'An Actor's Actor': An insightful biography of a great actor, Sanjeev Kumar

The authors trace and track the trajectory of Sanjeev Kumar’s life and & times not in a fan boy manner, but with perspective, sensitivity and soul

Book Cover
Book Cover

Monojit Lahiri

There are innumerable actors but very few of this species remain unique, memorable, gone but never forgotten. We all know that! Bollywood is the acknowledged capital of Fantasy-ville, gifting the glamour-starved masses dazzling stars who wow the masses with their looks, charm, mannerisms, voice and flamboyant persona to get them hooked, big time. However, even in this surreal space, there are some rare actors who stand out and hold their own against these seemingly infallible luminaries by the sheer dint of their powerhouse acting.

As someone once pointed out with rare insight, stars ransack the vaults of a part with blow lamps, crowbars and gun powder. The actor is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination and thus is able to deliver without fuss or frippery. He does it by stealth, not sound n’ fury or armpit rhetoric and is therefore unlikely to leave any descendants. He is committed to illuminate the blind alleys of subtlety without blazing any trails. The actor, further, waves away awe with witty finger-wagging and deflects any impending holocaust with a casual shrug. His face, bereft of its virtuosity of make-up is a blank ... a zero. The characters he plays are injected hypodermically, not ceremoniously tattooed all over. The latter is the Star’s stock-in-trade and the actor has always stayed away from the larger-than-life gestures and external props feeding on nuance, the small print & sub-text.

Expanding on this theme, most movie stars lavish on us the power of their charisma, star-quality, the well-orchestrated and manipulated production and consumption of the ego. However, there is another route to immortality but any actor who dares follow this route must creatively be adventurous, courageous and fearless. He must hide in front of the camera, collapse his personality and confound audience expectations to re-make himself with each role. It is the radically opposite of star quality. He must borrow the props of anonymity and thus allow his transparency easy access to create his characters. His miniaturist method is made for the movies, because he and only he confidently knows that the camera will always find him, but never find him out!

Cut to the book. Zaveri and Batra have done a commendable job for two reasons. One, the book accurately, truthfully and insightfully present the largely unknown back-story of one of Bollywood’s - and India’s – truly gifted actor’s journey from obscurity to centre-stage. Two, it emphasises his relentless focus and agenda to be recognised, accepted, appreciated and respected as an actor first, a star later.

In star-centric Bollywood, actors have always lost out in the popularity polls to the glitzy, glossy stars; the audience-friendly creatures who blaze the neons. Be it Dilip-Balraj, SRK-Naseer, Salman-Nawaz, star power has always hi-jacked the buzz. Sanjeev Kumar is perhaps – arguably – the only actor who has held his own, both in multi-starrers and solo-projects. Be it Khilona, Anamika, Koshish, Manchali, Naya Din Nayee Raat, Mausam, Anubhav, Pati, Patna aur Woh, Angoor, Zindagi, Manoranjan ... or Sholay, Trishul, Vidhata, Silsila, Kala Pathar, Seeta aur Geeta, Shatranj Ki Khilari ... Sanjeev Kumar always stood out. Even minus his looks and physique hardly conforming to the requirements of a matinee idol [read: Rajesh, Amitabh, Vinod Khanna, Jitendra, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor], the paunchy actor crossed the rubicon, with passion and purpose and triumphed like very few others have.

The authors trace and track the trajectory of Sanjeev Kumar’s life and & times not in a fan boy manner, but with perspective, sensitivity and soul. From the changing of his name, Haribhai Jhariwala, the Gujarati stage actor to Sanjeev Kumar, the Bollywood aspirant; his unsung, unnoticed and unheralded entry into the industry with B-grade stunt films; his first cameo against the Emperor of Bollywood Dilip Kumar in Sangharsh [chronicled in an unmisssable, fascinating chapter entitled Jamnadas’s Sangharsh] and the terrific impact it made on the industry-wallahs and audiences; his subsequent steady rise in the industry in terms of name, fame and roles; his bonding and films with Gulzar; his awe of Bengali diva Suchitra Sen; his passionate affair with a co-star and popular leading lady of the time; it’s tragic end and subsequent heart-break; iconic multi-starrers he participated with memorable elan and grace; his eternal availability for soul-strip roles (which others wouldn’t dream of accepting) that challenged the artist in him; his health issues and slow, sad fade-out ... and of course alongside his role as a true, loving, caring son, brother, uncle and dutiful provider for his family, and a yaron ka yaar to his close friends like Shatrughan Sinha.

Over time and due to conditioning, our masses seemed to have internalised a value-system that champions the glam, dazzling, heroic, macho-hero as the standing dominant force. Sanjeev Kumar, through the alchemy of his magical observation, life-experience and imagination, repeatedly dented this template. Lots of stars with flimsy attainment have wormed their way into popular imagination, but as this book categorically indicates, few can match the effortless performance of an actor’s actor ... an unforgettable performer whom neither age can chill nor rival steal.

To the oldies, the book will bring a warm and nostalgic glow; To the new generation, an introduction to an actor who didn’t need the showy props of 6-pack or baritone. His 'Koshish' forever proved where he came from and where his place securely rests in the history of India’s and Bollywood movies.

Take a bow, Zaveri and Batra.

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