Sanjeev Kumar: The forgotten hero

Sanjeev Kumar somewhat never fit into any category, yet he excelled in almost everything. Perhaps, he decided to defy all the norms of a being a typical Hindi film hero by choice. And then he ended up bagging the meatiest of roles. Today, on July 9, his 81st birth anniversary, we take a look at the versatile genius’ great body of work.

The Indian television industry has cut through our lives thanks to its first cousin — the television. If you miss out on a film at the theatre, it is aired in a month’s time on some or the other satellite channel. And in a year’s time, the same film makes its way to the retrospective of an actor who is part of that film. And then every year, and almost every month, you end up watching multiple retrospectives across different channels.

In the last 10 years or so, I have watched almost every actor’s retrospective — from Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Sri Devi, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit et al. But what I missed is a retrospective of Sanjeev Kumar.

Seems, it’s just a matter of time that this versatile genius will fade from the collective memory of the nation. Last year, on his 80th birth anniversary, there were tweets from some of the biggest names from the film fraternity. But that was it. Perhaps one of the reasons the industry, both film and television, tends to so comfortably forget Sanjeev Kumar is because he died a bachelor and didn’t have anyone to carry forward his legacy. He didn’t have an actor son or daughter to upload a vintage and rare photograph of his on Instagram on his birth and death anniversaries, or a family to take the initiative of naming a road in his memory in Mumbai, or having his statue installed.

Everyone’s Hero

Nonetheless, Sanjeev Kumar continues to command respect among those who have grown up watching his great body of work. And this fan following comes despite the fact that he was never the conventional Bollywood hero — no killer looks, no chiselled physique and no stunning hairdo. Sanjeev Kumar’s strength was only, and only, his acting prowess, with which he went on to establish himself as ‘Everyone’s Hero’.

Perhaps, Sanjeev Kumar decided to defy all the norms of a being a typical Hindi film hero by choice. And then he ended up bagging the meatiest of roles. Just think of branding Sanjeev Kumar as star material. It’s a shade difficult. Of the top stars of his time, Rajesh Khanna was the romantic hero, Bachchan the angry young man and Dharmendra fell somewhere in between the romantic and action hero category. And then there were the geniuses of art house cinema in the making — Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri.

Sanjeev Kumar somewhat never fit into any category, yet he excelled in almost everything. He did a spate of romantic films — Anamika, Manchali, Seeta aur Geeta. But then in Seeta aur Geeta he also gives a taste of his impeccable comic timing just like he does in Naya Din Nayi Raat, Angoor, Naukar, Pati Patni aur Woh and Biwi-O-Biwi. That again was just a slice of his acting skills. Many will try to slot him as a mature hero after he joined forces with filmmaker-lyricist Gulzar playing the middle-aged businessman who goes back searching his love in Mausam (1975), the kind-hearted truck driver in Namkeen (1982), the lonely hotel manager who comes across his former wife in Aandhi (1975), the compromising husband in Yash Chopra’s Silsila (1981) or the adulterous husband in Basu Bhattacharya’s Griha Pravesh (1979). But then there are also a few gems like the grief-stricken and revenge-seeking Thakur in Sholay (1975), the philosopher-saint Abu Baba in Vidhata (1982) and the ambitious business magnet RK Sharma in Trishul (1978).

Versatile Genius

Actually, Sanjeev Kumar cannot be slotted into any category. Or, to put it simply, he was versatile and way ahead of his contemporaries yet never in the league of superstars. It would be safe to say that Sanjeev Kumar was an actor and not really a hero. Perhaps that was the reason he never shied away from taking risks. He would happily play supporting roles at the beginning of his career (Sungursh, Shikar, Aao Pyar Kaaren) and even in the peak (Vidhata, Aap Ki Kasam, Kala Patthar, Hero) and at the same time comfortably balance both commercial and art-house cinema. His acting genius was definitely put to best use by the legendary Satyajit Ray in Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977).

Sanjeev Kumar’s appearance started changing at the helm of his career. He was addicted to the ‘good life’ and his weight gain and pot belly were becoming a major concern even as his acting reputation remained unscathed. He could easily slip into any role, much like a character actor and then deliver a power-packed performance. Sanjeev Kumar was only 38 when he played Thakur in Sholay. And by the time he was 42 he had become a pro at portraying elderly roles, with hits like Mausam, Aandhi, Arjun Pandit, Zindagi, Trishul, Devata and Vidhata. Sanjeev Kumar died after suffering a massive second heart attack. He was only 48. Unfortunately, a master at playing aged roles, Sanjeev Kumar never saw old age.

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