Nabendu Ghosh, the legendary screenplay and script writer recalled his cordial brotherhood with Sunil Dutt after the actor bid adieu to the world on May 25, 2005. Ratnottama Sengupta translates the heartfelt tribute as an exclusive for Silhouette magazine, remembering the legendary actor on his birth anniversary.
The year was 1950. I had joined Bimal Roy, a pioneer in the annals of Indian cinema, as a screen playwright in his unit, and set out for distant Bombay. In that unfamiliar world, our uncertain future was secured by the consecutive success of Maa, Baap Beti, Parineeta, Do Bigha Zamin and Biraj Bahu. Consequently the screenwriter of Bimal Roy also gained recognition and I started getting calls from many production houses.
In 1955, after we had completed work on Devdas, I started writing Zamana for the renowned founder of Filmistan, Sashadhar Mukherjee. Arabind Sen was the director of that film. One evening, after the discussions were over, I sat in the studio canteen with a cup of tea. That’s when the studio’s sound recordist, Kalyan Singh, came to me with a young man by his side. A fair-complexioned youth of about twenty six or twenty seven, with handsome looks.
“Namaste Nabendu Dada!” Kalyan Singh greeted me. With a smile I invited him to join me at the table, “Come, have a cup of tea…”
“Dada, meet Balraj Dutt – “ Kalyan Singh said as he settled down in a chair. “He is the hero of Railway Platform, the film which Ramesh Sehgal is directing for us. He is a new find.”
I turned to look at the ‘new find’. “Congratulations, Balraj ji!” – I said to him.
The young man by the name of Balraj Dutt said, “Dada, I have given up this name, Balraj.”
“What do you mean – given up?” – I asked him.
He replied, “There’s a powerful actor on the scene who is also named Balraj. So I don’t wish to be Balraj No 2 – that is why I have decided to be Sunil Dutt No 1. Sunil – Blue as the Sky. Aasman jaisa!” He started laughing.
It was an engaging smile. I warmed up to the youth, “May your name spell success. May you scale the heights of fame Sunilji!”
“I have a request,” Sunil Dutt at once responded. “You will never suffix ‘ji’ to my name, all right?”
“Ji Sunilji,” I readily agreed.
“Dada!”- Sunil Dutt protested with a broad smile.
“Sorry Sunil –“ my reply spelt laughter for all three of us.
That was the first time I met Sunil Dutt but believe me, it felt as if I had known him for a long time.
Days passed. Railway Platform released. It wasn’t a hit but Sunil Dutt came in the public eye. But our paths seldom crossed. Suddenly in 1957 I learnt that Sunil Dutt was acting in a very significant role in celebrated director Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. And the leading lady of the film, Raj Kapoor’s heroine Nargis whose beauty has the classic touch of Ajanta, is playing mother to him. Sunil Dutt is cast as her rebellious second son. Wah! May he fare well. Sunil Dutt is a very decent person.
One day I heard, and then read in the newspapers, that a fire sequence on the sets of Mother India had gone haywire. That Nargis’s life was endangered by the fire and Sunil Dutt had saved her without caring for his own well-being! Dhanya ho! May Sunil Dutt flourish!
Mother India released in theatres. In golden letters the title got engraved in the chronicles of moviedom. And right after that we got the Breaking News that Sunil had married Nargis and become the heartthrob of the very same lady whom he had saved from the clutches of raging fire. ‘Wah Sunil Dutt, wah!’ I congratulated him to myself.
Days rolled by. I read about Sunil Dutt in newspapers. I see him photographed with his wife in magazines. But we were not meeting face to face.
That too happened one day. At the Filmfare Awards night I ran into them both, Sunil Dutt and Nargis. “Namaste pyare Nabendu Dada!” – Sunil greeted me. Then, turning towards Nargis he said, “Meet Dada, the renowned screen writer…”
Nargis folded her hands in a ‘Namaste’ and smiled. “Ji! I am familiar with his name. Ghosh Dada, I had got a script penned by you – I will always remember it.”
