From playing the revengeful Thakur in Sholay, to a specially abled character in Koshish, his comedy in Angoor, helplessness in Khilona or his gravitas in Aandhi, Kumar was limitless.
“Haribhai stands tall – in a category all his own – because his audience was convinced that he could play anything. His work was testimony of that,” says filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra, in the recently released biography, ‘Sanjeev Kumar, the Actor We All Loved’ co-authored by his nephew Uday Jariwala and Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta. The memoir is an insight into the life and journey of the actor from struggle to stardom, with essays from his friends, colleagues and his family. While Sanjeev Kumar’s work has left an indelible mark in people’s hearts, not many know about the man behind the camera, and the book does just that.
Haribhai, as he was popularly known, started his career in theatre. His struggle to become an actor began in 1956, and while he did many author backed roles in films like Nishan (1965), Pati Patni (1966), Sunghursh (1968), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam (1969) it was LV Prasad’s Khilona in 1970, that cemented his place in Indian cinema.
He went from strength to strength in the years that followed, belting out hits like Parichay (1972), Anamika (1973), Aandhi (1975), Trishul (1978) and Silsila (1981) among others. Kumar was also known for his impeccable comic timing, and his close friend Gulzar tapped into his forte in the rib-tickling film Angoor (1982), which enjoys a cult status in Hindi cinema, even today.
Sanjeev Kumar’s co-stars and friends were often witness to his sense of humour. In the biography, Sharmila Tagore shares “He had a tremendous sense of humour. Once at the airport a fan came up to him excitedly and asked how his day was. He instantly put his arms around the man and started on a long explanation about his health. How he had not slept well because of something he had for dinner and went on to describe at length what it was and how that adversely affected his morning ablutions. By this time the man was struggling to escape. Finally I had to intervene. The poor man made a dash for his flight never to look back!”
While actors in that era were chasing stardom and leading roles, Sanjeev Kumar was only concerned about the characters he got to essay on screen, which is why perhaps he didn’t pay much attention to his increasing waistline. Putting on a few kilos never really bothered him, because he was competing with his acting prowess and never with his looks. In fact Kumar even had a sharply receding hairline towards his left, his hair was combed with a view to hide the spot.
Haribhai was known for his love for good food and drinks. The actor never entertained at his home, because non-vegetarian food was not permitted, but post pack up he was often spotted at his favourite city restaurants, or at his friend’s home. Co-star Moushumi Chatterjee remembers, “Dinners at my home were very common, and he made friends with my cook. So even if my husband and I weren’t at home, it didn’t prevent Jariwala from having a meal at my place.”
However, it was his fondness for the bottle that proved to be detrimental to his health in the long run.
Tanuja recalls, “Harry was unable to stop drinking once he started, but he was not the kind of person to drink and misbehave. If anything, he would go quiet after drinking. I just feel he got addicted very quickly.”
The actor, though single, enjoyed plenty of attention from the ladies. While he did have a few heartbreaks, he chose not to tie the knot.
His mother, whom he called Baa was very keen that he get married, and was perpetually on the look-out for his bride, however things never materialised towards the end. There is a lot written about his relationship with Dream Girl Hema Malini, when her mother had famously said “Hari’s too fat for my slim, beautiful daughter,” but it was his friendship with yesteryear actress Nutun that made a lot of noise, back in the day. The two met on the sets of Gauri (1968) and worked together again in Devi (1970). Nutan, who was then married to Rajnish Bahl, would be a regular visitor at Sanjeev Kumar’s home, and spent a lot of time with his family, including his Mother. Slowly their friendship got tongues wagging, and the media got a whiff of their alleged affair. Rumor has it that Nutan slapped Sanjeev Kumar publicly during the shoot of their film, after she read about their affair in a magazine. It is believed that she publicly humiliated him before the unit, on the insistence of her husband. Kumar refused to shoot for the film Devi, unless Nutan apologised to the actor.
Sanjeev Kumar succumbed to heart ailment in 1985, at the age of 47, leaving behind grieving family, friends, colleagues and fans.
It is believed that fans thronged his residence in Bandra to pay their last respect, and along with his brother Kishore, and nephew Uday Jariwala, it was Amitabh Bachchan, Shammi Kapoor and Shatrughan Sinha who performed the last rites.
Sanjeev Kumar is an institution for actors even today… In the foreword to the biography, Paresh Rawal reveals, “I would love to reprise Koshish someday! Maybe in my own way and maybe as a tribute to Haribhai.”