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Few Bollywood actors possessed Sanjeev Kumar's subtle detachment and sensitivity

By Harsh Thakor 

On 9th July, we celebrated the 85th birthday of legendary Hindi film actor, Sanjeev Kumar., known as Haribhai Jariwala. Sanjeev Kumar penetrated zones of versatility or acting craft, almost unparalleled in Hindi cinema. He was one one the very few who touched horizons of true genius, transcending regions in acting virtually unexplored. Rarely did any artist get stuck as thickly into the skin of the character. The diversity of expressions in his moves reminded one of the different water colours of a painting. Sanjeev manifested the ventures of an artist to tap the regions unexplored. He simply defied all conventions of Bollywood, making path breaking experiments.
His acting had a subtle degree detachment and sensitivity, which few Bollywood actors ever possessed. He may not have possessed the drop dead looks of a Dev Anand, Dharmendra or Sashi Kapoor or the professionalism or star charisma of an Amitabh Bachan, Rajesh Khanna or Shah Rukh Khan. However in pure acting prowess he overshadowed them all. Without hesitation I would class him amongst the five finest actors ever to have flashed the Bellwood screen.
I have never seen a Bollywood actor emote a character as realistically as Sanjeev Kumar or even display such a diverse range of expressions or moods within a film itself. No Bollywood actor ever at such a young stage enacted the role of an old man, on stage and on the celluloid.
One often got vibrations of the variations of musical notes in a Mozart symphony or the different shades of a Rembrandt painting. One could often witness the sensation of a storm intervening on the hottest of days from no man's land in Sanjeev's acting. His acting blended the symmetry of an architect with mystery or suspense of a detective thriller. and inventiveness of a sculptor. His acting possessed the subtle element of mystery or suspense which few actors ever did. I have never seen an actor who with the very movement in his eyes or body conveyed the very theme. Every performance of his was reminiscent of a different musical composition. When crass commercialism permeated Bollywood as never before, Sanjeev Kumar was the direct anti-thesis of it, enabling Bollywood not to corrode it’s soul completely.

Life Story

Sanjeev Kumar was born as Harihar Jethalal Jariwala (also referred to as Haribhai) on 9 July 1938 in Surat and came to Mumbai when he was very young. A stint in a film school paved his path to entry into Bollywood .Kumar had two younger brothers and one sister. Sanjeev’s family moved to Mumbai when he was just 7-years-old and acting was his ambition from the very start. In 1961, in Baroda, Sanjeev with co-star Padmashri, acted in Ramat Ramade Ram, which won an awrd from the Gujarat government.
Sanjeev went on to join the film school where AK Hangal inspired and guided him. Kumar started his acting career as a stage actor, starting with IPTA in Mumbai and later joining the Indian National Theatre.] Even as a stage actor, he had a penchant for playing older roles; at age 22, he played an old man in an adaptation of Arthur Millers’All My Sons’ In the following year, in the play Damru directed by A K Hangal he again played the role of a 60-year-old with six children.
He made his debut on the silver screen for just two minutes in Hum Hindustani and got his first break in 1965 with ‘Nishaan’. The movie didn’t light the box-office but Sanjeev had started his journey and there was no looking back for him. Just three years after Nishaan, Sanjeev Kumar gave superstar Dilip Kumar a fright with his acting skills in ‘unghursh and the industry got the first blemishes of his untapped potential. Sanjeev gave glimpses of his great reserves of acting talent.
He first lived in a chawl in Girgaum but later shifted to Perin Villa where he lived with his younger brother and his family. He had just one room to himself. He died in the same room which he called his Adda. Actor Sachin was the only man with him when he breathed his last. He was the master’s closest cinematic friend.
Arguably what destroyed him was the hereditary trait in his family with his father and brothers expiring at a young age. Sanjeev was also prone to overeat, drink and smoke heavily, having extravagant habits. His daily routine was most undisciplined .Ironically he suffered attacks in 1976, 1978, 1983 and 1985. Our friend left for his heavenly abode on November 9th in 1985shorty after undergoing surgery in America.

