Simplicity personified

Rare histrionics

Natural actor: Sanjeev Kumar in ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’.

He made his film debut in 1954 with Ali Baba and 40 Chor, when he was barely 16. His first adult role was in Hum Hindustani (1960). He was an actor who performed every role with a characteristic panache, whether of a romantic hero, a villain or even a mature character.

Sanjeev Kumar did not marry any of the heroines who tried to woo him. He was hopelessly in love with Nutan, who once slapped him on the sets of their film, when he persisted that he loved her. The only other co-star he reportedly flipped for was Hema Malini. This was Harihar Jariwalla, better known to his admirers as Sanjeev Kumar. He died young at the age of 47 on November 6, 1985, from a congenital heart problem. He had already acted in 144 films, some released posthumously.

Humble beginnings

Sanjeev Kumar was a foodie, a heavy smoker, loved his scotch no less (seldom at his own expense), and indulged in them all as if there was no tomorrow. Little is known about his women. Yet, he was a gentleman to the core who couldn’t, as they say, even hurt a fly. Simple, down to earth, he was very conventional in his habits (including shaving from an old rusted shaving kit with a small, folding mirror in front of him), even when surrounded by waiting producers, scriptwriters, and directors.

He was a late riser because he seldom went to bed before dawn, except for his last couple of years on returning from America after a successful bypass surgery. Yet, no one ever complained of his late reporting on the sets. All adjustments needed to be made before finalising the schedule. He often joked that no one in his family had crossed the age of 50, and there was no reason why destiny will make an exception in his case. 

His first film as a hero was Nishana (1965). But he rapidly jumped the ranks when he matched histrionics with the seasoned Dilip Kumar in the H S Rawail-directed Sangarsh (1968) that dealt with the dreaded thug killers in Benaras. It was the role of the lunatic in Khilona (1970) that elevated him to the ranks of a mainstream hero.

There was no looking back after that as films like Seeta aur Geeta (1972) and Manchali (1973) followed in quick succession to firmly settle his place in the history of Bollywood cinema. It was the consistency of his sterling performances that gained him recognition with eminent non-conventional directors like Satyajit Ray (Shatranj ke Khiladi, 1977), Basu Bhattacharya (Anubhav, 1971; Griha Parvesh, 1979), and Gulzar with whom he did the maximum number of films (Parichay, 1972; Mausam and Aandhi, 1975; Parichay, Angoor 1981; Namkeen, 1982).

It was for his role as Thakur Baldev Singh in Sholay (1975) that he is best remembered for, his career’s best performance. An equally landmark film of Sanjeev Kumar was Naya Din Nayi Raat (1974) — a role that had been immortalised by legendary Tamil and Telegu actors Shivaji Ganesan and A Nageswara Rao (Navarathri) respectively, in nine different get-ups. But it proved to be a big flop in Hindi.

Kumar’s other notable starrers, mostly in character roles, were Trishul (1978) and Vidhata (1982). It is a paradox that such a brilliant actor of rare histrionics was wasted in more than 100 inconsequential films. But despite this, he won as many as 14 Best Actor Filmfare nominations, and lifted the trophy three times. He also won the Best Actor award at the National Film Awards for his performances in Dastak (1971), Koshish (1973) and Anokhi Raat. Unfortunately, despite giving sterling performances, he never won acceptance as a solo hero.

Sanjeev Kumar was a natural actor, so it would seem odd that when invited for a screen test by the Rajshri Films for a film titled Aarti opposite Meena Kumari, soon after he had graduated from the Filmalaya School of Acting, he failed and was given the boot.

It must have hurt him badly, so on the rebound when he was approached by the same production house, he did not entertain the offer. Haribhai, unlike his contemporaries, used facial contortions and hand gestures to telling effect and meticulously worked on his dialogue delivery during dubbing to give the character an extra edge. This is how he scored over other actors.

Harihar Jariwalla was not a spendthrift. His apartment bore a middle class look. He did not even use fancy gadgets. He would meet producers and visitors in his apartment in a crumpled lungi-kurta. He would place an ordinary mirror on the table in front of him, dig out the much used shaving apparatus from a rusted biscuit box and start applying lather on his face while attending on the waiting assembly. This was in total contrast to most other heroes, who would show in at their best in their waiting rooms. Sanjeev Kumar was simplicity personified, and if at all he did have a huge ego, it was never publicly displayed.

Sanjeev Kumar passed away, leaving behind 10 incomplete films. Unfortunately, none is really worth writing home about. Yet, no actor of his caliber or capability has done what he achieved in his short career. Memories of his last journey, as he moved from his Bandra (West) apartment to the last post, surpassed only by the inimitable, charismatic Raj Kapoor, are still vivid.

It is doubtful if such a tearful adieu will be bestowed on any other Bollywood stalwart. But unlike many others, even more popular and successful ones, he left behind a small body of work to be remembered by.

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