Sunil Dutt

Bollywood star turned politician
Click to follow

Balraj Dutt (Sunil Dutt), actor, politician and social activist: born Khurd, India 6 June 1929; MP, Indian Parliament 1984-2005; Federal Sports Minister 2004-05; married (one son, one daughter); died Bombay 25 May 2005.

Rising to Bollywood stardom in India's film capital, Bombay, in the mid-1950s, following a screen test in borrowed trousers, Sunil Dutt not only went on to play the lead in over 100 films, but also emerged as a leading social campaigner and a popular parliamentarian committed to secularism.

Dutt "Saheb", as he was popularly known, is remembered as much for his illustrious film career and iconic, anti-establishment performances as for his dogged campaigns for peace and communal harmony, opposing drug abuse and improved care for cancer and Aids patients. He was always smiling, facing triumphs and setbacks, of which there were many, with equal resolve.

The trauma and hardship Dutt endured in the months of rioting leading up to partition of the subcontinent in 1947 by the colonial administration into a secular India and an Islamic Pakistan, inspired his commitment to humanity and peace. "My concept of secularism is to be a good human being who respects all religions," Dutt declared, when several fundamentalist movements were raging across the country during the 1990s. "Religion is only meant to make you a good human being," he added. "It is not meant to turn you into a fanatic."

At the height of Sikh militancy in northern Punjab state in 1987, Dutt - by then an MP - along with his daughter Priya and a small band of loyalists, walked more than 2,000km from Bombay to Sikhism's holy city of Amritsar to pray for peace at the Golden Temple. A year later, he travelled from Nagasaki to Hiroshima in Japan to protest against nuclear weapons, and soon afterwards motored across India and neighbouring Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan as part of the "Hands across Borders" expedition.

When, in the early 1990s, his home city of Bombay was aflame with anti-Muslim riots following the demolition of a 16th-century mosque in northern India by Hindu fanatics who believed the site to be the exact birthplace of their god Lord Rama, Dutt resigned as MP in protest against his own Congress Party's mishandling of the crisis. A few years earlier, he had exhibited a similar commitment to social issues by leading protest marches against the local Congress Party administration for its abject neglect of slum dwellers in the teeming city that catered - and still does - to the moneyed and famous.

Born Balraj Dutt into an Hindu farming family in 1929 in the village of Khurd in Jhelum district (now in Pakistan), he lost his father when he was just five and, along with his mother and sister, was taken in by an uncle. It was India's partition in 1947 and his personal experiences during this period of mass upheaval that determined his secularism.

After local Muslims had seized their modest family home, the terrified Dutts sought shelter with a family friend, Yaqub. A gang of Muslim villagers, seeking revenge on Hindus, demanded that Yaqub hand over the Dutts but, at great personal risk, he remained steadfast and refused, saying they were his guests and under his protection. The same night, Yaqub helped the Dutts flee the newly created Pakistan for India, with nothing other than the clothes on their backs.

Five decades later, when Dutt, by then a Bollywood icon and MP, visited his birthplace, the entire village turned out to give him a hero's welcome. "That was the moment I realised that emotions are secular. Feelings and affection, like disease and suffering, have no religion and no nationality," Dutt stated.

Dutt's family settled in a village outside the garrison town of Ambala. In the early 1950s, Dutt moved to Bombay to continue with his education and joined the Jai Hind college, where he got involved in dramatics. This led to his first job with Keymers, a British advertising agency who, impressed with his deep baritone and clear diction, hired him as anchor with Radio Ceylon, the region's only commercial radio station. On his show Dutt interviewed top Bollywood stars, including the beautiful and elegant Muslim leading lady Nargis, with whom he instantly fell in love.

In 1954, a leading Bollywood film-maker offered Dutt a role that he turned down, as he had promised his mother he would complete his education. However, after graduating the following year he was cast by the same director in the lead role in Railway Platform and became an instant hit.

Dutt's major breakthrough came in 1957 with the magnum opus Mother India in which he starred opposite Nargis, playing her rebellious son, the anti-hero Birju, with a raw and urgent energy. The film that still plays to packed houses proved romantically fortuitous for Dutt. During the course of filming, the sets caught fire, spreading panic amongst the cast and trapping Nargis behind a wall of flames. Unmindful of his safety and like many of the fearless characters he later played, Dutt jumped into the fire and rescued a singed Nargis. They were married a year later.

Until the early 1970s Dutt played the hero opposite Bollywood's leading ladies in successive box office hits, some of which tested contemporary social mores, like Main Chup Rahungi ("I Will Stay Silent", 1962), Chhaya ("Shade", 1961), Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke ("This is the Way of Love", 1963) and Mujhe Jeene Do ("Let Me Live", 1963) in which Dutt plays a fierce, mustachioed bandit fighting the rapacious establishment. Padosan ("Female Neighbour", 1968), in which Dutt is a love-lorn buffoon, remains one of Bollywood's classic comedies. In his last film, Munnabhai MBBS (2003), he played father to his own son Sanjay.

In 1981, Dutt's wife died after a long struggle against cancer, a loss that shattered him and from which he never recovered. Almost immediately he took up social work, then politics in 1984 when he was elected Congress Party MP for North West Bombay, going on to win the seat five times.

Dutt took a break from politics in the late 1990s to defend his son, who was accused of involvement in the serial blasts that rocked Bombay in 1993, killing over 300 people. He returned to active politics after Sanjay was released from jail in 1999, and became Federal Sports Minister last year in the Congress Party-led federal coalition government.

Kuldip Singh