Tribute to the  genius of late actor Sanjeev Kumar which still sparkles 35 years after his death 

Few actors ever took versatility or acting craft to such a crescendo as actor Sanjeev Kumar. He may have left us early at the young age of 47 but the stamp he left marks it’s print today and will possibly remain forever in the annals of Bollywood history.Sanjeev was simply Bollywood’s ultimate chamelion.Sanjeev Kumar traversed regions in acting almost nonone ever did .Last year in November Bolywood commemorated his 35 th death anniversary .

He may not have possessed the drop dead looks of a Dev Anand , Dharmendra or Sashi Kapoor or the professionalism or star charisma of an Amitabh Bachan,Rajesh Khanna or Shah Rukh Khan .However in acting ability he surpassed all of them ,doing more justice to a character. Without hesitation I would class him amongst the five finest actors ever to have flashed the Bellwood screen.

I have never seen a Bollywood actor blend, justify or immerse into a character in as much depth as Sanjeev Kumar or even display so much variance, ebb and flow or such range of expressions or moods within a film itself. I cannot remember an actor who acted more distinctly when enacting such a wide range or roles.

One often got vibrations of all the four season’s in Sanjeev’s role within one film itself. It was reminiscent of the variations of musical notes in a musical symphony. In the very same film he gave the sensation of the touches of a sculptor or painter’s brush of different hands. One could witness the sensation of a storm intervening on the hottest of days from no man’s land in Sanjeev’s acting.

His acting blended the methodology or skill of a surgeon with the creativity of a musical composer .He never overacted posessing the Brechtian element of detachment in every character he played. Unlike other great stars like Amitabah Bachan ,Rajesh Khanna ,Shammi Kapoor or Raj Kapoor he set no new trend .His acting possessed the subtle element of mystery or suspense which few actors ever did.

I have never seen an actor who with the very movement in his eyes or body ,told the very story .Every performance of his was reminiscent of a new poem written,posessing a touch of it’s own kind.

Sanjeev Kumar was born as Harihar Jethalal Jariwala (also referred to as Haribhai) on 9 July 1938] in Surat and came to Mumbai when he was very young. A stint in a film school paved his path to entry into Bolywood .. Kumar had two younger brothers and one sister.

Sanjeev’s family moved to Mumbai when he was just 7-years-old and acting was his ambition from the very start.

Sanjeev went on to join the film school where AKHangal inspired and guided him.Kumar started his acting career as a stage actor, starting with IPTA in Mumbai  and later joining the Indian National Theatre.] Even as a stage actor, he had a penchant for playing older roles; at age 22, he played an old man in an adaptation of Arthur Millers’All My Sons’ In the following year, in the play Damru directed by A K Hangal he again played the role of a 60-year-old with six children.

He made his debut  on the silver screen for just two minutes in ‘Hum Hindustani’ and got his first break in 1965 with ‘Nishaan’. The movie didn’t make a great impact on the box-office but Sanjeev had started his journey and there was no looking back for him. Just three years after ‘Nishaan’, Sanjeev Kumar gave  superstar Dilip Kumar  a fright with his acting skills in ‘Sunghursh’ and the industry recognized his untapped potential. Sanjeev gave glimpses of his great reserves of acting talent .

The finest acting of this genius in my opinion was in ‘Khilona’, ‘Koshish”, Aandhi’,’ Angoor’,’ Naye Din Naye Raat’ ,’ Mausam’ and ‘Trishul.’


In ‘Khilona’ (1970)he enacts a man who turns mad because of the loss and suicide of his lover, doing great justice to the various permutations and combinations of the plot. Rarely has any actor in Bellwood traversed such regions as Sanjeev did here. . I can’t conceive any other actor give such justice to such a role, staying in the very thick of the character. He virtually looks like a person actually insane. Intensity of acting is reminiscent of the turbulence of a thunderstorm.

