When I once asked Sunil Dutt what gave him the courage to face one adversity after another, he quoted a couplet of the poet Iqbal to me.
Tu shaheen hai parvaaz hai kaam tera
Tere saamne aasmaan aur bhi hai
Loosely translated, it means: You are a hawk. To soar is your mission. You have many mores skies to capture.
The last time we saw Sunil Dutt on screen was in Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Munnabhai MBBS. Sunil Dutt played the highly principled, morally upright father of his real life son, Sanjay Dutt.
It was a case of Hindi films fusing real-life characteristics into screen characters; the character seemed to mirror Sunil Dutt's own persona.
The last time I recall meeting Sunil Dutt was a few years ago. He was holding a walking stick for support and had just a few vestiges of his once-silken hair (of which much was made in his 1970s films like Zakhmee).
He was recovering from an accident that had paralysed half of his body. I asked him if he was in pain. He smiled sagely, "It was far more difficult to see my wife (Nargis, who succumbed to cancer in May 1981) suffer from pain. I cannot see people suffering. For two months, I could not get up from the bed. But I always wore a smile for visitors.
"They would comment hesitantly, 'It doesn't look like anything is wrong with you'. I would grin in reply, 'My lower half is immobile. My face is not, so why should that stop me from smiling?' "
The humility and courage intrinsic to Sunil Dutt's personality perhaps sprang from the fact that he was witness to Partition. Sunil Dutt considered himself fortunate that he didn't die in the mayhem that saw him leaving his Punjab village and settling in Mumbai.
It matured his world view forever.
Those days, he slept on the footpath of the Army Navy building. But he was always full of interesting stories of those times. To avoid being recognised by his college-going colleagues, especially girls, he would wrap his face in a blanket and huddle into his kholi (room) when the morning sun bathed the footpath.
But though he wore a khadi kurta and pyjama, this Jai Hind college student was always the cynosure of female attention.
This ability to make girls go goggle-eyed stood Sunil Dutt in good stead when he branched into acting after a stint as a radio announcer.
Post Mehboob Khan's Mother India, Sunil Dutt enjoyed over a decade among the A-league through the 1950s and 1960s.
Thereafter, his career slumped for a few years. But Dutt was never one to shirk from hard choices. The films he had produced like Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke or Yaadein had never been safe commercial proposals.
Now, he bravely chose to come back as a villain in R K Nayyar's Geeta Mera Naam. Abetted by its success and his role as the hero in Heera, Sunil Dutt's career got a second gallop.
Special: Farewell, Duttsaab
Dutt also plunged into a new role as a social crusader. His reasoning was simple: a star has to repay the paying public for the love and affection they shower on him.
Citing Hrithik Roshan as an example, he said the Roshan kid was a nobody till the public accorded him his star status.
Dutt was convinced that if the public did not draw out the wallets to buy a ticket of a star's latest release, the producer wouldn't draw out the chequebook to pay the star.
The result: Dutt felt compelled to do his bit for the junta.
He had already made a bold entry in the social work arena during India's wars in the 1960s. Along with dancer Madhumati, her troupe and a handful of star friends, he toured the borders of the country and entertained the jawans.
After his beloved wife Nargis lost her battle with cancer, Dutt gathered his wits and began a life-long battle against the disease.
He made Dard Ka Rishta about a young girl's fight with cancer.
I recall a visibly moved Dutt telling me, "Earlier, Hrishikesh Mukherjee had created sympathy for cancer patients with Anand and Mili. But I wanted to go a step ahead. I wanted to show that one can win against cancer. Dard Ka Rishta brought hope to patients."
Sunil Dutt was filled with doubt about his capability to raise three children as a single parent after his wife's demise. But he did his best.
When Sanjay decided to pull himself out of his drug addiction, Sunil Dutt begged off from his film assignments and stood by his son like a rock.
Dutt entered active politics in the 1980s and along with his involvement with social causes. This resulted in his film career taking a backseat.
But a well shot song or a good film would stir the filmmaker in him. In his words, "Valvale (lava) jaag uthte hain."
Accustomed as he was to making films at a leisurely pace amidst a spirit of bonhomie and camaraderie -- stories of how Amitabh Bachchan, Raakhee, Ranjeet and Amrish Puri enjoyed themselves on the sets of Sunil Dutt's Reshma Aur Shera are the stuff lore is made of -- Dutt couldn't acclimatise himself to the new commercial world.
In 1987, Dutt decided to come back as a producer-director and announced two films: Maseeha and Ganga Behti Hai, both starring Sanjay Dutt and Madhuri.
But Dutt couldn't resist the call of his conscience.
Disturbed by the unrest in Punjab, he abandoned his projects to set off on a peace yatra from Mumbai to Golden Temple, Amritsar.
Though the air was fraught with tension, Dutt was unnerved. But he admitted, "On the padyatra, I was worried for my daughter, Priya, who chose to accompany me."
Dutt lived by the belief that even a single man could create a difference.
His motto: Boond boond se sagar banta hai (Little drops make an ocean). He would be disturbed by the thought that while he luxuriated in an air-conditioned house, a few thousand feet away, people lived in slums and struggled for basic amenities.
He said: "Woh bhi toh insaan hain (They are human, too)."
Sunil Dutt wasn't a matinee idol who stood apart from the crowds. He stood with the common man, shoulder to shoulder.
He told me, "When I go away, people should say a decent man has gone away."
His wish has been fulfilled. Amply.