In 1984 he joined the Congress party and was elected to Parliament for five terms from the constituency of Mumbai North West.
Sunil Dutt, a Mohyal Brahmin by caste, was born 1928 in the village of Khurd in the Jhelum District of Punjab, British India (since 1947 part of Pakistan), and his family settled in a small village on the bank of river Yamuna called Mandoli which is in Yamunanagar district of Haryana. Later he moved to Mumbai to fulfill his dreams. In Mumbai, he joined Jai Hind College as an undergraduate and took up a job.
Starting out in radio, Sunil Dutt was a hugely popular announcer on the Hindi Service of Radio Ceylon, the oldest radio station in South Asia. He moved to acting in Hindi films and got introduced to the film industry in the 1955 film Railway Platform. He shot to the stardom in the 1957 film Mother India in which he co-starred with Nargis, whom he married on March 11, 1958. In the film, Dutt played a short-tempered, angry son of Nargis. During the making of this film a fire accident happened on the sets. It is believed that Dutt braved the raging fire to save Nargis and thereby won her love.
He had one son Sanjay Dutt, also a successful film actor and two daughters, Priya Dutt and Namrata Dutt(Anju). His daughter Namrata married Sunil Dutt’s good friend and also Mother India co-star Rajendra Kumar’s son Kumar Gaurav.
Dutt was one of the major stars of Bollywood in the late 1950s and 1960s and continued to star in many successful films which included Sadhna (1958), Sujata (1959), Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), Khandaan (1965) and Padosan (1967). His collaboration with B.R. Chopra proved to be successful in films such as Gumraah (1963), Waqt (1965) and Hamraaz (1967).
He created a record of sorts by directing and starring in the unique film Yaadein (1964) in which he was the only actor in the cast. He later turned producer of the 1968 film Man Ka Meet which introduced his brother Som Dutt who was unsuccessful in films. In 1971 he produced, directed and starred in the big-budget period romantic film Reshma Aur Shera (1971) which was a huge failure at the box office.
He bounced back when he continued to star in hit films which included Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye (1974), Nagin (1976), Jaani Dushman (1979) and Shaan (1980).
He also starred in a series of Punjabi religious movies in the 1970’s: Man Jeete Jag Jeet (1973), Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam (1974), and Sat Sri Akal (1977).
He launched his son Sanjay’s career with the film Rocky in 1981 which was a success. However shortly after its release his wife died of pancreatic cancer. He set up Nargis Dutt foundation in memory of his wife for the cure of cancer patients. He was also a sponsor of the India Project, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated organization akin to Operation Smile for the treatment of Indian children with facial deformities.
In 1982 he was appointed as the Sheriff of Mumbai, an apolitical titular position, a position bestowed on him by the Maharashtra government for the period of a year. He turned character actor in the 1980s often playing an elderly police officer or family patriarch at the centre of family feuds. He retired from the film industry in the early 1990s to turn to politics after his last few film releases including Parampara (1992) and Kshatriya (1993).
His political career was halted for some years in the early 1990s when he worked to free his son from jail after he was arrested following Hindu-Muslim clashes in Mumbai.
In 1995 he won the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the film industry for four decades.
He returned to films shortly before his death in the 2003 film Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.. In this film he shared the screen with son Sanjay for the first time although they had both appeared earlier in Rocky (1981) and Kshatriya (1993) but did not appear in any scenes together.
He died of a heart attack at his residence in Bandra, Mumbai in his sleep. His seat in Parliament was contested by his daughter, Priya Dutt who eventually won it and is a Member of Parliament from North West Mumbai.