Notable Films

In Sangharsh (1968) he worked alongside Thespian Dilip Kumar in a gangster drama and their scenes together made a permanent mark, portraying a clash between a master and a budding genius. Based on a short story by Mahasweta Devi, Sunghursh is a story of virtue and sin amidst the scenario of the thuggee culture in mid-19thcentury Benaras. In Khilona (1970) he enacts a man who turns mad because of the loss and suicide of his lover, doing great justice to ebb and flow of the plot In this all-time classic he enacts a man who turns mentally unwell after a trauma and strained relationship with a kind-hearted prostitute brought in to look after him.
His acting scenes in Khilona with Mumtaz as Chand had vibrations of a mystery. An unforgettable scene when he talks to himself in a crazy state and when he asks Chand who she is. Sanjeev’s facial expressions ring the bell of the variations in a Beethoven symphony. When expressing state of misery and confusion, Sanjeev took intensity or mysteriousness to heights rarely touched. His reply in the court scene and in his concluding dialogue, exudes a phenomenal process of evolution towards accepting Chand Sanjeev projects state of madness at the intensity of a Tsunami giving even madness its own touch of glory. The sheer transformation he undergoes in his behaviour after recovering towards the end of the film is like a new person born. He literally takes moral conviction to it’s superlative height at the conclusion of the film.
Dastak (1970) was about newlywed couple, Hamid enacted by Sanjeev Kumar and Salma, who unwittingly rent a flat, and thus begins their daily anguish at the knocks (dastak) on their door. He displays high composure, and sense of timing with his acting as harmonious as water flowing. In Anubhav (1971) he classically portrays man saving his marriage exuding great sense of proportion and stillness in not letting the past affect the present.Sanjeev is a newspaper editor so engrossed in his work that he neglects his wife and things change when his wife’s friend joins the paper. Expresses an inquiring mind determined to explore and conviction, in pursuing he right path. I can visualise very few actors, blending romance and anger, so stealthily, never going overboard.I can’t forget his conversations with wife Tanuja or his wife’s old friend enacted by Dinesh Thakur.which portray sensitivity ,discretion or perception ,like a psychiatrist dealing with a patient, or a sculptor chiselling his tools.
In Koshish (1972) he brilliantly portrays life story of a deaf and dumb man acting in tandem with Jaya Badhuri . They play a deaf and mute couple, who fall in love, get married and struggle to bring up their child. In emoting the life story of his struggle in different junctures and metamorphosis into a mature person, his gestures are as natural as petals of a flower. I have never witnessed an actor so skilfully project the nascent potential and spiritual depth of a deaf and dumb person and the manner his life undergoes a transformation. Self-exploration is the theme of his portrayal. His prank phone call scene to Dilip Kumar or the scene where he finds his first child has died is a manifestation of realism in acting.
In Anamika (1973) he played a writer who gives shelter to a mysterious young woman, who is without clothes and borrows his silk kurtas. Then she tries to seduce him. Brilliant portrayal of suspense, conviction, anger when Jaya Bahaduri playing Anamika lets him down and confusion. In Manchaali (1973) he brilliantly infused comedy into his acting career, enacting a role of a husband for hire. With high skill blends humour with seriousness .A brilliantly executed dialogue asserting his moral view when scolding Leena Chandarvarkar towards the end, in the house when showing a court document and safe deposit jewellery key. Story based on ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and novel Swayamber.
In Aandhi (1974) he enacts a hotelier married to a politician enacted by Suchitra Sen as Gayatri Devi .The movie depicts how differences in values separate people but still the thread or bond of love never perishes.. He is most principled in not getting involved in politics and first expressed great resentment but later compromises. In a most dignified manner he refuted his wife who was a politician. I admire the sheer conviction of his dialogue when expressing his rage at his wife neglecting family duties to pursue her political careerist ambitions and his fury to be used in political work or the hotel venue to be used as a propaganda patform.On the other hand the grace or sense of acceptance he projects when going along with his wife to bid her farewell for going to her political meeting is spell bounding. In the song 'Tere bina zindagi mein koyi’ , his sheer eyes or facial expressions manifest conflict in love in depths of an ocean.
In Naye Din Naye Raat (1974) he enacts nine different characters, which was a feat of virtually unparalleled stature. It manifested the different colours of rainbow taking variance and acting prowess or inventiveness to regions virtually unexplored in Hindi cinema. Reminded one of a scientist experimenting, or witnessing re-incarnation first hand. To me he is at his best when enacting a drunken lout in a brothel, psychiatrist Dr Kruparam. and a dreaded bandit.
The story covers the duration of a night where the heroine, Jaya Bahaduri, meets eight characters, who all have a common mentor in Sanjeev Kumar. Remake of Tamil film Navarathri (1964), Sanjeev emulated Tamil thespian Sivaji Ganeshan's feat of enacting nine characters in a single film.
In Sholay (1975) enacting the ‘Thakur’ he reveals intensity at a boiling point. His impersonation of the character resembles iron turning into steel. or at a melting point. With remarkable conviction he addresses the villagers, rebukes dacoits. and deals with urban gangsters, Jai and Veeru. Inspite of anger in volumes of an inferno or grief like torrential rain, Sanjeev never lost balance and stayed in tune with the character. Very hard to visualise any actor take conviction to such magnitude when defending villagers against the dacoits in Ramgarh or as much sensitivity when consoling daughter in law after Jai’s death. His expressions reminded one of the range of four seasons .Regretful that the final scene of the film was edited or cut when he actually killed Gabbar Singh, crushing him to pieces, with his spikes. Subsequently, in the original film, he expresses sense of redemption or regret, at height almost unscaled in a Hindi film.