His acting scenes in ‘Khilona’  with Mumtaz as Chand  reveal acting density in heights of the sublime. An unforgettable scene when he talks to himself in a crazy state and when he asks Chand who she is. There is deep malleabality in his dialogues with Mumtaz, revealing his state of misery and confusion , his reply in the court scene and in his concluding dialogue. Sanjeev exudes great subtlety in his evolution towards accepting Chand Sanjeev portrays state of madness in regions few actors ever could inspite of virtually carrying  the film on his shoulders. He reveals the suppressed inner world or nascent sensitivity of even a mad person. There could hardly be a better illustration of the depth of the core of the soul of even an insane man. I can never forget the sheer metamorphosis he reveals in his behaviour after recovering towards the end of the film, in his conversation with his family. He literally takes moral conviction to a crescendo at the conclusion of the film.

Plot of  Khilona(from Wikepedia)

Vijaykamal  is a son of rich Thakur Suraj Singh, but has lost his mind. He sees his lover Sapna marry his neighbor Bihari (Shatrugan Sinha) and then she commit suicide on the night of the Diwali party hosted by Bihari. This incident puts Vijay in shock. Thakur believes that if Vijay gets married, his mental health would improve. He hence approaches a tawaif , Chand (Mumtaz) to pretend to be Vijay’s wife and thus help him get better. But Chand receives cold treatment from Vijay’s mother and his elder brother Kishore. Once, in a fit of madness, Vijay rapes Chand. But later, Chand becomes very friendly with Vijay and that starts improving his condition.

Bihari who wishes to have Chand for himself also tries to persuade Vijay’s young sister Radha. He promises Radha to make her an actress in Bollywood and asks her to elope with him with the family’s money and gold. But Chand does not let Bihari’s plan work. Vijay’s younger brother Mohan (Jeetendra ) also falls in love with noble Chand and is heartbroken when he finds out that she is pregnant (owing to the assault) and is carrying Vijay’s child. Dejected, he leaves home without notice.

In a fight between Vijay and Bihari, Bihari falls off the terrace and this shocks Vijay, curing him of his mental ailment. But then Vijay is unable to recall Chand. She is then humiliated by the family and is thrown out of the house. Mohan steps in and accuses everyone of treating her like a toy and only using her when needed. He reveals how she saved Radha from Bihari’s evil pursuits. It is also revealed that Chand was actually born in a noble family and was only raised as a tawaif as she was found alone after a train accident. The family thus accepts Chand and all ends well.

In ‘Koshish’ (1972)he brilliantly portrays a deaf and dumb man acting in tandem with Jaya Badhuri ,emoting the life story of his struggle in different junctures with gestures as natural as the flow of the waters of River Ganges. I have never seen an actor do so much justice to glorify the nascent talents of a deaf and dumb person. Even in state of anger or turmoil there is a subtle grace .

In ‘Anubhav'(1971) he classically portrays man saving his marriage exuding great balance and stillness in not letting the past change the present. I can visualise very few actors exuding such balance or equilibrium in playing such a role ,blending romance and anger.I can’t forget his conversations with wife Tanuja  or his wife’s old friend  enacted by Dinesh Thakur.which depict great sensitivity  ,discretion or  perception Meeta Sen (Tanuja) and Amar Sen (Sanjeev Kumarr) have been married for several years. Due to Amar’s hectic work schedule, the couple did not have children, as there was no time for intimacy. Meeta decides to take matters into her own hands, gets rid of the servants, save for Hari (A.K.Hangal), and decides to run the household on her own. This gets the couple to be closer, and eventually they do get intimate. And then Meeta’s old flame Shashi Bhushan (Dinesh Thakur ) not only re-enters Meeta’s life, but also gets employed in the same organization as Amar, throwing their marriage again in jeopardy. One day while at home, Amar and Shashi discuss their work and Amar says that he’ll join the office from tomorrow because he’s recovered now from his flu. While Shashi leaves, Amar sees him talking with his wife. The next day, he asks Meeta to call for Shashi in an intimidating and arrogant tone, after Shashi leaves, Amar confronts Meeta and she explains their past relationship to him. Amar leaves the house without saying anything and asks Shashi to resign, though Shashi already has written his resignation letter because he sees himself as a reason of upheaval in their lives. Knowing this, Amar says that “the past comes between us only when we aren’t able to live the present completely”. After reaching home, Amar tries to tell Meeta, but she circumlocutes in an amusing manner and says that she has understood and tells him that she has understood that he has understood. The movie ends with them embracing each other.

