Sanjeev Kumar was one of those few actor-stars to whom the role meant more than anything in the world. Even at his peak as a popular actor-star, he was willing to play any character of any age in a film, even if it wasn’t the lead role, provided the role challenged his acting abilities, which, of course, were considerable. In that sense, he chose to tread the path set down by other actor-stars such as Motilal and Balraj Sahni and rewrote many of the conventions of Bollywood rather than follow the conventional star system.
He was born Harihar Jariwala on July 9, 1938 into a traditional Gujarati family living in a tenement in Mumbai. After dabbling in theatre, he joined the Filmalaya Acting School and did his first role, a bit role in Filmalaya’s Hum Hindustani (1960). The Rajshris auditioned him for Aarti (1962) opposite Meena Kumari but he flopped in the audition and was rejected. He then played small role in the Joy Mukerji-Saira Banu starrer, Aao Pyar Karen (1964).
Sanjeev Kumar’s first film as hero, Nishan (1965), was a B-grade swashbuckler and many of his earlier films were stunt films of the same ilk opposite starlets like Nazima, Kum Kum and L Vijayalakshmi. But they were popular nevertheless with the front benchers and Sanjeev more than made his mark in them. He was first noticed by the A-graders in a big way in HS Rawail’s adaptation of a Mahasweta Devi story on the thugee cult, Sunghursh (1968), where he more than held his own in the screen time he shared with Dilip Kumar. In fact, many thought he actually scored over the thespian in the scenes they did together. That year he also played a key role in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwad and won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor for his role as an investigating officer in the thriller, Shikar (1968), starring Asha Parekh and Dharmendra. By now, he also began getting leading roles opposite top actresses like Nutan, Waheeda Rehman and Mala Sinha though these films were women-oriented and centred around the actresses.
Khilona (1970) made Sanjeev Kumar into a star. But again what stood out in the film was was his outstanding acting. He was absolutely spot-on as a mentally imbalanced man who is helped back to sanity by a prostitute (Mumtaz) hired to nurse him. The same year also saw him deliver a fine performance in Dastak, as a man struggling along with his wife, Rehana Sultan, to eke out a life of dignity in Bombay. Both would win National Awards for their fine work in the film – he for for Best Actor and her for Best Actress.
In spite of being a star, Sanjeev Kumar still opted for roles that were off the beaten track in films like Anubhav (1971) though it must be mentioned here that good as he was in the film, it was Tanuja who walked off with the film. He also consolidated his position, meanwhile, in the mainstream with hits like Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) and Manchali (1973).
Parichay (1972) and Koshish (1972), which won him a second National Award, brought him into contact with their director, Gulzar. Thus started a mutually beneficial partnership that saw some of Sanjeev Kumar’s finest work as an actor. He played a deaf and dumb man in the latter and it is amazing to watch him emote having internalized his feelings without the help of dialogue and his performance is screen acting at its very best. The scene where he thinks his child is also deaf since he is not responding to a faulty rattle or the scene where he castigates his son for refusing to marry a handicapped girl show a supreme actor at the peak of his histionic talent. The Gulzar-Sanjeev Kumar partnership resulted in such fine films as Aandhi (1975), Mausam (1975), Angoor (1981) and Namkeen (1982) with strong Sanjeev Kumar performances in each of them.
Sanjeev Kumar was one actor who improved his performance tremendously at the dubbing stage with his marvelous voice control. The quiver in his emotionally saturated voice was as important an element of his acting as small casual getsures like running his hand down his neck. He never minded dyeing his hair if the role required it and even played much older men in films like Aandhi, Mausam, Sholay (1975) and Trishul (1978). In fact, in Sholay he played Jaya Bhaduri’s father-in-law though being just ten years older than her. This after playing her lover in Koshish and Anamika (1973) and her father in Parichay! And despite making his reputation as a serious actor, he showed a great flair for the light-hearted in films like Manchali, Manoranjan (1974), Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978), Angoor and Laakhon Ki Baat (1984). Films like Naya Din Nai Raat (1974), wherein he played multiple roles beautifully further showcased his acting talent and versatility.
In 1977, Sanjeev Kumar got an opportunity to work with the great Satyajit Ray when the latter made his first film outside Bengal, Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977). The film features delightful performances by Saeed Jaffrrey and Sanjeev Kumar as Mir and Mirza respectively, so utterly absorbed in their game of chess that Mirza neglects his wife while Mir’s wife has an affair right under his unsuspecting nose! When Lucknow falls to the British, they leave for an abandoned mosque on the outskirts of the city to play in peace! It is a delightfully nuanced performance under a great director. It speaks volumes of Kumar’s dedication that before embarking on the film, he spent a month in Pune at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), catching up on Ray’s films, ashamed that he was that he hadn’t seen the films of the master he was about to work with.
Unfortunately by the 1980s, Sanjeev Kumar had grown extremely careless with his looksand and bloated up considerably by following an unhealthy lifestyle including copious drinking and eating rich food. Among his later lot of films, the only two that really stand out are Vidhaata (1982), which again brought him face to face with Dilip Kumar (again one would have to say that he scored over the thespian in the one major confrontation scene they had in the film) and Hero (1983), both directed by Subhash Ghai.
A bachelor, Sanjeev Kumar died of an acute heart ailment on November 6, 1985. It is ironic that someone who had played so many elderly roles, himself didn’t even live to be fifty… His death was a big, big loss for Indian cinema.