On Sanjeev Kumar’s 81st birthday, a look at why he remains unparalleled as an actor on the Indian screen
Sanjeev Kumar remains one of the most gifted actors the Indian screen has ever seen. On his 81st birth anniversary, a look at his body of work.Updated: Jul 09, 2019 10:50 IST
Had actor Sanjeev Kumar (born Harihar Jethalal Jariwala and popularly called Hari Bhai) been alive today, he would have been 81 years old, much younger than Dileep Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar and, who knows, possibly working as an actor and entertaining the world. Alas, that was not to be as one of the most talented actors Indian screen as ever seen passed into oblivion, aged only 47 in 1985.
However, in the years that he lived, so prolific and diverse was his output that few actors in the annals of Indian cinema can match. From romantic and family dramas to suspense thrillers, realistic cinema, from remakes of southern cinema, working in cinema in other languages to theatre, there was not a thing that Sanjeev didn’t do. In most, he excelled.
Actors Ananya Panday, Kartik Aaryan and Bhumi Pednekar will soon star in a remake of hit 1978 Hindi film Pati Patni Aur Woh, which originally starred Sanjeev, Vidya Sinha and Ranjeeta Kaur. Sanjeev Kumar, as the casually flirtatious husband and father of a child, was in his elements as he seduces his young secretary with tales of his terminally ill wife till he is caught red-handed by his wife and later dumped by his girlfriend. Sanjeev playing the notorious but not necessarily a bad guy in this light-hearted take at extramarital affair was comfortable in the skin of his character. To many who don’t know, the hit song ‘Thande thande paani se nahaana chahiye’ is popular to this day.
We have all heard of Gulzar’s Angoor; if time permits and an opportunity comes your way, do watch Sanjeev in Biwi-o-Biwi (1981) as well.
Over the years, Bollywood has had some pet genres that it picks up – romantic, family or revenge drama – but rarely ever suspense thrillers. Blame it on the nature of society or simply the laziness of the film industry, thrillers were few and far between. However, Sanjeev, always willing to experiment, took on such films without batting an eyelid, unmindful of commercial fallout. In films like Uljan (1975) where he played the lead and Shikar (1968) where he was the second lead to Dharmendra, Sanjeev was always game for something interesting. Shikar, incidentally, was a major hit of its time.
Sanjeev was never one to play by a plan – his penchant to play older roles, far beyond his real age – is a case in point. Believe it or not, only 22 years old and Sanjeev played an old man for an IPTA’s adaptation of American playwright Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. In 1961, when only 23, he played a 60-year old, father to six children. In many other films, he played the dad to leading heroes of his day. Think Trishul where he played father to Shashi Kapoor, several months his senior! He played an ailing father to Jaya Bhaduri in Gulzar’s Parichay, while having worked with her as a co-star in many celebrated films, such as Silsila and Koshish.
Playing older characters came to him as duck takes to water – in Sholay, he actually played a grandfather (the youngest member of his family is also shot dead by Gabbar Singh), when he was only 37 years old. In Gulzar’s Aandhi, donning the grey hair came naturally to him just as singing duets with Suchitra Sen, in their younger avatar in the film in Kashmir, too were easy for him.
In late 1970s and early 1980s, when Bollywood was only willing to give him supporting roles, Sanjeev, always hungry for good roles, worked in a number of hit Tamil, Telugu and Kannada remakes. Khilona (remade from Tamil original, Engirundho Vandhaal and starred the legendary Sivaji Ganesan), Naya Din Naya Raat (Navarathri in Tamil with Sivaji in the lead), Shaandaar (1974; original being Kasturi Nivasa starring Kannada actor Rajkumar) to name a few. This was long before Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan would mint moolah remaking hit South Indian films in Hindi.
His love for the craft and experimentation took him to films made in languages other than Hindi or his native, Gujarati. He did Fauji Chacha in Punjabi and even did special appearances in Tamil films, Bharata Vilas and Uyarndhavargal (latter was remade as Koshish in Hindi).
Sanjeev had the unique ability to act realistically and yet keep his audience entertained. That is unique in an industry that is notorious for turning you either into a star or an artist. To hit the sweet middle spot and to excel in it, was what Hari bhai taught to the world. Small wonder Gulzar and he worked in no less than five films – Angoor, Namkeen, Aandhi, Mausam and Parichay.
Sanjeev’s tryst with new wave was not limited to Gulzar alone, who incidentally made middle of the road cinema. As the chess-obsessed Nawab Mirza Sajjad Ali in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Sanjeev was revetting in the role (one that had few dialogues)
From playing melodramatic to subtle roles, working in different media (stage and cinema), working in many languages, opting for non conventional roles, doing South remakes to experimenting with genres, there’s nothing that Sanjeev didn’t do. Today’s generation would do well to emulate his stellar example.
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First Published: Jul 09, 2019 10:49 IST