Void Sanjeev Kumar left yet to be filled

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For an actor who failed his initial screen test with such flourish that it prompted his prospective director to proclaim that he rather give up on his dream, Sanjeev Kumar did end up with more than just an impressive body of work.

Maybe it was just nerves getting the better of a young Sanjeev Kumar for the man was a well-known theatre thespian by the time films happened. Perhaps, it was the daunting thought of being a leading man that weighed on someone who was physically the most unlikely to succeed as Hindi film hero; but not only did he succeed, he managed to become a legend in his own lifetime.
Looking at the myth of Sanjeev Kumar almost three decades after his death one realises that there was much more to the man than just being the iconic actor. Kumar not only started in the mid-1960s but also managed to stand out when the trio of Dev Anand-Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar was still going strong in spite of the second generation of post-Independence stars such as Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Raj Kumar and Shammi Kapoor dotting the landscape.
He might have taken a few films but for a newcomer he didn’t show any roughness when he squared off with Dilip Kumar in Sangharsh (1968), a film popularly mistaken for his debut. Born Hari Jariwala, Kumar quickly became a name to reckon with after films like Shikar (1968) and Dastak (1970), which fetched him a National Award as well.
Like Balraj Sahni with whom he shared a common connection through the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Kumar always remained an actor irrespective of the star tag that was attached to him in some form or the other. Sahni was blessed with good looks, and even though he might not have fancied himself as hero he had the persona to be considered one. Sanjeev Kumar on the other hand lacked Sahni’s panache but somehow ended up becoming a leading man in every sense of the word when compared to his more illustrious IPTA comrade.
The one common factor that bound the two was that they both could give the biggest stars of their days a run for their money. Kumar’s mere presence could unsettle Rajesh Khanna, a bigger star by every possible stretch of imagination, and drive the phenomenon to do unthinkable things to reassure himself.
In an interview circa 1975, screenwriter Salim Khan said that Kumar would be the best actor and had to deal with Khanna’s wrath who confronted him to know if the writer thought Kumar to be better than him. Unlike any other actor before or after him, Kumar wasn’t shy of acting. He couldn’t care less for his conspicuous paunch while crooning Thande, thande paani se nahana chahiye (Pati, Patni Aur Woh), or whether he played father (Parichay (1972) to the actress he played lover (Koshish (1972) in the same year.
The length of his roles never bothered him and neither did the fact that his character was grey (Trishul, 1978) or black (Jaani Dushman, 1979) or dressed in jester motley (Raja Aur Rank, 1968). But the thing that truly separates him from everyone else in Hindi cinema is that he was the last link between the two broad segments of popular Hindi cinema. Having been around the halcyon days of both Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar saw the two grow from relatively unknowns to superstars. And he was at much at ease following their superstardom as he was before it.
Similarly, he remained comfortable with Dilip Kumar when he was at his peak and then later in films like Vidhata (1982) where the erstwhile brightest star of Hindi cinema had graduated to playing a character role.
Kumar even felt at home with the then young guns such as Anil Kapoor (Humare Tumhare, 1979), Mithun Chakraborty (Hum Paanch, 1980), Sanjay Dutt (Vidhata) and Jackie Shroff (Hero, 1983).
In between all this, he struck a poised balance between playing the hero, the villain, the father, the elder brother and sometimes just the regular guy. His acting style was a throwback on the yesteryears but his approach to roles transformed with chameleonic ease. It could very well be this familiarity that Kumar seems irreplaceable 28 years after his death.
Virtually every popular Hindi film actor found someone who could resemble him or her across generations, in fact, the bigger a star the easier it became to find replacements but Sanjeev Kumar might be the only exception. There were some who thought Alok Nath, who at 30 played Haveli Ram in the epic TV serial Buniyaad (1986), would fill the vacuum that Sanjeev Kumar’s death created in 1985.
Others saw Paresh Rawal as the answer, but barring a Gujarat connection and the odd character that Rawal played over the years there’s barely anything about him that resembles Sanjeev Kumar. Even Boman Irani, arguably closest to being his generation’s answer to Balraj Sahni or Sanjeev Kumar, is marred by personal as well as external limitations.
None of them could convincingly do an Aandhi (1975) or Mausum (1975) or even a Manchali (1973). What’s more, no leading star then or even now could possibly think of doing what Sanjeev Kumar managed with more ease than a fish would required to swim.

Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning Indian writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience in print and electronic media

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