Sanjeev Kumar has been an exceptional actor in Indian cinema in every sense. He acted in various genres – ranging from romantic dramas to comedies and thrillers. He is well remembered for his versatility and genuine portrayal of his characters. In a career spanning two decades, he has played some truly iconic characters – even in roles that portrayed him older than he actually was.
Kumar started his acting career as a theatre artist only to join a film school where he was immediately deemed overly-talented to be a student. His first roles were that of a supporting extra, and although he was much capable than that, he chose to have humble beginnings. Even in his first major film Shikaar (1968), which won him the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor Award, Kumar was so enthralling that none felt that he was a fresh face on silver screen. Let us remember some more about the versatile actor – his work and persona on his 80th birth anniversary tomorrow.
Sanjeev Kumar was born as Harihar Jethalal Jariwala in Surat on 9 July, 1938. Kumar received his early education in Surat after moving to Mumbai with his family where he completed his remaining studies. Kumar had always been inclined towards acting, and while still in his early twenties, he joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in Mumbai. He worked in theatre for many years. But money was scarce as a theatre actor and he had a large family to support. He eventually joined the famous producer S. Mukherji’s film school where he was immensely praised for his natural flair.
Kumar began his big screen career playing small roles. He made his film debut with a small role in ‘Hum Hindustani’ in 1960. Sanjeev Kumar who was also known as ‘Haribhai’ in the film industry, debuted as a protagonist in 1965 in the film ‘Nishan’ which was directed by Aspi Irani. The film starred actors like Nazima, Prem Chopra and Helen. In 1968, he acted alongside the famous actor of that time, Dilip Kumar, in ‘Sangharsh’.
He was given the screen name ‘Sanjeev Kumar’ by Sawan Kumar Tak (known for films like ‘Ab Kya Hoga’, 1977), who spotted him in a play and produced ‘Naunhilal’ (1967) with him. Kumar was first recognized for ‘Khilona’ in 1970, opposite Mumtaz in which he played a mentally unstable man who falls in love with a woman. This marked the beginning of an array of offers, and Kumar went on to play some truly remarkable characters – and he is perhaps best remembered for the role of ‘Thakur’ in Sholay (1975). In 1972, he played in an Indo-Iranian film, ‘Subah aur Shaam’ directed by Tapi Chanakya. This was when director Gulzar first spotted him. Later Gulzar cast Kumar in many of his films – ‘Parichay’ (1972), ‘Koshish’ (1973), ‘Aandhi’ (1975) and ‘Mausam’ (1975), ‘Angoor’ (1981) and ‘Namkeen’ (1982).
Sanjeev Kumar remained the king of histrionics with his stupendous talent that was applauded by none other than the great Satyajit Ray by choosing him as the protagonist of his only film in Hindi – ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ (1977). Kumar has also acted in regional films in many different languages like Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Sindhi and his mother tongue Gujarati. He played nine roles in the film ‘Naya Din Nayi Raat’ in 1974 (remake of the Tamil film ‘Navarathri’, 1964), opposite Jaya Bhaduri that represents the nine rasas. He won the National Film award for Best Actor in 1971 for ‘Dastak’ and in 1973 for ‘Koshish’. He also won the Best Actor Filmfare Award for ‘Arjun Pandit’ (1976) and ‘Aandhi’ (1975).
From playing a mad man to a righteous village chief, he has done it all, and it was no surprise that there were many actresses and socialites dying to tie the knot with this talented actor. Kumar, however, avoided marriage due to unknown reasons, and did so right until his demise. Kumar’s first crush was the popular actress Nutan. It is said that Kumar was still in his early years in showbiz and happened to meet Nutan, an already established star, on the set of one of his films. Kumar always harboured a sense of admiration and awe, as far as the beautiful actress was concerned – and when he first saw her in-person, he couldn’t keep his feelings hidden. He proposed to Nutan right away, in front of everyone present at the sets. Nutan, who was already married, did not take it well and was aggravated by Kumar’s immature act. Since then Kumar and Nutan would always avoid confronting one another for the rest of their lives.
Sanjeev Kumar’s second forlorn love and admiration was for none other the ‘Dreamgirl’ of Bollywood, Hema Malini. Kumar was so smitten by Hema Malini when he first saw her on sets of their film ‘Seeta and Geeta’ (1972), that by the end of the making of the film he had already proposed for marriage to the pretty lady. Hema Malini agreed but her mother did not approve of the relationship because of cultural and lifestyle clashes between the households. She had to backtrack leaving Kumar bereft. Kumar was deeply hurt by this episode, and many cite this heartbreak by Malini as the chief reason he did not tie the knot for the rest of his life.
But Kumar had no dearth of female admirers, and there was this one woman who went head over heels in love with Sanjeev Kumar right at the moment she met him. In 1975, Kumar worked on a film called ‘Uljhan’, which marked the debut of singer turned actress Sulakshana Pandit, sister of the popular music directors Jatin and Lalit Pandit. Sulakshana Pandit, who was then just 21 years old, was already an established singer, and planned to make a full-fledged foray into films. Pandit met Kumar for the first time on the sets of ‘Uljhan’, and despite the considerable age gap, she started falling for the talented actor during the making of the film. She was so enamoured by Kumar that by the end of the shoot she proposed to the actor, who was 16 years older than her. However, Kumar never reverberated the same sentiment, and thus never reciprocated Pandit’s feelings. In fact, he was still heartbroken, hopeful of winning Hema Malini over, and for this reason turned down Pandit’s proposal. Needless to say the young Pandit was left doleful. Perhaps unknowingly, Kumar had inflicted the same wounds to Pandit, which Hema had wreaked on him. In fact, just like Kumar, Pandit never married for the rest of her life, and became a recluse after her retirement from Bollywood in 1988.
After Sanjeev Kumar’s death in 1985, Pandit went into a state of shock. She immediately stopped signing for films, and started living the life of a loner in the suburbs of Mumbai. So aggrieved was she, that she had to later shift to her sister Vijeta’s place, which is where she currently resides. So grave was her condition that no one shares any sensitive matter or news with her in a fear that she may suddenly lose her mental equilibrium. Both Sanjeev Kumar and Sulakshana Pandit were victims of unrequited love that tipped their life for the worse forever.
Sanjeev Kumar is surely someone who left a mark on the hearts and minds of his many friends and admirers, and was a person, who has always been remembered with a sense of absolute awe and respect. As fate would have it, Kumar was born with congenital heart condition. He had several heart surgeries from the early 1980s onwards. As a result, his overall well-being suffered throughout and Kumar breathed his last on 6th November 1985, at a young age of 47.
Sanjeev Kumar left a legacy that few in Indian cinema can match, and in 2013 the Government of India released a postage stamp bearing his image to honour the fine actor. Sanjeev Kumar is also the first Indian actor to have an auditorium named after him. He died young but lives forever. This could be the epitaph for Sanjeev Kumar who made ‘versatility’ his nick name in a film career spanning two decades. It is indeed heartbreaking that Sanjeev Kumar, who enacted more than dozens of unforgettable characters, did not live to see even fifty summers of his life when there was still an immense reservoir of brilliance to be tapped.