In Mausam (1975) with truly classical subtlety Sanjeev exhibits retribution giving vibrations of a man seeking redemption ,or turning from a devil to sainthood. In contemplation or pensiveness his expression during middle was truly classical, diametrically opposite to that in his youth. In scenes when transcending past, he is a manifestation of a philosopher lost in thought or unralleving a mystery.
In Arjun Pandit (1976) he portrays a vengeful henchman, who is converted from hate to compassion after seeing an act of kindness from a doctor. His acting had nuances of child like innocence and proved his skill in enacting a common man. In Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) with characteristic malleability he portrays a Nobleman Mirza Sajjad Ali playing a chess game with Saed Jaffrey as Mirza Roshan Ali in the princely state of Awadh. The British are just on the verge of annexing the princely state of Awadh during the 1857 rebellion. The chess players seem completely aloof from the mutiny, being so engrossed in the game. Few actors could portray the character of a Noblemen being engrossed so deeply in a game of chess and remaining completely oblivious or unaffected.
In Trishul (1978) he did great justice to the portrayal of a construction magnate. I can conceive very few actors display much conviction to such a degree .He brilliantly projects the unscrupulous and ruthless nature of a builder and the events that transform his life. In the conclusion, he literally reflects a 360 degree transformation, when seeking redemption at the brink of death.
In Silcila (1981) inspite of a minor role, his interaction with Jaya Bahaduri, where they both discuss the ebb and flow of their respective spouses in dialogue coded with meaning is an illustration revealing how great actors can create a ball rolling in small scenes. The scenes of conversation in clinic by both navigate the vulnerability of their respective spouses. In Angoor (1982) he plays a double role which is a copy of 'A Comedy of errors' .With no difference in the facial features the audience could adjudicate the difference within the two characters because of Sanjeev's great acting mastery.
In my personal view Sanjeev Kumar’s 5 best films in order of merit were Khilona, Naye Din Naae Raat, Mausam, Koshish and Anubhav. In his film career he won awards for Dastak’ and Koshish.
In my view Sanjeev Kumar or Haribhai ranks amongst the top 3-4 actors of all time in Bollywood.history. His contenders for the no 1 spot of all time are Dilip Kumar, Naseerudin Shah and the late Balraj Sahni. Very hard or almost impossible to make an accurate comparison. All great in their unique way. For pure intensity, originality, naturalness or artistic skill arguably Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni surpassed him .Sanjeev also hardly portrayed the common man as much as the late Balraj Sahni Naseerudin Shah posessed a higher finesse in his characters, or methodical approach.
At times Sanjeev Kumar’s acting revealed tendencies of inhibition or self-restraint, not taking intensity to highest pitch and exploring or transcending zones of intensity as Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni.or Naseerudin Shah. Possibly he failed to apply the same degree of acting intelligence, as the other three artists. Sanjeev also paid scant attention to his looks and his features hardly warranted that of a great screen personality. Thus he totally lacked the suave of a Dev Anand or Rajesh Khanna.Thus it made him loose out to picking the roles given to fellow star Amitabh Bachan like in Kabhi Kabhi or Deewar.
Taking into account his incredible acting prowess I feel many of the roles Sanjeev played did not do justice to his talent. In spite of enacting a very wide range of characters he hardly projected the role of a common man fighting for justice or professing morals, as Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni or Amitabh Bachhan. I regret he was never offered negative roles. and never acted in a true classic. I would have loved to see Sanjeev play roles like Amitabh Bachan played in Black or Cheeni Kum or earlier Dilip Kumar played in Ganga Jamuna, Leader, or Madhumati or Balraj Sanhi in Kabuliwala or Do Bhiga Zameen.
For finesse, sensitivity or artistic grace of Dilip Kumar or Balraj Sahni very marginally, overshadowed Sanjeev Kumar. However in pure malleability, Sanjeev overshadowed both of them., getting more into he skin of a character with only Naseerudin Shah his rival. Sanjeev possibly lacked the focus, discipline and fine tuning of superstar Amitabh Bachhan. Without doubt he displayed the very best chemistry with actress Jaya Bahaduri, even better than her husband actor Amitabh Bachhan.His pairing with her in Anamika, Koshish and Naye din Naye Raat will permanently leave its mark in the annals of film history.
Javed Akhtar did not categorise Sanjeev Kumar with actors of stature like Balraj Sahni ,Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachhan, which in my opinion, is an aberration. Overall I feel he was a highly under rated actor, who did not win awards for performing so many masterpieces. He was unable to come out of the quagmire or syndrome of conventional Bollywood, to do justice to his genius as character artist, which possibly choked him.
In the modern era he would have had to give much more attention to his fitness or appearance. I can never forget the great praise both Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachhan heaped on Sanjeev while Shatrugan Singh classed him as the best actor ever. With the crass commercialism being a major feature of Bollywood today it is possible that the genius of Sanjeev would not have bloomed had he acted in the recent era. It is of great regret that the modern giant Naseerudin Shah hardly holds Sanjeev Kumar in high esteem as other stars of yesteryear.
We dearly missed Sanjeev Kumar setting up an acting school to nurture fresh talent. Very hard to visualise what impact he would have made had he survived till old age. I would love to have seen Sanjeev play the roles Naseerudin Shah, Manoj Bajpai or Paresh Rawal played in the last two decades.
Regretful that such a sensitive man on the screen in real life stood completely aloof from the causes of the common man and never raised his voice against political injustice, unlike Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni ,Naseerudin Shah and Om Puri. Sanjeev missed out on championing art films like Naseerudin Shah,or as many progressive roles like Dilip Kumar or Balraj Sahni.

