Sanjeev Kumar: The deftly accomplished actor with a beguiling lightness of touch 

By Mayank Chhaya –

Today happens to be the 38th death anniversary of Sanjeev Kumar, one of India’s most deftly accomplished actors.  

By the time he died in Bombay on November 6, 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 Kumar. It is ironic that the only time I saw him was on the day he died, lying between two slabs of ice on the floor of his apartment in Bandra/Khar neighborhood of Bombay. I had gone to report on his funeral. 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. “He was effortless,” he said. 

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. His body was dressed in white kurta-pajama, and he looked serene despite his congenital heart condition having finally felled him.  

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 between two slabs of ice has remained etched in my mind after 38 years. 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 in his performances 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 typecast 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. 

For a more contemporary comparison, Kumar was to his generation what the late Irrfan Khan became to his. The delightful languidness of his body language and gestures often belied his extraordinary talent. It was as obvious in the master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi film ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, 1977, where Sanjeev Kumar played the role of Mirza Sajjad Ali, a decadent Nawab of Lucknow, as it was in another hugely celebrated filmmaker, Gulzar’s 1982 Shakespearean comedy ‘Angoor’ where he played a double role of identical twins.  

I wish I had met him under livelier circumstances and away from the melting ice slabs. 

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