Review: Sanjeev Kumar; The Actor We All Loved by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta and Uday Jariwala

BySudhirendar Sharma
Sep 09, 2022 05:35 PM IST

The characters Sanjeev Kumar enacted on screen have lived on long after his death

The characters Sanjeev Kumar enacted on screen have lived on long after his death. These include the hapless husband in Dastak (1970), the deaf and mute father in Koshish (1972), the purposeful thakur in Sholay (1975), the obsessed nawab in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), and the ambitious realtor in Trishul (1978). Playing every role to perfection, he created a distinct niche for himself among the more conventionally handsome reigning screen stars of his time. Indeed, he was as much a thinking man’s actor as a director’s actor.

Sanjeev Kumar (left) and David Abraham Cheulkar in Yehi Hai Zindagi. (HT Photo)
Sanjeev Kumar (left) and David Abraham Cheulkar in Yehi Hai Zindagi. (HT Photo)

Sanjeev Kumar initially struggled to make it in the film industry that has traditionally been unkind to newcomers. But focussing more on impact than on looks, he became successful especially after his sensitive performance in Anubhav (1971). The role led him to be equated with the legendary Gregory Peck, who exuded a similar warmth and intelligence. The 1970s were a great decade for Kumar with his endearing screen presence showcased in films that displayed both his intensity and sensitivity. By age 35, he had arrived as a movie star.

356pp, ₹599; Harper Collins
356pp, ₹599; Harper Collins

In Sanjeev Kumar – The Actor We All Loved, his nephew Uday Jariwala and biographer Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta reconstruct the making of one of the Hindi film industry’s finest performers. Sanjeev Kumar was unusual in that he consciously chose not to be a conventional romantic hero. While remaining commercially relevant, this placed him in the league of actors who were not just mere stars. An extraordinary performer as much at ease in mature roles like the one in Mausam (1975) as in the comic double role in Angoor (1982), he could infuse an ordinary dialogue with deep meaning. He was limitless because he had no set ways in his acting, which helped him humanize his characters. His nine roles in Naya Din Naye Raat (1974) remain the perfect example of his versatility as an actor.

Winning the coveted national award twice in his short career, Kumar made bold choices in reel life. “This is how I am; take it or leave it,” he seemed to say to filmmakers who pressed for more stereotypical portrayals.

An eligible bachelor, his love life provided much material for gossip columns in the film magazines of the time. His failed relationships with Nutan and Hema Malini were as much talked about as his onscreen performances. There is no way of knowing if his romantic failures impacted his intense romantic onscreen characterizations or if they even contributed to him being natural in diverse roles. Whatever the case, in his short but momentous life, he earned rich accolades from legends like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor.

Co author Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta (Courtesy the publisher)
Co author Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta (Courtesy the publisher)

This book does not dwell on his self-destructive streak, but it was widely believed that Sanjeev Kumar’s gastronomic and liquid obsessions aggravated his hereditary heart disease. Multiple heart attacks followed by a cardiac surgery killed the great actor in 1985. He was just 47.

Co author Uday Jariwala (Courtesy the publisher)
Co author Uday Jariwala (Courtesy the publisher)

This warm and intimate biography has everything that a reader would want to know about the early life of the man known to family and friends as Haribhai and the subsequent making of the actor called Sanjeev Kumar.

READ MORE: Excerpt: An Actor’s Actor; The Authorised Biography of Sanjeev Kumar by Hanif Zaveri and Sumant Batra

In trying to pack in everything about the life of a young man born into plenty who embarked on a film career, the biography offers a strange mix of the personal and the professional. It leaves the reader wanting to know more about Kumar’s acting acumen, and how it shaped him as a person. The roles he enacted were not easy to do and the reader/viewer is left wondering how he made it all look so real on screen. Will a new generation of actors look to Sanjeev Kumar for inspiration after reading this biography? The answer to that question isn’t an immediate ‘yes’. However, Sanjeev Kumar: The actor we all loved does fill an important gap in the history of popular Hindi cinema.

Importantly, while highlighting its subject’s legacy as a devoted family man, a cherished friend, and an accomplished actor, it encourages the reader to rediscover Sanjeev Kumar’s exemplary films.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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