Few would disagree that Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the greatest character actors of his times. Hoffman’s death prompted us to think of another great character actor of his times much closer to home. His name was Harihar Jethalal Zariwala, better known as Sanjeev Kumar.
Sanjeev Kumar was a highly prolific actor and did never mind playing characters across themes and beyond his age. Some say he was highly profligate with his talent as an actor. But Sanjeev Kumar’s forte was always a risk. Even when playing a stage role of an old man in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, when he was not quite 22, he looked like a wreck; a quivering geriatric, his face and body doing most of the talking than his makeup. His stellar performances and nuanced portrayals caught Gulzar‘s eye and he cast him in few of the most memorable roles played out in Hindi cinema. Kumar, who died at the tender age of 47, just like Hoffman, made his girth, his conviction and his theatrically hardened on-screen persona a package of an epic combination.
He will be best remembered for his multi-layered role in Sholay where he brings forth a combination of ferocity, helplessness, and guilt. But it is for the roles in movies Dastak and Koshish he won the prestigious and coveted National Film Award for Best Actor, the latter movie depicting a life of deaf and mute couple and their struggle of carving an honest life in a desensitized society, some say one of the best portrayals of a handicapped character in Hindi film history.
Kumar was born in Surat, Gujrat to a Gujarati Jain family. They eventually shifted to Mumbai in search of greener pastures. The family was always battling to make ends meet and lived in a Chawl. Like all good actors of his time, Kumar enrolled in a theater school, starting with IPTA in Mumbai and later Indian National Theater. Perhaps Kumar was a product of the skills-oriented training offered by the theater schools or perhaps it was his own will and method to excel, it is hard to pinpoint quite what made Kumar such a great actor. Neither do we really know much about Kumar’s early life and what prompted him to take the vocation of acting.
In the industry where matinee idol looks prevail, Kumar was an average but pleasant looking personality. He let his acting do most of the talking. He was a man of formidable intellect and toughness, and never deterred taking on difficult roles. One quick look at his choice of movies such as Mausam, Khilona, Koshish, Angoor, Aandhi and Shatranj ke Khiladi affirms that he was an actor of all seasons.
People say that Kumar had a premonition about his early death, but Kumar’s foresight was based on the fact that his family was suffering from a rare strain of congenital heart condition. Many of his family members died at an early age. Some say that perhaps with this knowledge Kumar never married. But the facts point to his almost Heathcliff-esque love for the actress Hema Malini. Malini never reciprocated Kumar’s love. It was an intractable love triangle, Sulakshana Pandit, another actress of high caliber, in love with Kumar and Kumar in love with Hema Malini. Kumar was never able to commit to Pandit and that left her devastated, unrequited and perhaps unfinished, and she never married.
Sanjeev Kumar died on November 6, 1985. He left the Hindi film industry starved of many more stellar performances. His astonishing performances had become a benchmark and a warning figure for young actors. He was one of those figures who leave us mesmerized by his performances so much so that we wonder if he hasn’t gone through all the emotions in reality in similar situations. He is one of those who make us ponder the terrible stress of the art, its curse, and its inspiration.