Sanjeev Kumar – The Actor Who Rose Above The ‘Hero’
The sheer versatility of Sanjeev Kumar outpaces his contemporaries. His repertoire of roles include everything from young to the old, sensitive to comic.
It is hard to slot Sanjeev Kumar. You can’t simply call him a romantic hero – although he did quite a few lover boy roles very successfully, sample Manchali, Seeta Aur Geeta. You can’t simply say he excelled as the mature hero – although his performances as the middle-aged lonely hotel manager (Aandhi), the ailing singer and father of five children (Parichay), the guilt-ridden 50+ industrialist who sets out to track down the love of his youth days (Mausam), the mutilated, revenge-seeking Thakur (Sholay), are unsurpassed. You can’t say he was a tragic hero, because he made you crack up with his uncanny comic timing, remember the much harassed double Ashok in the comedy of errors Angoor, the cigar-smoking ex-colonel of Biwi O Biwi or the flirtatious boss in Pati Patni Aur Woh?
The sheer versatility of Sanjeev Kumar, (born Harihar Jethalal Jariwala), outpaces all his contemporaries. Other actors of his times had their own niche and style – the action hero Dharmendra, the eternal lover Rajesh Khanna, the angry young man Amitabh Bachchan, the dancing star Jeetendra. But try and label Sanjeev Kumar, you will end up creating such a long description that you’d better not try.
“He was never a hero. He was a brilliant actor and few directors could use him optimally,” observes film historian and archivist SMM Ausaja. “Aandhi, Mausam, Aap Ki Kasam, Trishul, Angoor, Pati Patni Aur Woh, Satyakam, Jani Dushman, Swarg Narak… so many memorable films. But I feel he was best with Jaya Bhaduri.”
From among his several costars, ranging from Hema Malini to Sharmila Tagore, from Raakhee to Vidya Sinha, Suchitra Sen to Hema Malini, Sanjeev Kumar experimented the most with his female lead and bosom pal Jaya Bhaduri (Bachchan). These two superbly talented actors played out all kinds of relationships on screen – husband-and-wife (Koshish), father-in-law and daughter-in-law (Sholay), lovers (Anamika), father-daughter (Parichay), the multifarious 9-character role in Naya Din Nayi Raat, ending up as the doctor and patient who hesitatingly comfort each other on finding that their respective spouses are having an affair (Silsila).
This unique ability to effortlessly fit into any character of any age made the most gifted filmmakers of the 60s and 70s cast Sanjeev Kumar in author-backed roles that fully exploited his histrionic talents. Gulzar of course, topped the list with 9 films with his most favored actor – and not surprisingly, several of these roles fetched Sanjeev Kumar the most prestigious awards including the National Award for playing the hearing-challenged Hariharan in Koshish and the Filmfare Award for Best Actor for the controversial Aandhi. Even in parallel roles such as the loyal friend of the upright and honest Satyakam (Satyakam) or the police officer whose little son is held hostage in his own house by a fleeing criminal (Faraar), he left his indelible mark.
On his birthday, we look at some of Sanjeev Kumar’s celebrated roles and performances through some of the memorable scenes and beautiful songs in Hindi films.
JK in Gulzar’s Aandhi
Aarti (Suchitra Sen), a charming, well educated daughter of an industrialist marries a simple hotelier JK (Sanjeev Kumar) but eventually leaves him to pursue a promising political career.
After 9 years of separation, Aarti meets her husband again when her entourage books rooms in his hotel during an election campaign. The political gameplay that happens during an election serves as the backdrop of this mature love story. The film is even today remembered and watched for its stunning performances from both the lead actors.
The songs of this film are among the top most hits of R D Burman, Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi, is a song that went on to become almost proverbial – a song with which every person who has experienced love’s many shades will identify with.
Used deftly in the background and interspersed with a few dialogues, the song begins as JK lovingly drapes his coat to help Aarti beat the evening chill as they take a stroll amidst the ruins of an old palace.
The raw intensity in JK’s eyes when he clenches his fist to contain his emotions and the quiet suffering in Aarti’s eyes as she fights to hold back her tears and rests her head in silent surrender on her husband’s shoulder as Lata Mangeshkar’s lilting voice climbs the octaves with “Jee mein aata hai, tere daaman mein, sar chhupa ke hum, rotey rahe”, says volumes more than words could ever have.
If you want a perfect example of expressing one’s innermost emotions without the help of words, watch Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar in this classic.
