A Family Remembers
Sunil Dutt's family members recall life with one of the doyens of Indian cinema.
For family members, the pain of Sunil Dutt’s death is softened by the treasured memories they can still cherish.
Says nephew Kamal Dutt, a Chicago businessman, with whom Sunil Dutt was especially close: ” I had spoken to uncle two-three days earlier and he sounded exhausted having come back from a political rally in Kanpur, in the sweltering heat of May. But then that was how he was. If you were to ask him to fly across the seven seas, for just a day for a noble cause, he would come without any consideration for his personal well being, and his loyalty to Congress was unquestionable even though we all feel he never got his due.”
For Kamal, who lost his father at a relatively young age, Sunil Dutt became a key figure in his life from the 1980s. “The family was very close, but then we migrated to the U.S. in the 70s, and uncle remained busy with his film career in Bombay. Nargis aunty and he were the magic couple. Their aura was dazzling. It was only in the 80s after Nargis aunty was diagnosed with cancer and was treated in New York that uncle started coming regularly to the U.S. and we bonded. We spoke every week no matter where he was.”
Kamal’s most precious memories are waking up at 6 a.m. and jogging with Sunil Dutt in Central Park and sharing thoughts on everything, except films.
“Uncle was an avid photographer and he loved to cook. Many times he would ask my wife Priya, to chop stuff, and then he would cook some wonderful dishes and ask me to invite friends over. He loved to sit in our backyard, sip red wine that he had developed a penchant for in recent years, after having quit smoking and alcohol after Nargis aunty’s death. He would reminisce or just chill out. He was also a man who never asked for favors from any one-ever, while he did so much for others. In fact he single-handedly helped the careers of so many actors, from Amitabh Bachchan to Vinod Khanna, to Ranjit, Johnny Lever and so many others, by launching some of them and giving a fresh shot of blood to the careers of others. In fact if I ever wanted to see a film shooting I would never ask uncle. I didn’t want to put him in a situation where he had to ask someone for a favor.”
Kamal’s mother Satya Dutt recalls that she first met Sunil Dutt as a tall and handsome 20-year-old when she married his cousin. “He was very affectionate and respectful. He looked up to my late husband, and both Nargis and he were two of the humblest people you would meet.”
Satya Dutt says Sunil Dutt loved to write. “He would often run over and say Bhabhiji listen to what I just wrote and recite it with great passion. His mother was an amazing woman, a saint and all accepting. I used to tease her after Sunil married Nargis, whom she accepted lovingly, about how she a pure vegetarian had to eat on a table where non vegetarian dishes were served. She laughed and said that she closed her eyes when she ate! What she didn’t see didn’t hurt her. Sunil worshipped his mother. Nargis turned out to be everything he thought she would be, a respectful daughter in law, a wonderful mother and the perfect partner for him. She did spoil Sunju and would go to Sanawar and fight with the teachers if they complained against him. Her death devastated the whole family. But Sunil accepted this tragedy by becoming both mother and father for his children. He started taking better care of his health and became softer and mellower.”
Priya, Sunil Dutt’s youngest daughter, echoes the sentiment. “Dad was perceived as this disciplinarian. He was actually a total softie inside and that façade of being strict just remained until mom was alive. When she passed away, he became both father and mother for us, and never let us feel the vacuum that comes with the loss of a mother.”
Priya says her parents had a wonderful relationship. “They were close, but they also gave each other plenty of space to grow individually as people. There was tremendous respect for each other. In fact when I got married, dad told me, never lose your individuality and your identity and always respect each other. Dad was a great supporter of women empowerment and always there to support that in whatever way he could. “
Satya Dutt says the Congress Party Sunil Dutt and she fell in love with when Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and other stalwarts were at the helm, lost its authenticity in her eyes, but Sunil Dutt remained loyal to it till the end.
The disgust in Kamal’s voice is palpable when he complains, “The Congress used uncle whenever they needed help. They knew he was their lucky mascot and yet he was bypassed for key posts in spite of winning five straight elections…. I don’t think the Congress Party ever gave him his due, but what devastated him was when Sunjay was framed and no one helped him. But he would say ‘I believe that when you marry, you remain with that person through good and bad, and till the end. I feel the same way about the Congress Party. I won’t leave even when I feel they have mistreated me.’ Even when every one let him down he defended them. He was going to be bypassed again until Sonia Gandhi for whom he had a soft corner intervened and he became the Sports Minister.”
Priya Dutt says she had incessant arguments with her father over the fact that his loyalty was not being appreciated, and why was he breaking his back over people who didn’t really care. “Dad said to me, ‘I believe in the ideology of the party more than the people, many of whom will come and go. But if all of us give up and not try to make a difference then what is the point of having any kind of value system.’ Dad was one of those few people who delivered what he promised during the campaign. He braved terrorism and death threats, undertook the padyatra across Punjab though he kept teasing me that I was accompanying him only to skip my college exams! I did go back and take them!
“Dad could be stubborn and he was a man of such strong values and convictions, he refused to budge no matter what happened. He knew all he had to do was to give in a little and many of his problems would be solved but he refused.”
Both Priya and Kamal say the one key lesson they learnt from Sunil Dutt was to have the courage of conviction and do the right thing without worrying about other people’s opinion.
“I think my dad inspired all three of us to be better human beings. His approval meant a lot. He touched the heart of everyone he met even once,” says Priya. “At the funeral we had so many people come up to us and say your father did this for us, he did that for us.”
Adds Kamal, “I’m told that since Pundit Nehru, Bombay never saw the kind of turnout that it did when uncle passed away. People were seen sobbing by themselves watching the funeral on television. Big corporate houses put up huge billboards honoring him and his memory. Politicians come and go, but Dutt Sahib left a huge legacy of not just his philanthropic work, he tied people across the world in an invisible bond of love.”
Kamal concludes, “Not a day goes by when his voice, his memories don’t haunt me. I miss him so much, but I know he had no regrets in life. He never complained about the tragedies he faced, but always reveled in the grace and the many gifts God had blessed him with. He worked with Sunjay in Munna Bhai MBBS. In fact he was to shoot for a sequel. His daughter Anju’s two girls were his life, and he was so proud of his kids, although I think the world was his extended family. Anyone who met him came away feeling they had known him forever.”
Priya Dutt, who has been asked to take over her father¹s works, says, “