What can one say about an actor who simply took on the shape and size of a role and merged with his screen character? Sanjeev Kumar, who passed away 25 years ago on November 6 at a no-age-to-go 47, was someone who knew his craft. The master of natural acting in the Ashok Kumar-Pran-Motilal-Balraj Sahni school, far before the eras of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, Sanjeev Kumar ironically had dabbled in theatre before getting his film breaks.
Hailing from a poor Gujarati family that lived in a tenement (Sanjeev is said to have always slept in the kitchen area and legend has it that it was the cause of his fondness for food that later affected both career and health!), Harihar Zariwala got his first break in the blink-and-miss cameo of a cop in Filmalaya’s Hum Hindustani, which released 50 years ago.
The Aspi Irani B-grade stunt film Nishan (1965) was his first solo lead. Sanjeev auditioned for no less than a key role in Rajshri Productions’ Aarti (1962) but failed to make the grade. He kept on doing B-graders (mostly stunt films) all the way, and ironically, a few of these even released long after he had achieved stardom. But Sanjeev was noticed for his acting range and intensity even in them.
It was in 1968 that things first began to pick up. Shikar saw him annexe the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor award in what was a Dharmendra blockbuster, and in the same year, LV Prasad’s Raja Aur Rank , an adaptation of The Prince And The Pauper, saw Sanjeev get his first A-grade solo lead hit, and of course his first chartbuster, Phirkiwali, tu kal phir aana sung by Mohammed Rafi.
From here on, the grade of films that he starred in and his directors (Prasad again, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Asit Sen, Dulal Guha, A Bhim Singh, Govind Sariya) improved, if not his roles (Aashirwad, Anokhi Raat, Chanda Aur Bijli, Jeene Ki Raah, Satyakam). The major turning-point came in 1970 when Sangharsh bombed at the box office but Sanjeev Kumar stood tall in a mammoth histrionic confrontation with both Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni. And then of course there was Prasad’s Khilona, in which his masterly portrayal of a rich shaayar who goes mad, still ranks among his finest-ever portrayals.
The 1970s were the best years of Sanjeev Kumar’s career. In 1971 and 1972, he clinched two consecutive National awards for Dastak and Koshish. His vast range quickly began to come to fore, as everyone realised that here was an actor so secure that two aspects stood out.
One, Haribhai (as he was called by friends) never put looks and even fitness above talent, but his homely middle-class looks never came in the way of powerful and variegated performances, whether it was the boyfriend with the comic touch (Seeta Aur Geeta), the old musician (his cameo in Parichay), the middle-class husband in a discord with his wife (Anubhav) or the friend who strays into crime (Sacchai).
Secondly, manipulation of scripts or tampering with co-stars’ roles was something unthinkable for this simpleton. In the mid-70s, when multi-star films became endemic, Sanjeev did a deluge of them, undisturbed by thoughts like footage and mileage acquired from a film. But the Simple Simon in him protested against Rajesh Khanna’s politics in Aap Ki Kasam, and he never did films with him again. Shashi Kapoor, Jeetendra, Shatrughna Sinha and Amitabh Bachchan remained his favourite male co-stars.
Sanjeev as a person was so endearing that filmmakers got hooked onto him and conceived projects for the actor, who finally achieved the status of a saleable hero only after Anubhav, Seeta Aur Geeta, Koshish, Anhonee and Anamika all released within a few months of each other between late 1972 and mid-1973. The varied performances across a range of filmmaking styles showed that Sanjeev Kumar the actor could never be constrained by the shackles of stardom-oriented career-planning.
And so it came to be that he was top star Jaya Bachchan’s (then Bhaduri) boyfriend/husband in Anamika, Naya Din Nayi Raat, Nauker and Koshish, her father in Parichay and her father-in-law in Sholay. And there were barely a few filmmakers who never repeated the actor, whose repertoire of directors went on to include BR Chopra, Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai, Ramesh Sippy, Mahesh Bhatt, Gulzar (one of his longest associations), Shakti Samanta, Ravi Tandon and even K Asif in the only film he made after Mughal-E-Azam, Love And God, released ironically a year after the actor’s death.
Brilliant comic timing
In 1974, Sanjeev kumar effortlessly sailed through the dramatic demands of a record nine roles in A Bhim Singh’s Naya Din Nayi Raat, a remake of Sivaji Ganesan’s Navarathiri (1964) and in 1975, his terrific portrayals of the humble commoner whose wife becomes a political icon (Aandhi) and the unforgettable thakur of Sholay proved two more milestones in his landmark career. So strong was his impact that Sanjeev was signed by Satyajit Ray, no less, for his first tryst with Hindi cinema, Shatranj Ke Khiladi.
The powerhouse performances he gave in multiple films in middle-aged/old man characters (Arjun Pandit, Mausam, Zindagi, Trishul) outshone his ‘young’ roles despite some solid performances in that genre (Trishna, Pati Patni Aur Woh, Nauker). From the 80s, but for a few turns like Angoor and the con-man part of his dual role in Biwi O Biwi (in which he also played an old man) and his elder brother role in Hero, Sanjeev Kumar was offered more ‘aged’ roles.
Probably someone up there knew that he would never live to be old himself, and at a practical level, his complete indifference to his own figure pulled down his demand as a romantic leading man, as he never fitted the new girls who had breezed in, like Sridevi, Jaya Prada, Dimple Kapadia and Meenakshi Seshadri. Hum Paanch, Vidhaata, Bereham, Haathkadi et al were some of the few good roles he got.
But if there was another field in which Sanjeev always excelled, it was humour. He was the first hero to bring in subtle comedy portrayed by the hero himself. Voice inflections, he always maintained, were often the backbone of a solid performance, and he would add a completely new dimension to all his characters, especially comedies (Seeta Aur Geeta, Manchali, Pati Patni Aur Woh, Nauker, Biwi O Biwi, Angoor, Ladies Tailor, Hero) by simple tweaks of his voice, eyes and even hands.
As a human being, Sanjeev was the ultimate friend. Shatrughan Sinha recalls how he came to Sinha’s aid during a bad phase by offering money without thinking twice. His unostentatious top-floor flat in a ramshackle Pali Hill building (a Mumbai area where other stars have duplexes, penthouses and bungalows), where he was known to bathe with a bucket of water in a functional bathroom right till the end, showed that the man who had romanced all from Waheeda Rehman to Ranjeeta, remained unspoiled by his huge reputation and success. At least eight films were in Sanjeev’s kitty when he died suddenly of a massive heart-attack.
Last but not the least, let us not forget that despite not being a romantic or chocolate hero, Sanjeev inspired beautiful music. Mohammed Rafi had a special intonation for him, and composers put in their best for this supreme man.