Tere bina zindagi se koi (Aandhi)
Dr. Amarnath Gill in Gulzar’s Mausam
Mausam explores the tireless search of successful industrialist Amarnath Gill (Sanjeev Kumar) to find the girl he loved in his youth. 25 years have passed since he had left Chanda (Sharmila Tagore) with a promise that he would return. But he returns to find that nothing is the same. And then begins another struggle, to bring back Chanda’s daughter Kajli from the brothel into a life of security and respect.
You can’t help marvel at the dexterity with which Sanjeev Kumar essays the role traversing two different time periods – from the young medical student in love to the middle-aged, mature, never-married industrialist who has come back to the moors for some much required relaxation. His agony at discovering that Chanda had wasted her life pining for him, his silent and courageous struggle to bring Chanda’s daughter back into the mainstream and his burst of anger at being misunderstood by Kajli are so effortless and spontaneous, that not for a moment do you think that it is Sanjeev Kumar you are watching and not Amarnath Gill.
And of course, that ethereal music by Madan Mohan – Dil dhoondta hai is perhaps the most evocative song about looking for those little moments of leisure, love and poetry in our madly busy lives. A song every person can identify with unequivocally.
Dil dhoondta hai phi wohi (Mausam)
The two Ashoks in Gulzar’s Angoor
You don’t need a comic sidekick when Sanjeev Kumar himself is leading from the front. In a hilarious and thorough Indianized adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors, Sanjeev Kumar plays the double role of Ashok – the married Ashok who is harassed by his wife Moushumi Chatterjee enough to vow not to enter his home till he gets her the promised necklace and the detective aficionado, also named Ashok who unsuspectingly ends up being mistaken for his twin, who he never knew existed. Although the professional comic actor Deven Verma has a parallel role playing the twin servants, both named Bahadur, Sanjeev Kumar walks away with the laughs.
Utter confusion of the Ashoks (Angoor)
“He was equally good in both comedy and tragedy. Another great performance is RK’s Biwi O Biwi,” says Ausaja. “His waterloo was dance. He just couldn’t dance. Neither could he ever be macho. But he made up for these shortcomings with some superb performances. In Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, his performance is sheer class!”
Mirza Sajjad Ali in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi
Nobleman Mirza Sajjad Ali along with his bosom pal Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) are least bothered about the impending British annexation of their Indian State of Awadh (Oudh) or the frustration or romantic escapades of their respective wives, as their sedentary life revolves around their passionate obsession with the game of chess. Their battles and heroics are all over the chessboard and they are blissfully oblivious to the wider drama their province is facing, so much so that they run off into the quieter countryside away from the turbulence of Lucknow only to enjoy their chess undisturbed. But their reverie is short-lived and they get themselves embroiled in a petty but bitter tussle over the game as the British army marches in to annex their homeland in the backdrop.
The small battle of the two Mirzas (Shatranj Ke Khiladi)
Pitted against stalwarts like Richard Attenborough, Saeed Jaffrey and Victor Banerjee, Sanjeev Kumar held fort with his surma-lined eyes and leisurely drawl. “His diction of both Hindi and Urdu was very good. A reason why he was Ray’s choice for his only Hindi film, as the film required impeccable Urdu,” says Ausaja. “He was paired with Saeed Jafferey who belonged to Lucknow. Yet he was equally good.” Except Victor Banerjee and Sanjeev Kumar, the rest of the lead actors were all fluent in Urdu – Saeed Jaffery, Shabana Azmi, Fareeda Jalal, Farouque Sheikh and Amjad Khan. It shows how much faith Ray had in Sanjeev Kumar’s ability to carry off the role of a Lucknawi nobleman who smokes the hookah and speaks chaste Urdu.
Gerulal in Gulzar’s Namkeen
Gerulal (Sanjeev Kumar) is a truck driver who comes to stay with a rather odd household of three unmarried sisters and their old mother as a tenant. In a woman-dominated film where the star cast includes Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi and Waheeda Rehman, Sanjeev Kumar shines through as the lone male interest who though initially shunned by the sisters eventually becomes the anchor of their life. His admiration for their brave efforts to hold on to their morals and values despite abject deprivation and his helplessness at not being able to help them much makes you look at the world from a different perspective – that of a rootless, meandering truck driver whose life is spent more on the roads than at the hearth and how he too longs for a home to return to.
Raah pe rehte hain (Namkeen)
Raj Kumar Gupta in Yash Chopra’s Trishul
Raj Kumar Gupta (Sanjeev Kumar) ditched his first love Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) to marry a wealthy heiress. Now ensconced in his comfortable construction empire and a happy family comprising wife, son and a daughter, Raj Kumar Gupta is least prepared for his past to catch up with him in the form of his illegitimate son Vijay (Amitabh Bachhan). As his construction business starts dwindling with Vijay pulling off project after project from under his nose and his children turn against him, the baron finds himself lonely and defeated and realizes the injustice he had done to his first love. “He was pitted opposite AB and yet held his own,” says Ausaja.
Raj Kumar Gupta’s powerful dialogues (Trishul)
Anand / Swami Rahasyanand / Mr. Sarang / Seth Dhanraj / Sher Singh / and four other roles in A. Bhimsingh’s Naya Din Nai Raat
When you have nine roles to play in the same film, ranging from a fake monk, a dacoit, a cigar-smoking hunter, a doctor in a mental hospital to an effeminate nautanki player, a disfigured and ailing leper and more, you need an amazing ability to step in and out of characters that practically have no connection with each other.
The disfigured blind leper and the effeminate Nautanki actor (Naya Din Nayi Raat)
Devender in R. Jhalani’s Anamika
As a popular novel writer (Devender) who has been through a failed romantic relationship and has lost faith in women, Sanjeev Kumar looks every inch the role with his sensitive, erudite personality. He starts off as an angry, indignant and annoyed man, gradually rediscovers his humorous and romantic side and then slumps back into hurt and betrayal – portraying each of these sides to the character with elan.
“Baahon mein chale aao” is considered one of the most romantic songs purely because of its mischievous sweetness and smart handling. Countless love songs have been woven around the boy trying to seduce the girl and the girl shying away. But Hindi film directors have generally cried away from letting the girl take the initiative. This song audaciously ventures into taboo territory with Anamika (Jaya Bhaduri) trying her best to woo the hesitant poet Devender (Sanjeev Kumar) in her room in the dead of the night.
The scene is remembered for the wonderfully playful chemistry between Jaya and Sanjeev Kumar, both known for their dignity and sobriety, apart from the song’s own richness of melody (RD Burman at his best) and Lata Mangeshkar’s sensuous rendition. And it shows how the potentially tricky situation of “girl seduces boy” can appear so intimate and innocuous without a tinge of unrefinement.
Bahon mein chale aao (Anamika)
Hamid Ahmed in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak
Hamid and his newly wed wife Salma (Rehana Sultana) with their modest income find a rented accommodation near a red light area. Their apartment had earlier been home to a popular mujra singer Shamshad and the couple find themselves at the receiving end of Shamshad’s “clients” who still come to seek her out. Caught between their own morality and the degradation of moral values around them the couple struggle to make their marriage survive.
The film not only fetched the National Awards for both Sanjeev Kumar for Best Actor and music maestro Madan Mohan for Best Music, the film has gone down in history as some of the finest compositions of the Madanmohan-Lata Mangeshkar team.
Baiyyan na dharo (Dastak)
Amar Sen in Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav
Through the hectic life of a busy journalist Amar Sen and his lonely and bored wife Meeta (Tanuja), Anubhav explores the blossoming of love and intimacy in a marriage which is on the brink of going stale. The entry of Meeta’s ex-flame Shashi Bhushan (Dinesh Thakur) throws the delicately balanced relationship back into rocky waters. The film is not only known for stunning performances from the actors, it is also known for its lilting music – Geeta Dutt‘s finest songs composed by Kanu Roy and written by Gulzar.
Mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan (Anubhav)
Amar in Basu Bhattacharya’s Grihapravesh
The third part of Basu Bhattacharya’s trilogy on marital discord looks at how a marriage that started with love has gradually slipped into stagnancy, caught in the vortex of mundane daily chores and unfulfilled dreams. In Amar and Manasi’s (Sharmila Tagore) habituated life comes Sapna (Sarika) who makes Amar look at life a little differently, in a new perspective. Sanjeev Kumar plays the typical bored husband who suddenly finds a new spark and purpose of living in Sapna’s carefree outlook. The film had some beautiful and evocative songs written by Gulzar and composed by the much-underrated Kanu Roy.
Baat niklegi to phir door talak jayegi (Grihapravesh)
(Pictures used in this article are courtesy SMM Ausaja and the Internet)
More to read
Rahe na rahe hum: A Tribute To Suchitra Sen
Gulzar: Multi-faceted Director, Lyricist Receives Dadasaheb Phalke Award
10 Most Romantic Songs in Hindi Cinema – Part I
10 Most Romantic Songs in Hindi Cinema – Part II
Waheeda Rehman: Quintessential Beauty With Intense Acting Prowess
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