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Sunil Dutt, the great gambler

Examining the filmmaking legacy of one of Hindi cinema's most versatile artistes.

Sonal Pandya

The affable actor and politician Sunil Dutt started out at Radio Ceylon before headlining the silver screen with varied roles in Mother India (1957), Sujata (1959), Waqt (1965) and Padosan (1968). Dutt wasn’t content to remain an actor as is evidenced by the features he produced under his banner, Ajanta Arts. No film was alike; he made a dacoit drama, a tragic love story, an experimental one-man feature and a social drama to raise awareness for cancer.

Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963)

But it all began with the ripped-from-the-headlines film Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963) directed by RK Nayyar. Based on the real-life KJ Nanavati case that shocked the nation, the film depicted a version of the scandal on screen as the disclaimer stated at the beginning.

Casting himself as the jealous and possessive husband Anil Sahni, Sunil Dutt went against the grain. His hero had several shades of grey as he stood accused of murdering his wife’s lover. Fifty-three years later, the story is still relevant and appeals to actors; Akshay Kumar appears in Rustom (2016) in a story very similar to the Commander Nanavati case.

Dutt followed up his debut production with the Moni Bhattacharya-directed Mujhe Jeene Do (1963) with Waheeda Rehman as his co-star. Realistically shot, the film was a game changer as far as dacoit films were concerned. For the first time, the dacoit was shown as repentant and having a conscience. The film made it to the official selection of the competition at Cannes in 1964 and won Sunil Dutt his first Filmfare award for Best Actor. He beat out Rajendra Kumar for Dil Ek Mandir and Ashok Kumar for Gumrah.

After Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke and Mujhe Jeene Do, Sunil Dutt made his most daring move as an actor, director and producer with Yaadein (1964). For nearly two hours, he occupies the screen, alone in a story suggested by his wife Nargis (she is credited as Mrs Sunil Dutt) and directed by himself.

Touted as the world’s first one-actor movie, Yaadein eventually entered the Guinness Book of Records for having the fewest number of actors in a film. Once again, Dutt plays a less-than-perfect husband, Anil, who has neglected his family and driven them away. Dutt received no accolades for his performance, but it stands out, by a mile, as one of his best.

Sunil Dutt in Yaadein (1964)

Next, Sunil Dutt launched his younger brother, Som Dutt, in Man Ka Meet (1968) along with other newcomers Leena Chandavarkar, Sandhya Rani and a young man named Vinod Khanna. Needless to say, Vinod Khanna and Leena Chandavarkar made a larger impact with the film than Som Dutt and Sandhya.

With Reshma Aur Shera (1971), Sunil Dutt attempted to make a different love story from an old Rajasthani legend. Co-starring Waheeda Rehman (who won the National award for Best Actress for this film), Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rakhee, Reshma Aur Shera was a beautiful-looking film that failed to attract audiences at the time. Primarily shot in the desert, the shoot was difficult and Dutt was, reportedly, a very exacting director with this project.

Dutt’s last few productions may not have been as memorable as his first few, but they were still distinct stories. He did not direct his next production, Nehle Peh Dehlaa (1976), instead handing over the reins to Raj Khosla. In the film, Dutt played a man obsessed with finding his kidnapped younger brother and bringing to justice those who had wronged his father. Nehle Peh Dehlaa featured a glamorous Saira Banu and the Ajanta Arts staple Vinod Khanna as his co-stars.

With Saira Banu in Nehle Pe Dehla (1976)

After his wife’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death in 1981, Sunil Dutt produced Dard Ka Rishta (1982), which brought to light the growing cases of cancer and the possibility of a cure in the form of donors and transplants. All the proceeds from the film went to providing treatment to those affected by cancer and cerebral palsy.

Yeh Aag Kab Bujhegi (1991), a film on the evils of dowry, became his last film under the Ajanta Arts banner. In between he directed Daaku Aur Jawan (1978) and Rocky (1981), his son Sanjay’s star debut.

In the latter stages of his acting career, Sunil Dutt increasingly took on character roles, usually as the dependable and noble father, like he did opposite Sanjay Dutt in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003). He showed off his skills as an actor, taking on comedic and villainous roles with ease. But his greatest strength was as a filmmaker, where he took maximum risk to put forward the films he believed in.