Biography ‘The Actor We All Loved’

A biography, 'The Actor We All Loved', by Uday Jariwala and Reeta Gupta, is a must read, being a most illustrative projection of the actor .The book most lucidly probes into the path of Sanjeev Kumar blossoming into a full fledged actor ,tracing his days in Gujarati theatre. It reveals his kindness, purity, openness, desire to live life to the fullest, loathing the narcasm of the soul in Bollywood and commitments to do justice to acting over accomplishing pure stardom.

Fascinating how he fell in love with so many heroines, but never married. Sanjeev had brushes with actress Nutan, who once slapped him on the sets, as well as proposed to Sulochana Pandit, Hema Malini and Shabana Azmi.The book reveals that he felt deeply let down by all of them. Sadly he never married inspite of being entangled in numerous affairs. He also possessed a most sumptuous appetite, eating twice as much as an average person and addicted to country liquor. It was an aberration that he neglected his health, being overweight.
Sanjeev also had a heart rendering relationship with his mother, with the book describing his sheer adoration for her and how she shaped his life. He did not visit temples but regarded her as his God.‘Baa’ gave him maximum support in his films at every juncture or hurdle. She was also keen that her son found a bride. A very touching chapter on his love and death of Ba his mother, who was the very soul of his life. The chapter of her funeral touches the core of your soul. It is revealed that colleagues exploited his kind heart, which was similar to his mother’s, who was similarly used.
In the view of many co-stars, Sanjeev was extremely affable, generous and big hearted. He was the anti-thesis of a conventional Bollywood star who were engaged like a politician in a power game. Very illustrative feedbacks by Sachin Pilgaokar, Shatrugan Sinha and Sharmila Tagore, Moushumi Chaterjee and Tanuja. The impact of his funeral from Perrin Villa to Santa Cruz Hindu crematorium is covered describing how to the very at tear the film industry mourned his death. The book also dwelled on how A.K Hangal, played the role of friend, philosopher and guide. He was a very mild-mannered and soft-spoken man, but I could also lose his temper and could be very nasty and even abusive at times. (Quoting Ali Peter John).
The book told us indirectly how Sanjeev was manifestation of how Bollywood corroded the soul of an artist, who never aspired to be sold to it’s vagaries. After his death fittingly actress Tanuja stated “I don’t feel sorry for Hari at all, who chose his life and lived 47 years of his life fully. There will never be an actor of his calibre again.”
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has extensively researched on Hindi film history



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