Sunil Dutt looked at her with question in his eyes. Nargis replied, “Bimal Roy Sahab had sent me the script of Yahudi. It was written in English – angrezi mein likha, it read like a novel. In Bombay no one writes such finished script!”
Sunil Dutt spoke in a charmed voice, “Isi liye to main inko Dada bolta hoon! That is why I call him Dada.”
I thanked Nargis for the compliment. I remembered that Bimalda had conveyed her appreciation to me. She could not feature in our Yahudi since she was then contract bound to act exclusively for Raj Kapoor Films. Eventually Meena Kumari had appeared in the role of the Jewess.
This meeting with Sunil and Nargis took place in 1958. That same year I wrote the screenplay for successful producer-director Shakti Samanta’s Insaan Jaag Utha . So what was the plot? A greedy and daring young man hears about a hidden treasure – gupt dhan – and arrives in a village. There he finds a mammoth dam coming up. As he watched the dedication and missionary zeal of those involved in building the dam, the wayward youth gets inspired to devote himself to nation building. The true human being buried inside him was awakened.
Shakti Samanta said, “Nabendu Da, you come along with us to the location – in case some changes need to be made on the grounds…”
“Very well, then,” I replied, “let me have a vacation!”
So I travelled to Andhra Pradesh. I got a room in the MLA Quarters there. A stone’s throw away from it, work was on on the Krishna Sagar Dam. Huge, it was. Monumental.
In the evening I was startled by a familiar voice – “Namaste pyare Dada! Greetings…” I looked up to find Sunil Dutt smiling from the doorstep.
I stood up, “Arre! Aaiye Sunil ji, come in!”
Sunil broadened his smile, “Arre Dada, why are you repeating your ‘ji-ji’s?
It was my turn to smile. “No, I won’t,” I said. “Honestly Sunilji – I mean, Sunil! Come, sit.”
Sunil Dutt was the leading man of Insaan Jaag Utha and the leading lady was dream girl Madhubala, who had made a deep impression in our hearts with Mahal. And the music was scored by Sachin Karta – S D Burman.
The location shooting had gone on for about 15 days. However, I had returned after five nights. But I cherish the memory of those five days – because of Sunil Dutt. After sundown on the terrace of one of the quarters occupied by the artistes, we would gather for an adda by the moonlight. Invariably the centre of attraction would be Sunil Dutt. One day he regaled us by singing a folk song in his Jat accent. Merrily we joined in the chorus with our Balle balley! Another evening it was Madhubala’s turn to sing a song – it seemed a sylph had descended amongst us from the moonlit sky. I shouldn’t boast, but one evening at Sunil Dutt’s repeated urging, I too belted out a version of Pankaj Mullick’s composition of Tagore, Diner seshe ghoomer deshe/ At the end of a long day, in the land of rejuvenating sleep…
And most of all, I shall not forget Sunil Dutt’s recapitulation of his early life. He had lost his father when he was five, and mother at the age of twenty three. When he was only eighteen years old, as a rootless refugee from West Punjab he had arrived in Mandauli, now a district in Haryana, then moved to Lucknow, before coming to Bombay. Even as he studied to graduate in History he took up a job with the BEST Company, then for three months he served in the military. Because of his command over Urdu he became a popular announcer on Radio Ceylon. Finally after being buffeted through the bitter-sweet of life he had arrived at Railway Platform and emerged a hero. What an action-filled story of emerging victorious against odds!
Soon after. Bimalda started filming a Subodh Ghosh story for which I was writing the screenplay. Nutan was to play the heroine. And who would be the hero? “Sunil Dutt,” Bimalda replied.
Bas, Sunil Dutt came over to Mohan Studios. Broad shouldered, jovial, warm, with an all-embracing heart as wide as the sky. “Nabendu Dada, lo main aa gaya, straight from the dam!”
