Which are the roles that Sanjeev Kumar, among our more competent actors, found satisfying?
“Very few indeed,” Sanjeev smiled. “I enjoyed doing the roles in ‘Naya Din Nayee Raat’, “Anubhav’,”Koshish’, ‘Vishwasghat’, ‘Khilona’, ‘Aandhi’ and ‘Mausam’.
“Naya Din Nayee Raat’ offered the maximum challenge: it was the most difficult role of my career so far. I portrayed nine different characters. They were not just nine disguises; they were nine different people. Normally when a hero is in disguise he can take all the liberties he wants: even if your false moustache comes off the public won’t bother because they know you are in disguise.
“But when you are playing different characters the public very minutely watches and tries to compare the different characters. That’s why I consider my role in `Naya Din Nayee Raat’ a difficult one.”
In portraying this role Sanjeev admits he had received a lot of help from Sarosh Modi, his make-up man, and from the film’s writer and the director (Shim Singh). Unfortunately, the film didn’t run well and he was quite depressed. “After putting in all that hard work if people are not going to see what you have done how can you help feeling depressed?”
Sanjeev considers his role in “Koshish” his best performance so far. “The main reason for this,” he says is the last scene, the climax of the film, the scene between the father and the son, which is totally meant for the actor. In that scene, I did not have any dialogue to speak, nor did I have any particular camera placing to help my performance; it was completely the actor’s scene. Normally it is very difficult to get that type of a scene, where the director solely depends on the actor. If it had flopped it would have been my failure, no one else’s. I must thank Gulzar for giving me that scene, for placing all the confidence in me.
To a very large extent an actor’s performance would depend upon the director and script, Sanjeev says, “Without a director, without a script, you can do nothing. The script is the most important factor and then comes the director who transforms the script into a film. Many a bad performance can be saved by a good script and good direction. The director would know where to cut the shot, whether the actor has failed in the performance, whether to change the camera angles and light up the scene or the shot in a particular manner so that the faults of the actor are suppressed, or that certain features of the actor would give just the impression of what the scene demands.
“The same way a good performance can be ruined by bad editing”, he went on. “Now if I have an emotional scene, and if I have to speak in the scene and if I have to express my feelings with just my eyes and if the camera is kept somewhere behind me, the whole scene would be a waste. If the scene is taken just on the reaction of the other character and I am not seen, well, that scene is a waste as far as I am concerned. Of course it does happen that way sometimes but it must be for a certain effect, or purpose. Otherwise it goes waste. So I would say the script and the director can save a bad performance and also ruin a good performance”
Does he relish playing old men’s roles?
“Looks like it,” Sanjeev said smiling. “The way my films have been going these last few months, or years.. Most of them are old characters so I cannot say I don’t like them.”
The very first role that he played was that of an old man. It was a stage play. He was just 21 and the character that he played was that of an old man aged 60, with six children. And guess who played his wife in the play, Shabana Azmi’s mother, Shaukat Azmi!
Later he again played an old man in an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and Leela Chitnis played his wife! “These two plays gave me a reputation as an actor. A. K. Hangal was the director of the first play, and I am thankful to him that he did not give me the hero’s role in it though it was a very good role. So my first step into acting started with characterization. And being my first play, my first role, I went completely after the character and tried to imagine how he must have been, his mannerisms, his way of walking, talking, and so on.
“But when I am playing a romantic hero, the so-called hero, I feel I have to be just myself; which is what most heroes do. Well it is just that way; you cannot say anybody is wrong or right. For example I was playing the hero in ‘Uljhan’ where I didn’t play an elderly character, I just played the hero, I had to be just myself. And you do not get your battery charged unless you have something new to do. But in ‘Uljhan’ I had to be just myself. There was no challenge for the actor.
“There have been occasions when I have refused heroes’ roles and in turn accepted roles of elderly characters. I do not have any inhibitions about playing any roles.”
How does he establish rapport with his director?
“My experience is you do not deliberately try to establish rapport with the director. Either it is there or it isn’t there. If you are not on the same wavelength no matter how much the actor tries or no matter how much the director tries, it is useless. In just a couple of days you realize whether you can get along well with him or not. At least that has been my experience”
Sanjeev confesses that he has not liked several of his own performances. “Some films are yet to be released and I wouldn’t like to name them because the producers might sue me for giving bad publicity to their films.” What about films already released? “Well, there is ‘Rocky Mera Naam’ and I have conveniently forgotten the other names.
