Balraj Dutt's rise to fame was almost imperceptible. Spotted on the Bombay Jai Hind College stage, he was signed on by the ad agency D.J. Keymer to present a star-oriented show on Radio Ceylon called Liptons Ke Sitare. While covering the shooting of the Dilip Kumar-starrer Shikast, he met director Ramesh Saigal. Impressed by his voice and bearing, Saigal asked him if he would work in his next film. "Only if you cast me as hero," was Dutt's response. Saigal screen-tested him in Dilip Kumar's clothes which were at hand.
Remembering the episode, Dutt said, "The jacket sleeve reached only my wrist and the trousers were ankle length. I felt so awkward in them that I never thought Saigal saab would call me back". But Saigal did.
Railway Platform, opposite Nalini Jaywant was anything but spectacular. Big time came Dutt's way after B.R. Chopra's EK Hi Raasta, a film on widow remarriage, which became a blockbuster. Though his role as Meena Kumari's husband ends at the interval, Dutt's performance lingers in the audience's mind. There was no looking back for Sunil Dutt (his screen name, which distinguished the actor from the radio jockey on Radio Ceylon).
A series of successful films like Sadhana, Gumraah, Dhool Ka Phool, Bandhan, Sujatha and Yeh Raaste Hai Pyaar Ke made Dutt a sought-after star. His professionalism endeared him to all directors of his time, right from B.R. Chopra to Bimal Roy. As director, he made an experimental Yaadein with no star cast. He also made Mujhe Jeene Do, a hard-hitting dacoit drama.
Dutt became Hindi cinema's quintessential daku, which led to a spate of dacoit films around him. A joke doing the rounds at that time was that each morning Dutt would dress up as a daku, climb on his favourite horse waiting outside his bungalow at Pali Hill and ask his business manager Raj Grover: "Which location?"
Dutt's unstarry approach to life and his keenness to help wannabes had a huge coterie of youngsters hanging around him, a good many of whom were parasites. I remember a story we had done for a magazine I was editing. Entitled 'Sunil Dutt and his boys' the story got us instant compliments from Nargis Dutt. She said, "I have been telling him to get away from the parasites, but he doesn't listen..." Dutt Saab wasn't amused though. We were being "vicious", he thought, and asked as what we had achieved through it. "I want to encourage these boys. Being with me gives them an identity, why should anybody grudge it?" He was among the first to cast Bachchan in a film called Reshma Aur Shera. He discovered Vinod Khanna and Leena Chandravarkar.
Dutt Saab never believed in half measures. I remember, when I look over as editor of Screen, I had invited him to head the jury of Screen Awards. He feared that he might offend the losers. When I asked him if he wouldn't like a credible process where professionals decided on awarding their peers, he agreed. Once he accepted the responsibility, he plunged headlong into it. He watched each of the 40-odd films meticulously. At times, he got his preview theatre at Ajanta Arts opened at 7 am to view an entry he had missed watching because of some commitment. His team gave a new dimension to the Screen Awards that year.
It was as a father that Dutt Saab revealed his greatness as a human being. When Nargis Dutt shielded a recalcitrant Sanjay in his Sanawar days, he knew the shape of things to come. But he didn't stop her. When Sanjay had to pay for it in his later years, Dutt Saab stood by him, pulling him out of one crisis after another, all the time making light of the emotional trauma he himself was going through. He was full of admiration for the way Sanju kept bouncing back in his career. Especially when he gatecrashed into the vacuum left by Amitabh Bachchan, with a series of blockbusters like Naam, Saajan, Khalnayak and Sadak.It was Sanju in a new avatar. From Vidhaata's bumbling hero, he had created a powerful visage for himself. Dutt Saab acknowledged the creative energy in his son. "I couldn't say anything when people kept writing off Sanju, but I knew he'd hit back one day."
That "day" was cut short by an unfortunate incident which led to Sanju being put behind bars. This time, Sanju might have paid for his father's guts for having dared to criticise a central leader who played Nero while Mumbai burned. He reacted to the mishandling of the 1993 riots by resigning as MP. Maybe because he was not a born politician and didn't know the tricks of politics—he always called a spade a spade. As he did recently while resenting Sanjay Nirupam's entry into the Congress. He was among the few politicians whose securalism didn't emerge from any vote bank. As he once confessed, his mother, whom he idolised, had only one advice for him when he left for Bombay in search of a career: "Leave your past behind. If you keep wallowing in the ravages of Partition and how it affected us, you will only intensify the hatred inside you. There is a new day and a new life ahead. Keep looking forward..."
He never forgot those words. He always looked forward, beyond the heartbreaking travails of helping his son out of one crisis after another from drugs to divorce to the ignominy of being branded an anti-national and crippling accidents. Somewhere in the journey, he found a strong soulmate in his daughter Priya who, to some extent, symbolises the fortitude and positivity of his mother.
(Rauf Ahmed was editor of Screen and Filmfare, and later went on to head Zee Cinema.)