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Sunil Dutt — film star, peace activist, secularist, politician extraordinary

Kalpana Sharma

His life reads like a film script; his commitment to social issues superseded his loyalty to the Congress

— Photo: AP

Relatives and friends carry the body of Union Sports Minister Sunil Dutt for final rites in Mumbai on Wednesday.

MUMBAI: From impoverished Partition refugee to popular film star to Member of Parliament to a Minister in the Union Cabinet — the story of Sunil Dutt's life reads like a film script.

Born on June 6, 1929, Sunil Dutt died of a heart attack on Wednesday, just 12 days short of his 76th birthday. He is remembered as much for the roles he played on the screen as for his campaigns for peace and communal harmony, against drug abuse and for better care for cancer and HIV/AIDS patients. Mr. Dutt was Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs and Member of Parliament from Mumbai North-West at the time of his death.

Mr. Dutt began his life in Khurd village, Jhelum district, Punjab (now in Pakistan). His father died when he was just five and he, his sister and brother were brought up by his uncle. In 1947, during Partition, his family fled to India and lived in Ambala district, now in Haryana.

Radio artiste

In the early 1950s, Dutt moved to Mumbai to continue his education and joined the Jai Hind College. His involvement in dramatics got him his first job with Keymers, a British advertising agency that hired him for radio programmes. "Lipton ki Mehfil", anchored by Mr. Dutt and broadcast on Radio Ceylon, at that time the only commercial radio station in the region, became extremely popular. Mr. Dutt interviewed many famous film personalities like Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. This opened the way for him into the world of films, where Ramesh Sehgal first offered him a role in a film called `Shikast'. He turned down the offer as he had promised his mother that he would complete his education.

No looking back

Sehgal waited and made another offer to Mr. Dutt after he graduated in 1955 — a role in the film `Railway Platform'. It launched Mr. Dutt in the movies and he never looked back. His filmography is long and varied but the film for which he is best remembered is `Mother India' (1957), where he played the role of Birju opposite the legendary Nargis. They married a year later.

Between Mehboob Khan's `Mother India' and `Humraaz' in 1967, Mr. Dutt was at the peak of his acting career. He had the best-known actresses of Hindi cinema — Waheeda Rehman, Sadhna, Meena Kumari and Nutan — as his leading ladies. In 1971, his career took a dip with `Reshma Aur Shera', a film he produced failing at the box office. In 1981, he launched his son Sanjay in the film `Rocky'. That year also saw the death of his wife, Nargis, ater a long and painful struggle against cancer.

This was a deciding moment for Sunil Dutt. It was then that he turned his attention to social work, beginning with working for those afflicted by the disease that killed his wife. He raised funds for the Nargis Dutt Foundation and used them to fund equipment and medication to treat cancer patients. He also helped the cricketer Imran Khan to collect funds for his cancer hospital in Pakistan and did the same for one in Kenya.

Committed to peace

Mr. Dutt was also deeply committed to peace. In 1987, at the height of the crisis in Punjab, he walked 2,000 km from Bombay to Amritsar, accompanied by his daughter Priya and 80 others, and prayed at the Golden Temple for peace. In 1988, he went from Nagasaki to Hiroshima in Japan to protest against nuclear weapons. He also travelled through Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal as part of the "Hands Across the Borders" peace expedition.

Sunil Dutt was a committed secularist and said once in an interview: "My concept of secularism is to be a good human being who respects all religions". In 1993, after the communal conflagration in Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Mr. Dutt resigned his seat as a Member of Parliament in protest against his party's mishandling of the situation. That his commitment to social issues superseded his loyalty to his party was evident even in 1985, when he led a protest against a Congress government for its neglect of slum dwellers.

Active public life

Mr. Dutt's foray into public life began when he became Sheriff of Mumbai in 1981.

In 1984 he was elected on a Congress ticket from Mumbai North-west to the 8th Lok Sabha.

Thereafter, barring one election, he contested from the same constituency and won convincingly, including in the last general election in 2004.

This was the first time that he became a Minister in the Union Cabinet.

Mr. Dutt has acted in over 100 films from 1956 until 2003, when he played the role of his real-life son's father in Vidhu Vinod Chopra's immensely popular film `Munnabhai MBBS'.

Sunil Dutt was a recipient of numerous awards, including the Padmashree in 1968, the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Award for National Integration and Communal Harmony in 1997, the Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan Award for International Peace, Communal Harmony, Unity and National Integration in 1997 and the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award in 1998.

He is survived by his son, Sanjay, and daughters Priya and Namrata.

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