When gentleman Sunil Dutt played a gentle villain

The 1974 classic 36 Ghante saw Dutt play a fugitive holding Raaj Kumar’s family hostage in their own home.

Mayur Lookhar

Those who had the privilege of knowing Sunil Dutt would vouch that he was every inch a gentleman. Blessed with angelic good looks, Dutt was a mild-mannered man who was liked by his peers and everyone he met. His manners even made him popular with political rivals who seldom made personal attacks on him.

So, it would be next to impossible to imagine Dutt being cast as anything but a golden-hearted hero. However, rewind into film history and you will find that there were occasions on which Sunil Dutt played characters with gray shades.

The most well known of such roles was, of course, that of the wayward young man Birju in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957). Even in that film, the atrocities committed by the evil zamindar forced Birju to become a bandit. He wasn’t bad at heart.

However, many years later, there was one film in which Sunil Dutt was cast as a hard-core criminal. The film was 36 Ghante (1974).

In this hostage drama directed by Raj Tilak, Sunil Dutt played the main antagonist. The film's title translates as 36 Hours, and the plot was based on the 1955 Hollywood film, The Desparate Hours, adapted from a Joseph Hayes novel and directed by William Wyler with Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March in the lead roles.

36 Ghante starred Raaj Kumar, Mala Sinha and Parveen Babi, who played Raaj Kumar’s sister. Raaj Kumar played a newspaper editor whose life takes a turn for the worse when three fugitives hold his family hostage. The three bandits were played by Sunil Dutt, Ranjeet and Danny Denzongpa. Dutt played Himmat, leader of the fugitives while Ranjeet played his younger brother Ajit and Denzongpa played Dilawar Khan, their partner-in-crime who is up to no good.

The three rob a bank and hand the loot to their accomplice Kamini. But for a change the police arrive on the scene swiftly and corner and capture the three criminals. They are taken to jail, but they cannot be held for long and soon break out, shooting a guard and a few others along the way.

The police react swiftly again and seal all exits from the city. Trapped, the robbers need to find a safe haven. They force their way into editor Ashok Roy’s home and intend to camp there, holding the family hostage till Kamini bails them out.

What follows is a taut suspense thriller as various members of the family, including Roy, return home, willynilly adding to the hostage crisis. Through the tense moments, Sunil Dutt's Himmat does not let go of his civility, even though Roy and his kin test his patience at times as does his accomplice Dilawar Khan.

The hostage crisis ends in a pool of blood when police break into the Roys' residence, but even as Himmat goes down in a hail of bullets you cannot help but feel for the polite, principled bandit who could have made good his escape but decides to stay and fight. Even in a negative role, Sunil Dutt remained the gentleman.

To watch 36 Ghante, click here.