Remembering Sunil Dutt, the true feminist hero

Dutt Saab never hesitated in doing women-oriented vehicles which addressed the issues of their upliftment, empowerment and equality

Photo by Pramod Pushkarna/The India Today Group/Getty Images
Photo by Pramod Pushkarna/The India Today Group/Getty Images

Subhash K Jha

Among all the screen heroes, Sunil Dutt was the only true feminist. While several leading men pretend to believe in gender equality their actions prove otherwise . Not Sunil Dutt. In real life he rescued Nargis from a fire on sets of Mother India and from a deadend relationship with Raj Kapoor, and married her . And they loved happily ever after. On screen, Dutt Saab never hesitated in doing women-oriented vehicles which addressed the issues of their upliftment , empowerment and equality. Here’s looking at Sunil Dutt the feminist reformist.

1. Sujata(1959): Sunil Dutt and Nutan shared a very special onscreen rapport that stretched into 6 films, none as relevant as Sujata. In this Bimal Roy directed drama on the upliftment of an adopted Harijan girl, Dutt Saab played Adhir a progressive poet who insists on marrying Sujata even as his conservative aunt(Lalita Pawar) threatens to disinherit him. Who can forget the lovelorn radical hero singing Majrooh Sultanpuri: Jalte hain jisskke liye mere khwabon ke diye…over the phone to the tearful heroine?

2. Sadhana (1958): A year before Sujata, it was Vyjanthimala in Sadhana whom a righteous professor brings home from a kotha and presents her as his wife to his ailing mother. In the end Dutt Saab insists on marrying the tawaif .Eventhough samaaj thinks she doesn’t deserve a second chance,he does. Sahir Ludhianvi’s hardhitting poetry against the perverse practice of patriarchy still rings true: Aurat ne janam diya mardo ko, mardo ne use bazar diya. jab jee chaha masla kuchla, jab jee chaha dutkar diya. Vyjanthimala who did 3 films with Dutt Saab says, “He was a true gentleman and a progressive man and a rational artiste. The way he conducted himself with Nargisji made every woman in India wish he could be their husband.”

3. Nartaki (1963): Again, the reformist.The man who doesn’t only mouth feminism. He practises it. In this neglected film directed by Nitin Bose, Dutt Saab was Prof Nirmal Kumar who won’t let an uneducated daughter of a prostitute suffer her mother’s fate. Dutt Saab tutors Nanda into an enlightened world.Dharmendra in Sharafat and Chaitali echoed Dutt Saab’s role in Sadhana and Nartaki.

4. Darpan (1970): Dutt Saab again in a reformist mode, marries a prostitute (played by Waheeda Rehman) brings her home.Trouble starts when men who had slept with her in the past begin to sneer at the marriage between a Ideologue and a Fallen Women. The film shows Dutt Saab fighting off all social and familial opposition to stand by his wife. The famed South Indian director Adhurthi Subba Rao (who earlier directed Dutt Saab in the superhit Milan) insisted on naming Dutt Saab ‘s character Balraj Dutt. That was the actor-parliamentarian’s real name.

5. Zindagi Zindagi (1972): Dr Sunil (Dutt) has a visitor from his past. The woman he was once in love with is back and now Dr Sunil insists on marrying the widowed beloved. Bengali legend Tapan Sinha’s only Hindi film was a reformist drama about widow remarriage. Waheeda Rehman who played the widow says, “It was always a pleasure working with Dutt Saab. I was directed by him in the great Mujhe Jeene Do and Reshma Aur Shera and I co-starred with him in several films. He was thorough gentleman, chivalrous and courteous.”

6. Chirag (1969): When Asha cannot conceive, her mother-in-law insists that her son throw his wife out and remarry. No prize for guessing who plays the man who won’t listen to his mother’s evil plans(no prize for guessing the evil mother was Lalita Pawar). Sunil Dutt stands by his wife and even looks after her when she loses her eyesight. Asha Parekh who played Asha recalls Sunil Dutt fondly. “He was my friend and a very supportive co-star. Once when we were shooting together for Chhaya I hid his chappals in the studio. He had to go home bare-feet. He was full of hope and encouragement, kind considerate and generous. One felt safe when he was around.”

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