By Mayank Chhaya-
Sanjeev Kumar, one of India’s most deftly accomplished actors, would have turned 85 today. By the time he died in November 1985 at 47, he was already regarded as a truly major figure of Hindi cinema whose range as an artist was remarkable. Perhaps unlike any other actor of his generation Kumar, who was born Harihar Jhariwala, exuded a lightness of touch and beguiling lack of effort in his performances.
I never met Sanjeev Kumar. It is ironic that the only time I saw him was on the day he died on November 6, 1985, laid between two slabs of ice on the floor of his house in Bandra/Khar neighborhood of Bombay. I had gone to report on his funeral.
It is a strange feeling seeing dead in real life someone whom you have known only as fictional characters on screen. There was that briefest of moments when on seeing his body in his Pali Hill house I wondered what if he was giving a shot of someone who had just died in a movie. He looked at peace in white kurta-pajama. If there was any hint of trauma, it was by the side of his eyes where his muscles seemed tense. (Yes, I do observe life minutely.)
Before I went in, I had speculated which scene from his long and distinguished career I might remember when I saw him. Nothing in particular came to mind but as soon as I saw him a mélange of his many smiles flashed across. Not that people remember him for his many smiles, but it always struck me that he had that warm, motive-less smile of the kind he actually seemed to feel first himself. Of course, it could also be explained away as just acting.
The grandees of Hindi cinema were filing in to pay their respects to one of India’s most deftly accomplished actors. By the time he died he was already regarded as a truly major figure of Hindi cinema whose range as an artist was remarkable. Perhaps unlike any other actor of his generation Kumar, who was born Harihar Jhariwala, exuded a lightness of touch and beguiling lack of effort in his performances.
I vividly remember talking to the superstar Rajesh Khanna who had come to pay his last respects to a “dear” colleague and whom he considered “formidable.” “Haribhai was an actor’s actor,” Khanna told me.
I also remember having done an obit for the now defunct Blitz weekly newspaper where I said something to the effect that Kumar appeared as if he was in the midst of giving a shot for a death scene. I spoke to his sister, whose name escapes me right now, who made it a point to tell me that no male members of her immediate family had lived beyond 50. Kumar’s brothers Nikul and Kishore had both died before 50.
The image of Kumar’s body in the midst of two slabs of ice has remained etched in my mind after 30 years. It is a bit odd that my only personal vantage point on him is the way he died. He was easily one of India’s finest actors of any generation. Remarkably shorn of the showiness of his craft, Kumar was extraordinarily skilled both as a dramatic performer as well as a comedic artist. I do not recall any of his major roles where Kumar seemed to labor. There was a lack of hurry about him as well as an absence of rehearsal. He was not necessarily spontaneous, but he seemed to have internalized his craft so much that one rarely, if at all, saw effort.
Kumar steadfastly avoided being typed and did several roles which were far beyond his age and contrary to commercial intuition. It is a testimony to his talent that despite having routinely defied conventions of Hindi cinema he acted in 163 films, many of which were commercial and critical successes. In a span of 25 years in the profession Kumar averaged a little over six films a year. For an actor who never really focused on physical attributes it was a highly impressive run all of which had to do with his abilities as an actor. His sister joked about how being from Surat, a city in Gujarat famous for its vegetarian cuisine, Kumar had an irresistible weakness for food and that showed in his girth.
I would rather not go into his filmography other than saying that it bears witness to his brilliant gifts as an actor of a very high caliber. Not a cut-throat competitor, Kumar enjoyed a strong series of assignments throughout his career. He was someone who could grab your attention without saying a word on screen. I think he would have done very well now at the current juncture in the history of Hindi cinema with the kind of roles actors get to do. Although he never really enjoyed the kind of celebrity that some of his contemporaries did, within the actors’ fraternity he remained a much-admired artist.
It was a matter of personal joy for me that the great Satyajit Ray cast him in the role of one of the two hedonistic nawabs in his 1977 movie ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’. As expected, Kumar did a quietly efficient job of it. There was a great deal left in him as an actor. I suspect with some luck he could have broken into global cinema.
I wish I met him under livelier circumstances and away from the melting ice slabs.