Sanjeev Kumar asserted the primacy of talent over looks, dancing skills and other such commercial considerations. He established a prodigious reputation as an actor par excellence by doing an amazing spectrum of roles. Which other actor could have been accepted as Jaya Bhaduri’s lover in Anamika (’73), within months of playing her father in Parichay (’72)? Who else could have then gone one step further and convincingly played Jaya’s father-in-law in Sholay (’75)? Sanjeev simply rewrote many of the conventions of Bollywood.
Harihar Jariwala, alias Sanjeev Kumar, was born into a traditional Gujarati family living in a tenement in Bombay. Hari had to sleep in the cramped kitchen. And that is where he developed his passion for food. Yet another passion was acting. After doing theatre, he enrolled in the Filmalaya acting school which fetched him a bit role in his first film, Hum Hindustani (’60).
Curiously, the future thespian failed his first screen test. The Rajshris had decided to give Sanjeev his first big break in Aarti (’62), opposite the great Meena Kumari. But after four months of training, Sanjeev gave a disappointing screen test and was unceremoniously bundled out of the film.
Sanjeev, however, persevered and in 1965, his first film as a hero, the B-grade saber-rattler, Nishaan, was released. Fortunately, his proficiency as an actor won notice even in the inconsequential films that characterised that phase of his career. Soon, Sanjeev was pitted against Dilip Kumar in Sunghursh (’68). Despite a small role as Dilip’s bloodthirsty rival, he acquitted himself with distinction and established his reputation.
High-voltage roles that would have burned up lesser heroes now came his way. As the mentally imbalanced hero of Khilona (’70), Sanjeev displayed an acute perception of that enervating emotion — despair. The film’s success made Sanjeev Kumar a star but happily, he continued to challenge himself with experimental roles.
Parichay (’72) and Koshish (’72), inaugurated a mutually rewarding relationship with Gulzar. As the deaf and dumb couple of Koshish, Sanjeev and Jaya were completely in tune with each other’s responses. Sanjeev, in particular, was heart wrenching in the scene where he thinks his child is deaf (because he is not -responding to a faulty rattle) and later when he castigates his son for refusing to marry a handicapped girl. The manner in which he externalized his inner conflicts without the aid of dialogue was an actor’s feat.
Sanjeev believed that his performance improved 80 per cent at the dubbing theatre. In films like Aandhi and Mausam, it was his emotionally saturated voice hat elevated his performance. The quiver in his voice was as controlled as his deceptively casual acting tricks like scratching his chest or running his hand down his neck. A gleaming comic performance would also be burnished with inflexions of voice as was evident in Manchali, Pati Patni Aur Woh and the comedy if errors, Angoor.
For Sanjeev, commercial accoutrements always took second place to the ‘role’. He did not mind dyeing his hair grey for Sholay (’75) or Trishul (’78), as long as he could bring an unexpected facet to his performances. Unfortunately, as Sanjeev grew increasingly careless with his looks, his commercial standing received a dent.
But women continued to fall for his laidback charm and challenged his bachelor status. Co-star Sulakshana Pandit tried but could not succeed in making Sanjeev take the plunge. By the early 80s, however, a certain ennui had set in and Sanjeev surrendered to gastronomical pleasures. Finally, an acute heart ailment caused the snuffing out of this singular talent.
For an actor who played an old man in many a famous film, it is unfortunate that Sanjeev himself did not even live to be 50.