More than two decades have passed since Sanjeev Kumar died, but his performances still remain fresh in my mind. He was undoubtedly one of the best actors Indian cinema has seen. But sadly, today he is mostly remembered mainly by way of the innumerable spoofs on his character of Thakur Baldev Singh from Sholay.
Sanjeev Kumar (SK) often treaded the unconventional path. And in the process defied many myths prevailing in the industry. The standard requirement of a regular Bollywood hero was that he should be good looking, tall and must have a thin and lean frame. Sanjeev Kumar was quite the opposite of it. Here was a man who wasn’t conventionally good looking, was short and somewhat overweight by Bollywood standards. Sure, he didn’t possess any of the standard requirements to be an actor in Bollywood, but what he lacked in other aspects more than surpassed it with a vast range of unquestionable acting skills and a charming smile. Bollywood has mostly been rigidly stereotyped with regards to casting of actors for roles. Pran saab gave some superb performances as a villain in many movies, following which he was stereotyped as a villain for a major part of his career. That was the case with most of the actors in Bollywood. Once you are successful in a particular type of role (e.g character artist, villain, comedian etc) you had to continue in the same bracket for the most part of your career. Any shift in roles was seen as a big risk and was considered risky. A malaise that still prevails largely in Bollywood.
But this man changed that perception as well. The length of the role didn’t matter to Sanjeev saab, but the impact the role made mattered to him more. Sanjeev Kumar was comfortable playing the lead in films like Angoor, Pati , Patni aur woh, Koshish etc.as much as he was at ease in playing supporting roles in films like Hero, Vidhaata Parichay etc. Versatility and subtlety were the two main strengths of SK. He played a wide range of roles . Be it the deaf and mute protagonist Hari Singh in Koshish, the melancholic younger brother of Amrish Puri in Hum Paanch, The eternal Thakur from Sholay , the humble husband of an aspiring politician in Aandhi, the philandering husband in Pati,patni aur woh, the double role (Army man & Conman) in Biwi o Biwi or the business tycoon in Trishul etc. He left an indelible mark in almost every role he played. And hwo can one his role of a mentally deranged man in Khilona which is one of his best performances.
The film Naya Din Nayi Raat was one of his biggest moments of glory. By playing as many as nine diverse roles, he showcased his vast range of acting skills. The film was a remake of a Tamil film ‘Navarathri’ starring Sivaji Ganesan . And living up to the legendary Ganesan was quite a challenge. But SK took on challenge sportingly and delivered an amazing performance. Each of the 9 characters were different from the other and equally memorable. Be it the God man, the scientist, the doting father, the beggar, the bandit , the romantic lead opposite Jaya Bachchan or my personal favourite the transvestite, SK excelled in the portrayal of each and every character.
As mentioned earlier, subtlety and versatility were Sanjeev Kumar’s main strengths. Bollywood was characterized mainly by loud and melodramatic performances wherein the actors were also straining for effect. But SK was different. He delivered masterful performances without resorting to melodrama most of the times. Case in point would be Koshish. The scene in which he tells his name i.e. Haricharan Singh to Dina Pathak by referring to a mirchi lying on the floor and then to his feet. Or his outburst in the scene when his son refuses to marry a deaf and mute girl. It was a beautifully acted and well nuanced performance.
And how can one forget Sholay? The cold look in his eyes was enough to communicate his anger. He had a superb sense of comic timing which could be rivaled only by few. He used this timing to great effect to give us some amazing comic performances in films like Angoor, Pati, patni aur woh, Biwi O Biwi amongst other films. Who can forget his hilarious rendition of the song ‘pritam aan milo’,or his frustration and his reactions to the confusion about the twins in ‘Angoor’, his narration of a sob story about his wife to woo other women in ‘Pati, patni aur woh’, the hard nosed colonel and the conman in ‘Biwi o biwi. These performances of his showcased his excellent comic timing. Of course equal credit must be given to directors such as Ramesh Sippy, B.R Chopra, Rahul rawail etc. who gave him such opportunities to showcase his acting prowess.
How can one not mention Gulzar whilst talking about Sanjeev Kumar. Together they have given some amazing films. Gulzar fully understood SK’s acting genius and gave him diverse roles to showcase his vast acting prowess. In the process, Gulzar and Sanjeev saab made some of their best films together. Be it Aandhi, Koshish, Mausam, Parichay, Mausam, Namkeen or my favourite Angoor. Each was film was different from the other yet a masterpiece. Even in a small role as Jaya Bachchan’s father in Parichay, SK left a mark.
Even in multi starrers such as Trishul, Vidhaata, Jaani dushman etc. SK’s presence loomed large over the film. Trishul was a multi starrer in the truest sense with the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Hema Malini, Rakhee etc heralding the cast besides Sanjeev Kumar. Amitabh Bachchan gave one of his best performances as the illegitimate son of industrialist J.K (Sanjeev kumar). But it is Kumar who gives the film that extra edge with his performance. As JK, the ruthless industrialist SK’s presence largely dominates over the film with his subtle yet powerful performance. A commendable fact is that despite Sanjeev Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan being contemporaries, Sanjeev Kumar had no qualms in playing the role of Bachchan’s father, a role which many of AB’s contemporaries would definitely have shied away from.
Similarly Vidhaata also had an impressive cast of Dilip Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Shammi Kapoor , the then relatively less popular Sanjay Dutt, Amrish Puri amongst others. But even here Sanjeev Kumar stood out in his role as Sanjay Dutt’s caretaker.
Amongst the leading ladies, SK formed a unique jodi with Jaya Bachchan. They have acted together in diverse pairings and roles that were memorable. Be it as father and daughter in Parichay and Naya din nayi raat, or as father in law and daughter in law in Sholay, husband and wife in Koshish, or the romantic lead in Anamika, Naukar etc. Jaya Bachchan also displayed great flair and gave brilliant performances opposite him esp. in films like Koshish, Anamika.
In the ’80’s i.e. towards the fag end of his career, SK diverted towards playing supporting roles in films such as Hero, Vidhaata etc. Still he gave memorable performances in these films. He also had his share of bad films during this phase such as Zabardast, Hathkadi etc.
And shockingly in November 1985, he passed away leaving a permanent void in the world of Hindi cinema and his fans disappointed. A large number of his films were released after his death which he had completed prior to his demise. However the film Professor ki Padosan suffered a lot due to his untimely demise. As per IMDB, quite a major chunk of the film was to be shot when SK passed away. Accordingly after his demise the movie’s story was altered a lot. When Manmohan Desai saw the film, he suggested the producers that Sanjeev Kumar’s character to be made invisible in the remaining portions. Accordingly the film was altered and was released in 1993.
In their July 2008 edition, Filmfare did a feature on Sanjeev Kumar to mark his birth anniversary. Strangely, his family members refused to speak about him in that feature. And the memoirs shared were mainly by actors such as Shatrugan Sinha, Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi amongst others. SK’s personal life has mostly been mired in tragedy. Dejected after being rejected by Hema Malini, he remained a bachelor for his entire life and passed away in loneliness perhaps. Perhaps, his personal life took a toll on him and might have been one of the reasons for his early demise. It is also believed that actress Sulakshana Pandit was very keen to get married to him. Unfortunately that was never to happen.
Though he may have passed away, he still continues to regale audiences with his vast range of memorable performances which showcase an actor of great caliber. And he continues to live in the hearts of moviegoers forever through his great performances.
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