“Coming back to the question of rapport with the director there have been instances when, a director with whom I have discussed in private a few scenes and a few things I would like to do in the film, comes on the sets and tells me just the same things I had told him earlier. Which means the director is not confident of himself. He just repeats what I have told him and shows off as if that was his own contribution to the filth, I feel quite hurt about such things; I think it is very childish for the director to behave thus. In such circumstances I lose interest in the film.”
He continued: “Then sometimes you find the producer does not have enough finance; he has not paid the staff, he has not paid me—of course I can forget about my payment. Are you surprised? I know I am branded a kanjoos but let me assure you I don’t care about my payment so much in such circumstances; but the rest of the unit members—how can he expect them to work with interest and enthusiasm? Then the heroine gives the dates as if she is obliging the producer. You can’t make a good film in such an atmosphere. The film is a joint effort, you need everyone associated with it charged up. And when the actor loses interest, it is surely going to affect his own work in the film. With this type of director or producer I do not repeat myself; so that I do not give a repeat bad performance.”
Sanjeev Kumar says he is very keen on directing a film. He had been thinking about it for a long time now “But I know that requires a lot of concentration, a lot of time which I cannot spare now. It is a big responsibility which means when I take up direction I will be doing only that and nothing else. I might act in that film or I might not, it depends on whether I get a suitable role. It is a long way off though. How can I take up direction when I am working in so many films? It is a tough job, the director’s and I do intend doing it, but a little later.”
Sanjeev says he has a number of good roles on hand. Nagi Reddi’s “Yehi Hai Zindagi” is one of them. In the first half he plays a poor worker, devoted to his wife and children and through his industry he becomes a millionaire. But he realizes he was happier in the days when he was poor. “This again is an elderly character,” he remarked. “The role is very important because it is a one-man show: right from the first frame to the last, the whole film is on my shoulder.”
“In Gulshan Rai’s ‘Trishul’, directed by Yash Chopra, I am an old man too,” he continued. “Guess who are my children in the film, Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan. It is a tough role and that’s why I am doing it. There is another good role in Raj Kumar Kohli’s film, I don’t remember the title. It is the type of role that I have not done so far.
“Two other movies I like are Khalid Akhtar’s ‘Ladies’ Tailor’ and B. R. Chopra’s ‘Pati, Patni our Woh’. Both are social satires, comedies and I am very fond of doing comedy roles. I am not an old man in these movies.
“Then of course there is Manikda’s (Satyajit Ray) film, ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’—this role too has a slight touch of comedy about it which I like. That would be one of my most important films of 1977. Here I am playing a character obsessed with the game of chess. Again this is not an old man’s role.”
Does he wish to play any particular role?
“From the beginning I have never thought of playing any particular character; I have always kept myself open. But there are some characters that I would be happy to portray: for instance, the Hunchback of Notredame, the role in ‘Wuthering Heights’. ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde’. These roles demand something more from the actor than others!
“I have also a great fascination for lawyer’s roles. My mother always says I should have been a lawyer, hearing me argue when we have some controversy. I love discussions, arguments, it is in my nature. In playing a lawyer you get a lot of scope for using mannerisms, you can use a little style. In the court room scenes, because you are not involved you can give a stylized performance sometimes, And lawyers are supposed to dramatize things and so you can over-dramatize a little.”
Talking of his favorite directors Sanjeev said: “I liked a lot working with Basu Bhattacharya and I am looking forward to working with Basu Chatterji. K. Asif and Gulzar are both favorites. I like Vijay Anand; also Mahesh Bhatt whom I find very promising. I have enjoyed working with Ravi Tandon and Ramesh Sippy. As for Manikda, it is a great experience working with him.
“But I must confess I have enjoyed best working with Mahesh Kaul. He was an actor himself; he had the ability to convey in just one sentence how he wanted you to do a scene: You knew exactly what he wanted when you were working with him.”
What safeguards does he take for the box office success of his films?
“None at all. I think they are useless, these so-called safeguards. Nobody can predict the success or failure of a film. Even big producers like Raj Kapoor have not been able to. do it. You know the fate of `Mera Naam Joker’. Dilip Kumar who makes one film in two years must be taking all the safeguards, but then you know with what results. I do not think anybody can predict success or failure. As far as I am concerned I first make sure the role is satisfying and challenging, And that it is being handled by a competent director. If I am satisfied with these I do the film and try to give my best. I do not worry about a film’s fate at the box office. No release fever for me. I agree with what Raj Kapoor said once in answer to the question ‘What does the audience want?’ He said: ‘What the audience wants the audience itself does not know.’ I think the best policy is to try and give your best and leave it to the audience.” (As interviewed by V. S. Gopalakrishnan in 1977)