In ‘Aandhi’ (1974)he enacts a hotelier married to a politician enacted by Suchitra Sen as Gayartri Devi .The movie depicts  how differences in ambition or outlook separate people but still the thread or bond of love remain. He is most principled in not getting involved in politics and first expressed great resentment but later compromises. Great skill was revealed in displaying the contrast of character with his wife who was a politician. His role with great subtlety blends humour, anger and sadness. I can’t forget the conviction of his dialogue when expressing his rage at his wife neglecting family duties to pursue her political careerist ambitions and his fury to be used in political work or the hotel venue to be used as a propaganda patform.On the other hand the grace or love he projects when going along with his wife to bid her farewell for going to her political meeting is touching.

In ‘Angoor’  (1982)he plays a double role which is a copy of ‘A Comedy of errors’ .With no difference in the facial features the audience could adjudicate the difference within the two characters because of Sanjeev’s great acting mastery.

Plot of ‘Angoor ‘ from Wikepdia

The film is about two pairs of identical twins separated at birth and how their lives go haywire when they meet in adulthood. Raj Tilak (Utpal Dutt) and his wife (Shammi)are on a trip with their twin sons, both of whom they call Ashok. Since they look the same, they should be called the same, is Mr Tilak’s reasoning. As fate would have it, they adopt another set of twins, both of whom they call Bahadur. An unfortunate accident then divides the family, leaving both parents with one child out of each pair of twins.

A few years later, Ashok (Sanjev Kumar) is married to Sudha (Moushumi Chaterjee )and Bahadur (Deven Verma)is married to Prema (Aruna Irani ). They all stay together with Sudha’s younger sister Tanu (Deepti Naval ) Into their lives enter the other Ashok, a detective novel aficionado, and Bahadur.. Now there are two Ashoks and two Bahadurs in the same city. This is more than their families, the Jeweller, the Taxi Driver and the Inspector can handle.

In ‘Trishul'(1978)he did great justice to the portrayal of a construction magnate in dealing with a range of situations and characters. I can conceive very few actors do as much justice to the unscrupulous and ruthless nature of a builder or the events that create a turning point in his life at the conclusion.

In ‘Mausam’ (1975) in poetic style he conveys romance with a woman and later her daughter, twenty five years later. It is difficult to do justice to the subtlety of his expressions which brilliantly blend like a painting. In truly classical style Sanjeen exhibits retribution giving vibrationsof reading a classic epic of Emily Bronte.Mausam is the dramatic love story of Dr. Amarnath Gill, who falls for Chanda, the daughter of a local healer, Harihar Thapa, when visiting Drajeeling to prepare for his medical exams. Then he has to leave back to Kolkata for his final exams. He promises Chanda to return, though he never keeps his promise. Twenty-five years later, he returns as a wealthy man and searches for Chanda and her father. He learns that Harihar has died and that Chanda was married to a crippled old man. She gave birth to a daughter, became insane and died. Finding Chanda’s daughter, Kajli, he sees that she closely resembles her mother and later discovers that after having been molested by her mother’s brother-in-law, she ended up at a brothel. Amarnath had no choice but to buy her from the brothel and he takes Kajli home and tries to change her into a well-refined woman to make up for what he did to Chanda. Unaware that Amarnath is indirectly responsible for her mother’s death, Kajli begins to fall in love with him. One day she is reminded of who she is and where she came from. Dressed back into to her old revealing clothes as a prostitute she instigates Amarnath to throw her out, she goes back to the brothel. There the madam convinced her that Amarnath loves her and she should go back to him as he loves, giving her a respectable life. Khajli goes back to him awakening him in the night where she tries to embrace him. Amarnath always seeing her as a replica of Chanda and a daughter figure. Disgusted, Amarnath reveals to Khajli, he is the man that his mother waited all those years for and then went mad. Khajli upset runs away. The next morning Amarnath all packed up, leaving to go home, happens upon Khajli standing in the woods, with a picture of him when he was younger hidden behind her back. Khajli tells him it is his fault that her mother went mad and died and she becoming a prostitute. He tells her that yes he came back to this place to ask for her mother’s forgiveness and maybe it’s too late for Chanda but would she forgive him and be his daughter They then they drive off together, home.(Plot taken from Wikepedia)

