R. C. Rajamani

IT IS not given to every film star to replicate his acts of "reel heroism" in actual life. Sunil Dutt perhaps was an exception. He saved his wife-to-be, Nargis, from a fire on the sets of Mother India, a defining moment in their courtship. Before long, they were man and wife.

It was 1957. Nargis, a Muslim, was several years older to Dutt, 28, and a Punjabi Brahmin from the Pakistan part of Undivided India. It was a revolutionary wedding that took courage and conviction on the part of both.

A happy pair, loved and patronised by the political establishment of the day, the Dutts had everything going for them money, fame and proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru.

When the Chinese aggression in 1962 broke Nehru's heart, the Dutts organised fund-raising charity shows as part of war efforts. At one of these shows, Nehru broke down, listening to Lata Mangeshkar's soulful of strains of Aye Mere Wattan Ke Logon. At Nehru's suggestion, the Dutts floated the Ajanta Art Trust to organise charity shows for good causes.

Birth of three children, including the mercurial Sanjay, saw their cup of joy brimming. But the actor's experiment with the production of off-beat films in the mid-1960s sent the Dutts scraping the barrel. Sunil Dutt bounced back with commercial hits such as Gumraah, Waqt, Humraaz, Khandaan, Milan, Reshma Aur Shera and Padosan and cleared the debts.

Just as Sanjay was about to establish himself as a film star, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, throwing the world of Dutts upside down. Sunil Dutt moved heaven and earth to save Nargis, in vain. She died in 1982. Sanjay's search for solace led him to drugs even as the mourning father was coming to terms with life without Nargis. Sunil Dutt took to social work and was noticed by Indira Gandhi as a potential Congress member. He joined the party in 1984 and was elected to the Lok Sabha from a Bombay constituency in the post-Indira Gandhi assassination polls at the year-end.

Close to the new and young Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, the actor-turned-politician played an active role in organising the Congress Centenary in December 1985. Sunil Dutt played the real-life hero when he ignored his own security and pulled out people from a stampede that broke out at the venue in Bombay. He was re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1989 and 1991, but refused to contest the 1996 and 1998 polls as a jailed Sanjay was fighting a TADA case against him in courts. Sunil Dutt returned to the Lok Sabha in 1999 and was re-elected in 2004, establishing a rare record not a single defeat. He was Sports and Youth Affairs Minister in the United Progressive Alliance Government.

Ever gentle and mild-mannered, Sunil Dutt was provoked to show his angry protest with the Party leadership when the Congress admitted Sanjay Nirupam to its fold without even informing the veteran actor, who had faced the foul-mouthed former Shiv Sena member in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Did it break his heart? One will not know. But what we know is Sunil Dutt died a peaceful death, in sleep, a rarity reserved for the good and godly. Loved by all throughout his life, Sunil Dutt was a true son of Mother India. She will miss him.

(The author, a former Deputy Editor with PTI, is a New Delhi-based freelance writer. Feedback can be sent to rajamani_rc@yahoo.co.uk)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 31, 2005)
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