutter on either ends. But it wasn't until one day when her car broke down and Dutt offered her a lift back home from Mehboob Studio in Bandra to her home in Marine Drive at the other end of the city that romance blossomed. Both the co-stars drove in tense silence all the way and when they reached Chowpatty, close to her home, Dutt mustered the courage to propose to her. "Can we think about marriage?" he asked her in earnest. Nargis dashed out of the car without as much as a glance behind. Dutt returned home with a heavy heart. Those days he stayed on the fourth floor in Stardust building (without an elevator) at Napean Sea Road. The next day Nargis trudged up four floors to find Dutt's sister Rani at home. She told an overwhelmed Rani to tell her brother that her answer was “Yes!"That night Dutt danced with joy and the two were married on March 11, 1958.
Sadhana, Sujata and Gumraah further enhanced Dutt's star appeal. In all these films Nargis turned out to be his self-appointed stylist. She would go scouring the Delhi markets for those smart coats and sweaters that distinguished him in those days. In 1963, Dutt decided to make Mujhe Jeene Do under the home banner Ajanta Arts. This was a dacoit drama, considered to be a risky proposal in the face of two other big films releasing in the same year - Ganga Jamuna and Raj Kapoor's Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. The film was his first success and it remained his favourite all his life.
Better man, lesser actor
Although the media always underrated him as an actor and mocked at his Punjabi accent, he maintained that he wanted to follow in Dharmendra's footsteps whom he idolised. "If you want to be a hero on screen then you will first have to become a hero in their minds first," he said. He guarded his public image closely and always came to the fore for any humanitarian cause. He and Nargis always volunteered for morale-boosting tours to the Indian borders during the wars. "He treated a spot-boy and a producer at par. That was his greatness,"recalls Raj Grover, his long-time manager.
Legendary Southern filmmaker S S Vasan approached Nargis to return to films after her marriage in a stunning role for her. He threatened to shelve the film if she wouldn't be part of it. Nargis smiled and argued,"But I have three productions on the floors - Sanju, Anju and Priya!" Although Dutt never stopped her from going back to films, she willed to devote her time entirely to the family. She took off with the kids to Europe on a vacation. Left alone at home, Dutt thought of a film story that would be the story of a lonely man on a night. Nargis and his associates tried to warn him but Dutt was hell-bent on having his way. "I create trends," he thundered. In the year 1963, Yaadein was shot over a non-stop 47-day schedule at Kardar Studio in Mumbai. Dutt despatched his trusted aide Grover to check the response to his "masterpiece" in Chandigarh. "This is amazing, Dutt is alone on screen and I am alone in the balcony," he called back. Dutt was heartbroken but not defeated.
The blockbusters Waqt, Khandaan, Humraaz, Milan and Padosan followed and Sunil Dutt's versatility as an actor was established beyond any question. Dutt was particularly proud of his comic act in Padosan and he marvelled at destiny when his heroine Saira Banu became his real-life padosan at Pali Hill, Mumbai.
By now a wiser Dutt handed over the production reins to his proficient production manager Yash Johar. In 1971, he was off to Jaisalmer to shoot Reshma Aur Shera with his entire cast and crew. As many as 52 tents were put up in the desert and even the leading lady of the film - Waheeda Rehman - stayed in one of the marquees. Ali Raza, the writer of Mother India wrote the script and Dutt was consumed with excitement while making it. It was almost like a desert storm. He produced, directed and acted in the film. Unfortunately the film was a huge disaster and it took him a while to bounce back.
The final chapters
He bounced back when he continued to star in hit films which included Heera (1973), followed by Zakhmee (1974), Nagin ('76) and Jaani Dushman ('79). He also starred in a series of Punjabi religious movies like Man Jeete Jag Jeet, Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam and Sat Sri Akal.
He launched his only son Sanjay Dutt in 1981 in Rocky that he directed. Shortly before its release Nargis died of pancreatic cancer . He set up the Nargis Dutt Foundation in memory of his wife for the cure of cancer patients. He also made Dard Ka Rishta based on this subject. Dutt donated all the proceedings of the film to the Cancer Patients' organisation.
Nargis, a Rajya Sabha member, had persuaded her husband to enter the political arena. In 1982 he was appointed the Sheriff of Mumbai. In 1984 he joined the Congress (I) party and was elected to Parliament for five terms from the Mumbai North-West Lok Sabha Constituency. He was appointed Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs. He ended his film career after Kshatriya and Parampara in 1993. He made one last screen appearance in Munna Bhai MBBS in 2003.
Periodically in indifferent health for many years, he finally succumbed to cardiac arrest in his sleep on May 25, 2005.