In ‘Naye Din Naye Rat’ (1974)he enacts nine  different characters, which  no actor could ever have done in his time. One can hardly believe that it was Sanjeev Kumar who played all the characters, That feat was reminiscent of seeing seven different monuments from a sculptor displaying such variance that would find it hard to believe that it was sculpted by the same person. Taking acting skill to regions of the sublime or areas not traversed he does complete justice to the evolution of the plot . To me he is at his best when enacting a drunken lout in a brothel ,psychiatrist Dr Kruparam. and a dreaded bandit.Jaya Bahaduri as Sushma believes that she is too young to get married, but her father, Lalla Banarsilal insists, and she runs away. Her adventures take her to a lonely wealthy widower with a cute daughter named Guddi; a drunken lout in a brothel; Dr. Kruparam, a psychiatrist, who admits her in his mental hospital; a dreaded bandit who has killed his tormentor, cut him into pieces and fed them to birds, and who still on a killing spree; Pandit Gorakhnath who lives a double life – as a priest and as a smuggler; a leper Dhanraj, who once was a very wealthy man, but is now shunned by everyone; a transvestite stage actor; and a hunter who saves Sushma’s life by shooting dead a man-eating lion. As things spiral out of control for Sushma, there is yet one more male she has to meet, and it is this meeting that will change her life even more.Sanjeev Kumar enacts the roles of  as Anand / (Swami Rahasyanand / Mr. Sarang : Same character with different names) / Seth Dhanraj / Sher Singh / Fulkunvar / Four Other Roles.(plot from Wikepedia)

.In ‘Sholay’ (1975) as the Thakur he enacts he reveals intensity reminiscent of a storm in full flow and when seeking vengeance against dacoit Gabbar Singh simmers anger at it’s boiling point. When dealing with the dacoits or adressing the villagers his eyes virtual tell the story, as few actors ever could. One of the best acting performances blending grief , anger and compassion.

Even if he had a small role in ‘Silcila'(1981) he conveys great poignancy in his love towards Jaya Badhuri, giving the film a crucial shape.

In ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’(1977)with characteristic flair and  inherent detachment he portrays a Nobleman Mirza Sajjad Ali. playing a chess game with  Saed Jaffrey as Mirza Roshan Ali in the princely state of Awadh. The British are just on the verge of annexing the princely state of Awadh during the 1857 rebellion. The chess players seem completely aloof from the mutiny, being so engrossed in the game. Few actors could portray the character of a Noblemen being engrossed so deeply in a game of chess and remaining completely unruffled

Amjad khan plays the ruling Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. He is a languid artist and poet, no longer in command of events and unable to effectively oppose the British demand for his throne. Parallel to this wider drama is the personal (and humorous) tale of two rich, indolent noblemen of this kingdom, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali. Inseparable friends, the two nobles are passionately obsessed with the game of chess. Both effectively neglect their wives and fail to fight the takeover of their kingdom by the East India company. Instead, they escape their harangued wives and responsibilities, fleeing from Lucknow to play chess in a tiny village untouched by greater events. Ray’s basic theme in the film is the message that the self centeredness, detachment and cowardice of India’s ruling classes catalysed the annexation of Awadh by a handful of British officials. (Plot from Wikipedia)


In my view Sanjeev ranks amongst the top 3-4 actors of all time in Bollywood.I am convinced as a pure actor he surpassed any star of his time, be it Rajesh Khanna ,Dharmendra or Amitabh Bachan.His contenders for the no 1 spot of all time are Dilip Kumar,Naseerudin Shah and the late Balraj Sahni.

For pure intensity arguably Dilip Kumar surpassed him ,particularly in tragic characters.Sanjeev also hardly portrayed the common man as much as the late Balraj Sahni .Nasseerudin Shah posessed a greater content of mischief or comical sense in his characters. ‘At times his acting revealed tendencies of inhibition unlike Dilip Kumar or Balraj Sahni.It is pertinent that Sanjeev has not played roles like Dilip Kumar or Balraj Sahni and to an extent Naseerudin Shah or Amitabh Bachan.Their best roles revealed more conviction. Sanjeev simply lacked the star aura or ‘X’ factor of a Bolywood icon.

