Versatility was his hallmark. Harihar Jethalal Jariwala, aka Sanjeev Kumar, brought a wide range of characters to the audience in a most convincing portrayal. He was one of the finest actors of Indian cinema and loved playing unconventional roles. That he was willing to play father to those who were his contemporaries - Sharmila Tagore ( Mausam ), Jaya Bhaduri ( Parichay ) and Amitabh Bachchan ( Trishul ) - spoke of his approach to acting. He was a man for all seasons.
Hanif Zaveri and Sumant Batra have come together to piece together an authorised biography of Sanjeev Kumar, 35 years after his death, with an emotional foreword by Shatrughan Sinha. The book is a perfect tribute to Sanjeev the man and the artiste. It is a lively anecdotal journey that traces the star’s rise from difficult times to his position as one of the major actors of Hindi cinema.
It took a while for the book to take shape - 12 years to be precise. Zaveri spoke to no less than 110 of Sanjeev’s friends, personal and professional, and family members to come up with this comprehensive story, which includes a throwback to the actor’s childhood and early days of struggle in the film industry. The book may not have happened but for Dilip Kumar suggesting to Zaveri that he should write on Sanjeev.
Sanjeev died at 47, but he left a huge impact on the industry with his genial personality and helpful nature. Sanjeev, as the book tells us, went through hardship in his formative years, as his mother struggled to make ends meet, at one point unable to sustain his education. He had to shift to a Gujarati medium school because of financial constraints.
The authors also throw light on little known aspects of Sanjeev’s life. He was a keen sportsman, pursuing table tennis and cricket. He was a good batsman in inter-school tournaments held at the Oval ground near Churchgate. It was during these matches that Sanjeev befriended an opponent, a bowler, who later grew into a popular character actor by the name Satyen Kappu.
After struggling to make a mark in tinsel town through some ‘B’ grade films, Sanjeev got his big break with Sunghursh in 1968. It starred the legendary Dilip Kumar in the lead role. Sanjeev did not appreciate some critics saying he was better than Dilip Kumar. “People wrote that in Sunghursh I was better than Dilip Kumar. Do you think this was right? I don’t think so. People went to see Sunghursh for Dilip Kumar, not me. The fact is, Dilip Kumar is Dilip Kumar. Nobody can beat him,” Sanjeev is quoted in the book.
The book deals in detail with Sanjeev’s involvement with Nutan, who ended the relationship by slapping him in a studio, and his subsequent love-affair with Hema Malini. The authors write, “Sanjeev was determined to marry Hema.” They had got very close to each other following an incident during the shooting of a song from Seeta Aur Geeta, while skating on the roads of Mahabaleshwar. “In one terrifying moment, the trolley came loose, while both Hema and Sanjeev were on it, and veered towards a cliff. Luckily, the road bent inwards and both the actors fell away from the treacherous precipice. They escaped with minor cuts and bruises.This brush with death brought them closer,” the authors write.
The marriage, however, never happened, since Hema was keen to continue with her career in films, which did not meet the approval of Sanjeev’s family. “They both parted ways. More than friends, Sanjeev needed a wife who could take care of him, and Hema was capable of that,” reflects actor Rehana Sultana.
Sanjeev continued to conquer peaks with his acting, playing some astounding roles with such ease that made him a director’s delight. The authors sum it up well, “Sanjeev Kumar went against the tide, essaying diverse and complex roles, each starkly different from the other. There was no pinning him down to one stereotype. He knew that audiences were capricious and stereotypes ran the risk of becoming stale. His love for the craft and penchant to experiment made him pick films solely for the thrill of challenging himself.”
Actor Sulbha Arya also highlights the man that Sanjeev was, “Sanjeev was an actor who worked for all. He never believed in the distinction between A- and B- grade films. Some films he signed for money, some for friends, and some for good roles. Whenever he got challenging roles, he worked as hard as he could, even if he had to compromise on his price.”
Naya Din Nai Raat , released in 1974, saw him play nine characters. It was a tribute to his talent and he achieved rave reviews for the portrayal of a hunter, dacoit, scheming godman, lover, leper, transvestite stage actor, widower, psychiatrist, and alcoholic. For his fans, it was a feast as Sanjeev held the audience spellbound with his awesome range.
For Zaveri, the book is a labour of love. "I am glad I could do justice to a great actor. I made every effort to reach out to all important people connected with Sanjeev. They spoke so highly of him and loved him for his honesty and helpful nature. He was more than an actor. He was an institution. A pity he died so young," said Zaveri.
Published by Penguin, the book is a delightful read penned by Zaveri, a journalist, actor and playwright, and Sumant Batra, a leading insolvency lawyer, and a fitting tribute to one of India’s most gifted actors. As veteran actor Shatrughan Sinha says in his foreword, “Yes, the show must go on, and it has gone on. But without Sanjeev Kumar, the show is not what it could have been, would have been and should have been.”
(Vijay Lokapally is an independent journalist and author)
About the Book
An Actor’s Actor: An Authorized Biography of Sanjeev Kumar
Hanif Zaveri, Sumant Batra
Penguin Ebury Press
Rs 498/ 248 pages (Hardcover)