Sunil Dutt Birth Anniversary: 'Seen dad broken yet brave through terrible lows', remembers Priya Dutt
Priya Dutt fondly remembers father Sunil Dutt on his 93rd birth anniversary.
“The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers…
But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.” –nargisduttfoundation.com
Sunil Dutt was a star, who didn’t let the stardust settle on him. Stardom was just a subplot in the screenplay of his life. He was primarily about empathy, even alchemizing personal adversity into an opportunity to help, to heal… others.
Like the horror of the Partition didn’t leave him with hate. Instead, he reiterated that both sides had suffered equally and love was the only way forward. Like, when wife Nargis succumbed to cancer, he didn’t wallow in pain. Instead, he started a trust in her name to help those afflicted with the disease. Through son Sanjay Dutt’s critical drug addiction and his faceoff with the law, Sunil Dutt was the anchor that kept him afloat.
Not allowing the serial tragedies in his life to overshadow his concern for the browbeaten, Dutt worked for them relentlessly in a parallel universe. Helping NGOs for AIDS campaigns, for the betterment of slum-dwellers and sex-workers, reaching out to riot victims… Dutt found equanimity in serving others. “Disease and suffering have no religion and no nationality. My work encompasses mankind,” he reportedly said.
His politics was not about power. It was about people. Undertaking a padyatra to Amritsar for peace, travelling from Nagasaki to Hiroshima in Japan to protest against nuclear weapons, driving through South Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal… Dutt extended his ‘hands across borders’ for harmony. In times when position and prominence is gauged by the entourage of bodyguards, Dutt had none. Instead, he was guarded by goodwill. A Messiah, who rubbed shoulders with the masses… Daughter/politician Priya Dutt pays a tribute to father Sunil Dutt on his 93rd birth anniversary…
IN PRIYA DUTT’S OWN WORDS:
Product of partition
Dad was born on 6 June 1929 in Jhelum, Pakistan in a wealthy family of zamindars. He lost his father (Diwan Raghunath Dutt) when he was five. The Partition took place when he was in his late teens. He was away from home the day when his father’s Muslim friend Yakub helped Dad’s mother (Kulwantidevi Dutt ) his sister Rani and brother Som get on the train to India. Dad went looking for them in every refugee camp. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. Till one day, he found them. Though he witnessed the mayhem, Partition didn’t leave him bitter. He realised there was tragedy and loss on either side.
Dad came to Mumbai to avail of better education. He wanted to join Jai Hind College, which had seats reserved for refugees. But the places were full. But he didn’t give up. He kept visiting the Principal’s office till the gentleman relented. He did odd jobs while studying. Like that of a radio host (for the show Lux Ke Sitare) on Radio Ceylon. He was also part of the engineering division of the B.E.S.T. where he recorded the mileage covered by buses. After graduation, he moved to films and debuted with Railway Platform (1955).
Even before he became an actor, he was a huge fan of my mother, Nargis. During his college days, he’d wait endlessly outside Mom’s house at Marine Drive just to catch a glimpse of her driving away in her Riley car. Of course, much has been written about the fire that broke on the set of Mother India (1957), a film they were cast in, and how Dad rescued Mom. “I would have saved anyone else in her place. I fell in love with the woman she was,” was his take. Eventually, the two got married in 1958.
Being the youngest of his children, my brother Sanjay being the oldest followed by sister Namrata, I got away with a lot. I was the only one to speak up to Dad. I was stubborn as hell. I didn’t care whether he got angry. If I believed I was right, no way would I give in. In many ways, I was headstrong like him.
I recall an incident when I was around seven. I kept playing outside the whole day. Finally, my caretaker insisted I return home, which I didn’t want to do. I said something unpleasant to her. When Mom got to know I’d been rude, she slapped me. I got an equally bad yelling from Dad. As punishment, he placed me on top of a cupboard. He said, “Unless you apologize, you can’t get out of here.” I refused to do so. He had to catch a flight but he kept waiting for me to say sorry. Instead, I went to sleep up there. Finally, he had to leave. Later, Mom brought me down.
Coming to his relationship with Mom, we have seen them being extremely loving towards each and even having fights. The fights were funny as we had to take sides. But when Mom was detected with pancreatic cancer around 1979 and was admitted to the Sloane Kettering Institute in the US, Dad’s dedication and surrender to her was amazing.
He forgot himself completely. He had no sense of hunger, sleep… Nothing was about him anymore. It was only about her. When Namrata and I saw his condition, surviving only on cigarettes and coffee, we were alarmed. We learned to prepare Indian meals for him. We began taking turns in being with Mom at the hospital. But Dad didn’t want to leave Mom for a moment… He’d sit beside her and keep talking to her. He would talk to her even while she was in a coma. When she came out of coma, he’d record her voice messages for Shammi aunty and her friends back home. (Smiles) Watching his dedication towards his wife, only increased our expectations regarding our spouses (Namrata is married to actor Kumar Gaurav and Priya to businessperson Owen Roncon ). The benchmark was set too high. There cannot be anyone like him.
