It was November 6, 1985, when I heard the news of film actor Sanjeev Kumar’s death at 47, following a heart attack. For a 15-year-old at a boarding school whose only entertainment was the weekend film on the VCR, the news over the radio was depressing.
‘Sholay’ had been a decade into its release and was still setting cinema halls in the country on fire when its vengeful Thakur Baldev Singh called it quits. But for a quarter of a century, the sheer range of the roles he essayed in Hindi films was unparalleled.
Born Harihar Jariwala at Surat in Gujarat, Sanjeev started his acting career on stage, where the challenging roles he played caught the eye of filmmakers. After a decade-long struggle, success came his way with ‘Khilona’, where he played a madman.
His association with friend Gulzar, who spotted the talent in him when at 20 he had played an elderly man on stage, led to the filmmaker casting him in mature roles in ‘Aandhi’ and ‘Mausam’. The former fetched him the Filmfare award for the best actor. In fact, Gulzar could not think of making a film without Haribhai. His ‘Koshish’, where the actor played a deaf-mute man, along with ‘Dastak’, brought Sanjeev his two national awards for the best actor.
Again, in Gulzar’s ‘Namkeen’, he plays a truck driver who rents a place at Waheeda Rehman’s house, where the elderly woman and her three young daughters come to rely on the only man in the house. The film, shot in the Kullu valley, beautifully portrays the relationship between the driver and the four women.
In 1974 came ‘Naya Din Nayi Raat’, where Haribhai took versatility to a new level by playing no less than nine roles, and that too with consummate ease. South Indian films had seen the feat, but in Hindi cinema it was unheard of. But then Sanjeev loved rewriting the rules of the industry.
In Yash Chopra-directed ‘Trishul’ that featured Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor, he impressed one and all with his powerful performance. Subhash Ghai’s ‘Vidhaata’ pitted him against Dilip Kumar and he held his own against the thespian, who also turned an admirer.
He gave ample display of his comic timing in ‘Seeta Aur Geeta’, ‘Manchali’, ‘Angoor’ and ‘Pati Patni Aur Woh’. ‘Aag se nata, nari se rishta, kahe mann samajh na paya’, he sang in ‘Anamika’, which also corresponded to his real life. He was besotted with Hema Malini and had proposed marriage to her, but she declined. Then he was in a relationship with singer-actor Sulakshna Pandit that did not culminate in marriage and he remained a bachelor.
Stories about his reaching the sets late are plenty, but then most of his shots were okayed in one take. He would finish the day’s work in hours and then head straight to have his drink, which also did him in. He was known to be a miser, but there are enough indications that he did not charge small producers for the roles he played.
He was born with a heart condition that ran in the family and had once prophesied that no male in the family would live to be 50. His father and two brothers died early. After he underwent a bypass surgery abroad, doctors advised him to take it easy, but he did not pay heed. Perhaps he had to live up to that prophesy.
The funeral had to wait for three days as fans kept pouring in from India and abroad to have one final look at their beloved actor. Among his incomplete projects was K Asif’s ‘Love & God’. In a way, both love and God had ditched him one in life and the other in death.
The writer is assistant news editor, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh