Today's edition of Fragrance of Yesteryears
features one of the most understated, underrated, and versatile actors the Hindi film industry had ever seen. We're referring to none other than the late Sanjeev Kumar
, a star of a rare breed who represented both the common man and the artist; one who could recreate the persona and emotions of the most naive and the most crafty, the young and the aged, the humblest and most ambitious characters with equal ease.
Born into a working class Gujarati family on 9th July of 1938 in a Surat, Gujarat, Harihar Zariwala spent his childhood in a Mumbai tenement where he dreamed of stardom. After getting his start in theater and spending a brief stint in film school, he took on the stage name Sanjeev Kumar
and made his Bollywood debut with the film Hum Hindustani
(1960). The early years of his career were consisted of bit parts in multistarrers and lead roles in a handful of B-grade action/adventure films such as Nishan (1965).
The venture that established his status as a star was Khilona
(1970) in which he shared the screen with the beautiful Mumtaz. He won both critical and commercial accolades for his convincing portrayal of a grief-stricken lover who suffers from psychological trauma after losing the love of his life. His skillful approach to this challenging role lead to many other offers of substance. One of them was the 1971 romantic drama Dastak
, which told the story of a young married couple who find their lives disrupted after they move into a particularly disreputable neighborhood. This film fetched Kumar the National Film Award for Best Actor, along with several other awards; it's bold treatment and melodious music make it a favorite even today.
Other career highs that followed include the blockbuster Seeta aur Geeta
the hilarious adaptation of Shakespeare's
"Taming of the Shrew", Gulzar's masterpiece Aandhi
for which Kumar won a Filmfare Best Actor Award; Angoor
(1981) a classic comedy again penned by Gulzar; and the internationally appreciated Shatranj Ke Khiladi
by Satyajit Ray. Sanjeev's was a career in which he proved himself inimitable and irreplaceable by accepting one unique character after the other, never shying away from small roles or small films as long as they provided him with a big challenge.
Among those challenges was Gulzar's quiet, sentimental film Koshish
which explores the challenges of a deaf-mute couple through various phases of life. For this film, the legendary artist won his second National Award and proved the validity of another specialty of his career - his magnetic chemistry with Jaya Badhuri (who also took home a National Award for the same). Both actors had an effortless and natural approach to their roles, as well as a palpable comfort level with one another, because of which they worked together in over half a dozen films. One of them was Naya Din Nayi Raat
(1974), in which Sanjeev portrayed nine drastically different characters ranging from an impoverished leper to a transvestite stage performer to a murderous bandit. The feat is still celebrated today as a master class in versatile acting.
Perhaps the best remembered roles from his varied and colorful career were those of Thakur Baldev Singh in the evergreen Sholay
in 1975 and the cold-hearted tycoon R.K. Gupta Trishul
in 1978. In both films, Sanjeev essayed intense characters who were much older than he himself was at the time; in fact, in both instances they were an entire generation elder to his real-life contemporary Amitabh Bachchan
The actor's personal life was far less rosy than his skyrocketing career would suggest. Heartbroken upon being rejected by Hema Malini
, he was later linked with singer-actress Sulakshana Pandit but remained a bachelor until the end of his life because of his unrequited love for his "Dream Girl".
It is an unfortunate irony that in spite of playing fathers and grandfathers many a time onscreen, Sanjeev passed away at the young age of 47. Having been afflicted by heart disease due to weight gain, he died of cardiac arrest on 6th November, 1985, leaving the entire film industry shocked and bereft. Sanjeev had worked hard on the sets until the very end, as a result of which he had ten completed and partially completed films due for release posthumously for fans to watch with a heavy heart.
One can only wonder what more this legendary artist might have accomplished, had not met with such an untimely demise. However, his legacy lives on through an outstanding body of work from which generations of actors to come can learn from his courage and talent.
* He had initially been rejected in a screen test for Rajshri Productions' Aarti upon first stepping foot into the film industry, only to collaborate with the production house for numerous ventures later in his career.
* The emotional quiver that could be heard in his voice during sentimental scenes was a trademark of his performances.
* To prepare for the role of a psychologically disturbed man in Khilona, he spent four months observing patients in a mental institution.
* Within a span of less than five years, he had played Jaya Bhaduri's love interest (Koshish, Anamika, Naya Din Nayi Raat), father (Parichay), and father-in-law (Sholay). Even after opting out of films to take care of her children, Jaya made an exception to work with him one last time in the Cinderella story, Naukar (1978).
* His brother, Darshan Jariwala, played Mahatma Gandhi in the 2007 Akshaye Khanna starrer Gandhi, My Father.
* He proposed to actress Leena Chandavarkar, his co-star from Manchali
. Co-incidentally, Kishore Kumar had proposed to Leena Chandavarkar on the same day and she chose Kishore Kumar over Sanjeev Kumar
* After being rejected by him, Sulakshana Pandit too chose not to marry for the rest of her life, just as the actor himself had in response to Hema Malini
.Author: Parm K.
Editor(s): Lola & Jenifer.