“Aao aao Sunilji…” I stretched out my hand to welcome him.
“Yeh Sunilji kaun hai?” – he held my outstretched hand, looked around and demanded, “Who is this Sunilji?”
“Arre Sunilji – you! Sorry I forgot your request Sunil Dutt!”
With a burst of laughter we embraced each other.
In due course Sujata was completed and released across the country. It added one more feather in Bimalda’s cap. Nutan’s fame as an actress touched new heights with her touching evocation of the ‘untouchable’ Sujata. Sunil Dutt’s name was on every lip following his sincere and heartfelt essaying of the liberal professor.
Sunil Dutt and I met at the Silver Jubilee function of Sujata. With him was Nargis.
“Congratulations, Sunil Duttji!”
“Dada, hain kaun yeh Sunil Duttji? You won’t congratulate me?”
I smiled mischievously, “Yes Sunil, you and only you Sunil deserve every accolade!”
Once more we embraced – and Nargis clapped.
After that a long time elapsed but we did not meet. Many a January-February, Baisakh-Chaitra rolled by but Sunil Dutt’s voice did not boom in my ears. But he was in my life – through newspapers, film magazines, radio, movies. His photographs were on posters of new releases, his name was in print. Reviews spoke of his histrionic prowess in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke and Mujhe Jeene Do, critics lauded his experimentation in Yaadein and Reshma Aur Shera, viewers loved him in Padosan and Milan. I would get to know about it all. And, knowing Sunil, I was not taken aback when he and Nargis set up Ajanta Arts Troupe to perform for jawans at the frontiers.
Then one day I learnt that he has lost Nargis. By then, though shattered by the news of her interminable ailment, his unrelenting Battle of Cancer had turned him into a legend. But I only kept reading about this multifarious involvement and heard him being discussed at various forums, I did not meet him. For, he had by then joined Indian National Congress and was in the thick of political activity.
His purpose was to serve his country and its people. The papers were full with reports of his efforts to stop the riots ravaging the city he had set out on long padayatra to foster communal harmony. What a ceaseless struggle he had put in to turn around his drug addicted only son and give him a green life! But through all this, and at every station, this unbiased romantic did not forget to smile.
And then in 1999, at an annual function of the Bimal Roy Memorial Committee, we met – Sunil Dutt and I. By then he had covered his thinning crown with the hat of Sheriff of Bombay. He had been repeatedly elected honourable member of the Lok Sabha. He had shouldered the responsibility of different ministries. But Sunil’s heartening smile was in place.
“How are you doing Dada?” he enquired.
“I am growing by the year Dutt Saheb!”
“Just because you are growing by the year, I become Dutt Saheb?!” – Sunil joked.
I lowered my voice to tell him, “You are now not only famous but a Very Important Person. Selflessly you serve the janata. You have earned the respect of one and all. That is why, even before I could think, that suffix escaped me.”
Sunil smiled again. “Promise me that you won’t let that happen again Dada.”
“Promise Sunilji – never again ji!”
Sunil broke into a full throated laughter and grasped both my hands in his.
That was the last time we met.
That wasn’t the last I heard of him though. The newspapers kept bringing me news: Sunil Dutt had again become a Central minister. Tirelessly he is serving the populace. Transparent, benevolent, equanimous , caring – he had become a byword for communal amity. His heart was shorn of blemish much like the blue sky without a spec of cloud.
The man who was ever keen to heal the hurt in every heart left for a new padayatra without bothering a single soul. Which direction has he taken? Where is he headed now?
When I meet him next, perhaps in the world above the blue skies, I won’t use any prefix or any suffix. No ji, no Saheb. I will shake his hand and say, “Hello Sunil!”
Sunil Dutt succumbed to heart failure on 25 May 2005. Nabendu Ghosh signed off this piece on 28 May 2005. He said “Hello Sunil!” on 15 December 2007.
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