Nargis and Sunil Dutt: A Love Story In the House of Heartbreaks
Some years ago, while reading Mr and Mrs Dutt, a tribute to the parents compiled by their children, actor son Sanjay Dutt and daughters Namrata and Priya Dutt, I realised that the veteran actors and celebrity soulmates had a lot more in common that we know. On Nargis Dutt’s birth anniversary (June 1), we take a closer look at their love and life together.
The subtitle beneath the beautiful black & white picture reads, ‘It is a story of courage and compassion’. After reading the book, I would like to add another line: ‘It is a story of heartbreaks!’
I don’t know how other people read biographies, but I always run through the photographs first, because the pictures I believe, set the mood for the subject and more importantly, their detailed captions prepare you for the key characters involved in the story.
As a journalist writing on cinema for many decades now, I’m familiar with the career journeys of both actors. Nargis Dutt was 14 when legendary filmmaker Mehboob Khan persuaded her mother Jaddanbai to launch her in his filmTaqdeer (1943), produced by his banner.
Sunil Dutt on the other hand, had a long struggle before he became an actor. Dutt began as a radio jockey interviewing film stars on Radio Ceylon before producer Ramesh Saigal discovered him and gave him a break in his 1955 starrer Railway Platform.
There are innumerable stories about how shy Dutt was as a new hero, and also how every lead hero of the time was secretly in love with Nargis. But Baby, as she was fondly called by the family, was blissfully unaware of their adoration.
Sunil and Nargis Dutt crossed each other’s paths at many film gatherings but were officially introduced to each other on the sets of their film Mother India by filmmaker Mehboob Khan. Khan thought it was important for Nargis, who played the title role in the film, to befriend the other actors, particularly Sunil Dutt, who played her errant son Birju.
Everyone is aware of their dramatic love story that was triggered by a fatal fire on the sets of Mother India in 1957, where Sunil Dutt sensing danger, jumped into raging flames without a thought for his own life to save Nargis and won her heart. She visited him every day at the hospital after shooting and a few weeks later, when he proposed marriage to her, she agreed immediately.
It was a controversial marriage because it was among the first high profile inter-religion marriage, but time settled all the dust and speculations around it.
Over the years, while Sunil Dutt continued to work in films, Nargis took a break to have children. In the late 70s, when the proud parents launched Sanjay Dutt in Rocky, the entire film fraternity turned up for the mahurat of the film at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio in Bandra to wish the couple. I was reporting on the event as a trainee and remember the studio dressed up like a bride with flowers. There were smiles and embraces all the way.
Life was a fairy tale until Nargis Dutt suddenly fell ill in 1979 while in Delhi for her Rajyasabha session. Suspected of jaundice initially Nargis returned home immediately and was rushed to Breach Candy Hospital the same night, and was flown to New York the very next day. The following morning she was admitted to Sloane Kettering Cancer Center. At that point it appeared as if she would return home soon. But she returned only a year later, after innumerable surgeries.
Over the decades, the magazines I was associated with, often required me to interview/conduct photo-shoots with the family, and in the process I got acquainted with Sanjay and his siblings Namrata and Priya Dutt, sometimes at their bungalow and sometimes at the adjoining Ajantha Arts Studio, in the same compound as their home.
In 1991 I did an exhaustive interview with Sunil Dutt, in which he described his life as a ‘house of heartbreaks’. Dutt shared pages from his past and said that he had repressed memories for so long that it was a catharsis to be speaking to me. He showed the supplementary booklet carrying my interview on all his friends and shared that now he was inspired to write an autobiography. He never did so, but he systematically documented memories in a special drawer and after he was gone, his daughters were so moved by the rare pictures/personal letters/notes on his characters and roles, that they took a collective decision to compile these memories into a book called Mr & Mrs Dutt: Memories of Our Parents.
The children analyse both the similarities and the contrasting qualities of their parents. One discovers that Nargis is not years older than Sunil, as has been made out by the media. In fact, both Sunil and Nargis were born in 1929 and that too just a week apart. Nargis was born as Fatima in Calcutta to a Muslim mother Jaddanbai, a thumri singer and father Uttamchand Mohanchand, a Mohyal Brahmin. Sunil Dutt came into this world as Balraj Dutt in Khurd, Jhelum to landlord Devan Raghunath and his wife Kulwant Devi, both Mohyal Brahmins.
While Sunil Dutt had a troubled childhood after his father passed away and his widowed mother had to face many hardships to raise her three children, Nargis was raised in great comfort and easy success.
Both were committed to their responsibilities. If Nargis carried her personal staff driver Kasam bhai and maid Ameena bai to her new home, and who her children addressed as nana-nani, Sunil Dutt did everything in his ability to settle his younger siblings in their lives and careers.
Nargis’s demise is understandably the most painful chapter in the book. Daughters Namrata and Priya recall how their life fell apart after she was gone. They were all very young and watched on hopelessly as their father, who had been brave all along, fell into pieces. Sunil Dutt was going through hell and expected his elder daughter Namrata to run their home as efficiently as her mother. But she couldn’t and he was both angry and exasperated.
Those were difficult times. Sunil Dutt was depressed. Sanjay Dutt was on drugs. The youngest Priya was appearing for her tenth standard exams, while supervising her brother in a rehabilitation clinic, and the eldest Namrata was making her foray in to college but was nervous as hell. All of them needed an anchor and the anchor was gone. But children have an inbuilt defense mechanism and slowly, after a lot of mistakes and determination, the siblings took the reins of life in their hands, well almost….and some happy moments knocked on their door.
Namrata was married to actor Kumar Gaurav. Sunil Dutt found a new direction in his life. He came to be recognized as a committed parliamentarian and an inspiring leader. Priya Dutt stepped into her father’s footsteps and found a soul mate she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. And most importantly, Sanjay Dutt had mended his ways (though some troubles came to haunt him again and again) and his career was soaring.
Life was almost perfect, but all it needed was a prick to break it all apart.
On the morning of May 25, 2005, when Sunil Dutt did not wake up at his usual hour, his staff contacted all the children and they rushed to his side instantly. Apparently Sunil Dutt had had a slight temperature the previous evening and Priya and her husband Owen had spent the evening at his place, until he had finished his dinner and had retired to bed. Sunil Dutt said he was fatigued because he had spent the entire day clearing his wardrobes and packing his belongings to shift into their new home Imperial Heights the following week.
Alas, that did not happen.
For his final journey, Dutt’s body was covered in the Indian flag and attended by both Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was only when the children immersed his ashes in Hrishikesh that the finality dawned upon them.
Very early in life they had lost one parent and had learnt to live without their mother. In the years to come, Sunil Dutt was both their father and mother, and now they had lost him too. In the coming years they faced new hardships, Sanjay Dutt went through his share of new misfortunes and Priya Dutt had highs and lows in her own political career. But life goes on and the Dutt siblings picked themselves up and began dreaming once again. Today, the family with all the grand children, live under one roof on different floors and have more or less faced their demons, and are always together when it comes to celebrating their parents. Well, almost.
(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 13 books. Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 25 May 2017. It is now being republished to mark Nargis Dutt’s birth anniversary.)