Sanjeev also paid scant attention to his looks and his features hardly warranted that of a great screen personality. Thus he totally lacked the suave of a Dev Anand or Rajesh Khanna.Thus it made him loose out to picking the roles given to fellow star Amitabh Bachan like in ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ or ‘Deewar.

I would have loved to see Sanjeev play roles like Amitabh Bachan played in ‘Black’ or ‘Cheeni Kum’ or earlier Dilip Kumar played in ‘Ganga Jamuna’, ‘Leader’, or ‘Madhumati’ or Balraj Sanhi in ‘Kabuliwala ‘ or Do  Bhiga Zameen.”

Considering his great acting prowess I feel the roles he played did not do justice to Sanjeev Kumar.Inspite of enacting a huge spectrum of characters he did not champion the cause of a common man as Dilip Kumar,Balraj Sahni or Amitabh Bachan   or carry classic films. I regret he often played a second fiddle character to stars like Dharmendra or Amitabh Bachan. I wonder why he was never offered negative roles like that of a dacoit .I would have loved to see Sanjeev play roles like Amitabh Bachan played in ‘Black’ or ‘Cheeni Kum’ or earlier Dilip Kumar played in ‘Ganga Jamuna’, ‘Leader’, or ‘Madhumati’ or Balraj Sanhi in ‘Kabuliwala ‘ or Do  Bhiga Zameen.”

For pure finesse or artistic grace Dilip Kumar or Balraj Sahni surpassed Sanjeev Kumar. However for pure acting craft by  a whisker Sanjeev overshadowed both of them. For pure acting malleability only Naseerudin Shah was Sanjeev’s rival.

Without doubt he had the best chemistry with actress Jaya Bahaduri ,even better than her husband actor Amitabh Bachan.His pairing with her in ‘Anamika’, ‘Koshish’ and Naye din Naye Raat ‘ will permanently be inscribed in the annals of film history.

In the modern era he would have had to give attention to his fitness or appearance. Overall it is unfair to compare as arguably none of these acting greats may have equalled Sanjeev Kumar in his roles ,with the possible exception of Dilip Kumar.I can never forget the great praise both Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachan paid to Sanjeev while Shatrugan Singh classed him as the best actor ever.

With the crass commercialism prevalent today it is possible that the genius of Sanjeev would not have blossomed. It is of great regret that the modern giant Naseerudin Shah hardly holds Sanjeev Kumar in high esteem as other stars of yesteryear.

I would love to have seen Sanjeev play the roles Naseerudin Shah or Paresh Rawal played in the last two decades’ also contemplate how he could have performed in progressive films with Socialist themes portraying the toiling people  .leftist or progressive filmmakers’ could have utilised him like Shabana Azmi.Smita Patil or Om Puri were.He also missed out on playing a negative role.

Sadly he was a miser in his personal life and never married. He first lived in a chawl in Girgaum but later shifted to ‘Perin Villa’ where he lived with his younger brother and his family. He had just one room to himself. He died in the same room which he called his ‘Adda’. Actor Sachin was the only man with him when he breathed his last. He was the master’s closest cinematic friend. Agrguably what killed him was the hereditary trait in his family with his father and brothers expiring at a young age.Sanjeev was also prone to overeat, drink and smoke heavily.

He was a very mild-mannered and soft-spoken man, but I could also lose his temper and could be very nasty and even abusive at times. (Quoting Ali Peter John ) I have no doubt that Sanjeev had shades of arrogance.

Ironic that such a sensitive man on the screen in real life stood completely aloof from the causes of the common man and never raised his voice against political injustice. Arguably it was the failure of progressive democratic forces to win over such talented artists.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has travelled around India and written on blogs like ‘Democracy ad Class Struggle’, ‘Ottos War Room’ and ‘Frontier Weekly.’ Mainly written on politics of mass line in Communist Movement , Maoism, peasant struggles but also on blogs on Cricket and films.



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