In the recently released Sanju, the biopic of his son, Sunil Dutt – as played by Paresh Rawal – has an important part, as his son's indomitable support system. In two brief scenes in the film, he is once referred to as “terrorist ka baap” and later as “Munnabhai ka baap” (after the success of the 2003 film 'Munnabhai MBBS').
With typical apathy towards the past, today's generation of movie-goers do not know too much about Sunil Dutt's achievements as an actor, director, politician and humanitarian and a tribute is due.
Born Balraj Dutt, he was a self-made man, who overcame the trauma of the Partition that uprooted the family, with a mix of luck and talent. He came to Mumbai to study at Jai Hind College and also work with the BEST in Colaba. Radio Ceylon was looking for a fresh voice to do interviews with film stars and he got the job immediately after an audition. When he was still in college, he ran into filmmaker Ramesh Saigal, who asked him to give a screen test. He was given Dilip Kumar's costume from the film 'Shikast' being shot at that time, which was too short and tight for him. But he was selected and offered a contract, a signing amount and a role in the film 'Railway Platform' (1955).
Stardom came to him with 'Mother India' (1957), in which he played the rebellious younger son of the valiant Radha, played by Nargis. The episode of his real-life heroism is famous by now, when he saved Nargis from a fire; they fell in love and got married in 1958. She chose to give up her career to raise her family – Sanjay, Priya and Namrata. His film career went from strength to strength with successful films like 'Sadhna' (1958), 'Sujata' (1959), 'Insaan Jaag Utha' (1960), 'Ek Phool Chaar Kaante' (1960) and 'Gumraah' (1963). He produced 'Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke' and the award-winning dacoit drama 'Mujhe Jeene Do' (1963), deciding early in his career to support offbeat cinema. He went on to direct and act the experimental film 'Yaadein' (1964) one of the handful solo-actor films in the world.
Back then, when it was not trendy for stars to be socially conscious, Duttsaab – as he came to be called by everyone – set up the Ajanta Arts Troupe, with took many actors, singers and performers of the time to entertain soldiers in border areas. Nargis was involved with several charities and was also a Rajya Sabha member.
Duttsaab remained a very busy actor, but still found time to make a masterpiece like 'Reshma Aur Shera' (1971). He introduced his brother Som Dutt and Vinod Khanna in 'Man Ka Meet' (1968), and later launched Sanjay in 'Rocky' (1981), along with Shakti Kapoor and Gulshan Grover.
A few days before the release of 'Rocky', Nargis Dutt passed away after a long battle with cancer. Sunil Dutt set up the Nargis Dutt Foundation in her name to help cancer patients, and their philanthropic work is continued by Priya Dutt.
He retired from films in the early nineties to turn to politics, representing the Mumbai North West constituency for many years. He was a not a leader just in name but worked tirelessly for the people, was always available to meet them, listen to their problems and help. He undertook an arduous 78-day, 2000 km, cross-country 'padyatra' for communal peace, which, was an act of courage and patriotism. Priya Dutt who walked with him, later picked up his political mantle and led the same constituency till 2014.
He made a brief appearance in 'Munnabhai MBBS', with son Sanjay, whom he had supported unconditionally through his battle with drugs and his troubles with the law over the possession of arms during the city's communal turmoil.
Duttsaab had fought back after a stroke and restored his health by the power of his will. He passed away after a heart attack in 2005, and will always be remembered as a great star, but also a noble and compassionate human being.