Mom passed away on 2 May, 1981. Namrata, who was around 18, grew up way too soon. She feared if she didn’t take on the responsibility of the home, we would need a nanny or a relative staying with us. We didn’t want that. For her to deal with an obstinate teen sister and a brother who was at the height of his drug addiction then mustn’t have been easy. Namrata’s always been behind-the-scenes, so people wouldn’t know how much she has contributed to the family.
Initially, Dad used to get letters from women saying, ‘We want to marry you’ and ‘We will look after your children’. I was a terribly possessive daughter. I used to lose my head and warn my father that he dare not marry again or have another woman in his life. His reply would be, “Where will I be able to find someone like your mother!” Much later, I realized how lonely he must have been. There were so many things he couldn’t share with us. Once we told him, “Dad if you like someone, it’s okay. We will understand.” It was an awkward moment. He laughed and said, “I haven’t found anyone like your mother. So that’s not going to happen.”
I’ve never seen a more resilient man than my father. He never caved in under pressure when it came to his principles. He stood up for what he believed in. I’ve seen him broken and yet brave, vulnerable and yet larger-than-life through the many terrible lows. Be it my mother’s illness or my brother’s rehabilitation and incarceration. When Sanjay was to be rehabilitated for drug addiction, Dad started educating himself about the dependence. He understood that Sanjay required medical attention. But the desire to give it up had to come from Sanjay. After many failed attempts, when Sanjay himself asked Dad for help, it worked.
During Sanjay’s jail term (he was arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) in April 1993), Dad sometimes blamed himself, sometimes circumstances. He wondered whether Sanjay was bearing the repercussions of his being in politics. He waited outside the homes of ministers; he’d be sitting outside the prison on a bench hoping to catch a glimpse of his son. It was terrible to see a man so strong turn so helpless.
Lies were being spread about Sanjay every day. Namrata and I wanted to blast everyone, we were so angry. But Dad cautioned us saying, “The more you speak the more you will harm him.” This was a big lesson for me not knowing that one day I’d be in public life. How to keep my cool, how to address things, how much to speak, how much to hold back and above all not to get affected by what’s written about my family or me… these were key points I picked up from Dad.
It took 21 years for Sanjay to finally walk to freedom (Sanjay completed his final jail term in 2016). But there was not a day when everything seemed normal. The sword was constantly hanging on his head. Dad’s plea was, ‘Book him for anything. But don’t call Sanjay a terrorist and an anti-national because he’s not.’ In November 2006, Sanjay was booked under the Arms Act but acquitted from TADA. Just to hear those words was such a relief for the family, a family that has always contributed towards the country. Whether it was entertaining jawans at the border, providing help to riot victims, the underprivileged, the challenged, the sick or walking for peace and harmony…
Sanjay’s willpower comes from my father. For him to kick that and rise is commendable. He survived his jail stint only to come out better. Like my father, Sanjay is not a bitter man. Recently, when he heard about his cancer diagnosis, it shook him. But once he accepted it, he put his mind on a different mode. He told us, “I am going to be fine. I am not a patient. Don’t even treat me like one.” After his chemotherapy and immunotherapy sessions, he’d get onto his exercise cycle only to tell himself ‘cancer cannot beat me’.
IN DAD’S FOOTSTEPS
Honestly, my father didn’t want me to enter politics. I was only involved in his social welfare activities and the Nargis Dutt Foundation. But destiny willed otherwise. In 1987, when Dad undertook the peace padyatra to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which was a social crusade and not a political one, I realized he was way beyond being just my father. He belonged to the people. The way he interacted with villagers, with children… he touched a chord in every person he met. It was inspiring.
In retrospect, I guess I’m a combination of both my parents. My willfulness comes from him. If I’ve decided on something, 20 people may warn me against it, but I’ll go ahead. My mistakes are mine just as is the credit. On the other hand, I’ve Mom’s easygoing nature. I’m like her with my kids (Sumair and Siddharth Roncon). Adventurous, naughty, spontaneous. Like her, I live in the moment. I can’t plan too much. And like them both, I am a free spirit. I don’t like being caged.
THE LAST SUPPER
Coming back to Dad, my husband Owen and I had dinner with him on the evening of 24 May, 2005. Dad was packing his ‘collectibles’ to move into the new apartment in Bandra. He had preserved innumerable souvenirs down the years. Like the receipt of the first radio he bought, our school fees receipts… That evening he told me something profound. He said, “I’ve done everything I wanted my way. I have no regrets. When I move into the new house, I am going to throw a party and invite everyone – my friends, my enemies, people I’ve had differences with… and begin anew. I want to start with a clean slate.” Ironically, he passed away in sleep that night, 25 May, 2005 (Dutt was the Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports then). His funeral was attended by all… his friends, his foes… and in the new house. His wish did come true but in an unforesee way. Dad began his final journey on a clean slate…
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