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Sunil Dutt had a deeply abiding faith in personal integrity
Mayank Chhaya, May 26  [ Thu, May 26, 2005 ]

  • If Sunil Dutt was not real, he would have been a character from Hindi cinema of the 1950s and 60s. He was secular to the point of being idealistic, patriotic to the point of being nationalistic and gentle to the point of being fantastic.

    I interacted with Dutt Saab, as he was fondly called, keeping my journalistic distance during two very crucial phases of his life.

    In 1984, when he first entered electoral politics, and in the mid-1990s when he was battling his actor son Sanjay Dutt's serious legal troubles over charges of being involved with terrorists and gunrunners. One quality that stood during both those two phases was Sunil Dutt's simple but deeply abiding faith in personal integrity and decency.

    "I will win if people see me as a decent, helpful human being who cares for their problems," he said as he and I, along with 2,000 others walked through some of the dingiest lanes of northwest Mumbai where he was campaigning during his first parliamentary election. He won handsomely.

    "If Sanjay has done no wrong, he will emerge unscathed from these trials. He is my son. I will stand by him, no matter what," he said as the actor languished in a Mumbai prison for close to 18 months. His son emerged from legal troubles, although they are not yet over.

    Dutt brought with him the best of rustic values, having been born in the village of Khurd on the banks the Jhelum river in northern Punjab in what is now Pakistan.

    "I was 18 when partition dislodged our family from the village in 1947. It was in many ways an idyllic village in terms of its values. The village was predominantly Muslim but there were never any problems between Hindus and Muslims. Our family was saved by a friend called Yakub," Dutt reminisced later.

    He said he still practised many of the values such as simplicity and decency that he imbibed in his early life.

    Secularism was one of his life's most consuming passions, and not in the least because he was married to Nargis, one of the country's most cherished actresses, a Muslim herself.

    "I cannot understand why people use religion to cause divisions among people. Religion is beautiful but very private. For a country like India secularism is the only way of life," he said.

    Dutt was often seen by his fellow politicians as too guileless and even naïve because of his old world values about decency and integrity in public life. Notwithstanding that, since he began as a full-time politician he never lost a parliamentary election from his constituency. In 1996 and 1998 Dutt chose not to contest because he was preoccupied with his son's legal issues.

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  • It was a measure of Dutt's personal credibility that while his son faced very serious charges, he never lost his goodwill among the people of his constituency.

    "As a father I am deeply hurt that my son is going through these problems. Sanju may be indiscriminate in his associations sometimes but there is no way he is a criminal that he is made out to be," Dutt said about his son at the height of his problems.

    A lot has been written about how Dutt and Nargis fell in love and got married after he saved her from a fire accident on the sets of Mehboob Khan's "Mother India", which is one of India's most discussed films.

    Dutt's own explanation of the rescue was characteristically shorn of grandiloquence. "I saw a human being facing possible death. How could I not do what I did? There was nothing heroic about it," he said.

    Over the last two decades Dutt fashioned an unusual political career that sincerely sought to reach out to not just the people of India, as manifest in his padyatra, nationwide marathon, but his journeys through the whole of South Asia by road.

    "I see South Asia as emotionally one. South Asians are emotional first and then everything else later," he said.

    Sunil Dutt's Nargis Dutt Cancer Foundation, which he created after the actress died due to cancer in 1981, was "my way of putting up a fight and saving some lives."

    "Nargisji had a great life ahead of her. She was just 52 when she died. I sincerely hope the foundation helps save some lives," he said.

    Dutt's filmography from 1956, when he began somewhat tentatively with Ramesh Sahgal's film "Railway Platform", till 2004 when he performed with ease in the huge commercial hit "Munnabhai M.B.B.S.", was impressive.

    Although for some reason he was never put among the pantheon of great actors such as Dilip Kumar, Dutt always brought strong commitment to his craft. "Cinema is my second home. Sometimes it is my first home. I absolutely relish acting," he said.

    Throughout his career Dutt reached out to get involved in causes beyond himself, be it the fight against cancer or entertaining Indian troops during the time of war. Behind that soft exterior and genteel manners he was a man of very firm resolve.

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  • I was witness to one particular incident while he was campaigning in Mumbai in 1984. A particularly angry resident in the suburb of Bandra stopped him and lectured him on how he as a wealthy actor would understand a poor man's woes. Dutt heard him out quietly and then said without any rancor, "Because I rose from where you are. You can too."