Actor-filmmaker-activist-politician Sunil Dutt's demise a week shy of his 76th birthday has robbed the nation's cinema and its public life of a stellar personality. He sought - and surmounted - challenges all his life.
In an acting career that spanned all of five decades, Duttsaab, as he was fondly called, demonstrated his talent in 100-odd films made by some of India's greatest directors - Mehboob, BR Chopra, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Tapan Sinha, Raj Khosla and Yash Chopra, among others.
As a director, he crafted a couple of Mumbai cinema's most remarkable "offbeat" films well before the adjective became trendy -Yaadein, which had only one character (played by himself), and the searing desert drama, Reshma aur Shera.
Even as a producer back in the 1960s, he bankrolled films that addressed themes nobody dared to touch. The female protagonist of Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke (1963), directed by R.K. Nayyar, has an adulterous relationship. Mujhe Jeeno Do (1963), directed by Moni Bhattacharya, was a reformist, revisionist dacoit saga, the sort of which has rarely been seen on the screen since.
As a social worker and Congress politician, Dutt Saab was a widely respected individual. He carved a niche for himself as a committed peace activist and a campaigner for communal amity and probity in public life, rising to the rank of Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports in the Manmohan Singh government. It was a portfolio that he sought out for himself because he wanted to make a difference to India's younger generation. Sadly, he did not have time on his side.
Sunil Dutt, born Balraj Dutt in Jhelum district (now Pakistan), saw the horrors of Partition from close quarters. After moving to Mumbai, he began his professional life as a radio announcer and celebrity interviewer, which enabled him to strike a rapport with many influential people from the film industry.
Among the first personalities he interviewed was Nargis, his future wife, whom he married after a courageous rescue act in a life-threatening fire on the sets of Mehboob Khan's Mother India (1957).
Sunil Dutt made his acting debut in Ramesh Saigal's Railway Platform (1955), but it wasn't until B.R. Chopra's Ek Hi Raasta (1956) hit the screens that he tasted box office success. A year later, Mother India happened and he was catapulted to overnight mega stardom.
Dutt survived as a consistently sought-after actor through the Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand era as well as the period that saw first Rajesh Khanna and then Amitabh Bachchan rule the Bollywood roost. Well into the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to deliver commercial hits like Zakhmee, Umar Qaid, and Nehle Pe Dehla.
Sunil Dutt's fame as an actor rests primarily on his portrayal of the rebellious son in Mehboob Khan's Mother India. He brought an insistent, raw energy and insouciant swagger to the character: in the pantheon of Hindi movie anti-hero, Birju remains unsurpassed and is imitated to this day.
But Dutt never let the success of the 1957 classic bog his down and he went to play many softer, romantic heroes with reformist underpinnings. In B.R. Chopra's Sadhna, he marries a prostitute. In Bimal Roy's Sujata, he does not let the heroine's low caste come in the way of his affection for her.
He even played a rural bumpkin in the riotous comedy Padosan and a negative character in Geeta Mera Naam.
His other memorable films were Bimal Roy's Gaban, BR Chopra's Waqt and Gumraah and A. Subba Rao's Milan.
Dutt Saab lost his wife to cancer in 1981, the year son Sanjay Dutt made his debut with Rocky. The very next year, Sunil Dutt produced and directed Dard Ka Rishta, a film that dealt with the agony of a family dealing with the scourge of cancer.
Sunil Dutt was last seen in the role of the protagonist's father in the Sanjay Dutt-starrer, Munnabhai M.B.B.S. He was due to reprise the role in the film's sequel, Munnabhai Meets Mahatma Gandhi. The under-production venture has lost one of its lynchpins.