He died too soon — at the age of 47, on November 6, 1985. Much before he could actually look like some of the older characters he portrayed on the silver screen.
Had he lived on, Sanjeev Kumar would have enriched cinema even more. However, his active years (1960 to 1985) as an actor have given us a treasure in the form of the unique films he worked in.
We never got to see him reach the age of many of the characters he played. (Photo: YouTube)
From a very slim youngster in the year 1960 (Hum Hindustani), he went on a wonderful, magical journey to become one of the biggest names in Hindi cinema, right in the league of Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar. In the film Sangharsh (1968), Sanjeev Kumar caught the audience’s attention, as he shared screen space with the legendary Dilip Kumar. With Khilona (1970), he was a popular star.
His films with renowned director and writer Gulzar (they did nine films together) are among the best that Sanjeev Kumar did. These include Parichay, Koshish, Aandhi, Mausam, Angoor and Namkeen. Gulzar brought out the best in him — plumbing the depths of the actor’s personality and psyche, and placing him amid emotional landscapes that were just what he would thrive in.
Aandhi and Mausam (both released in 1975) saw Sanjeev at his peak. That was a very special year for him. Both films of Gulzar portrayed him first as a young man and then as a middle-aged, greying man. I often wonder whether any other actor could have done justice to these complex roles. I believe that Sanjeev Kumar suited these roles perfectly, and vice-versa.
Sanjeev did some of his best work with Gulzar, and Aandhi was among his finest performances. (Photo: YouTube)
My personal favourite has been Mausam — which is based on AJ Cronin’s 1961 novel The Judas Tree, and has at its heart the mingled emotions of nostalgia and regret. Each expression of the actor is worth watching again and again, as he plays Dr. Amarnath Gill, who comes back to Darjeeling after a gap of 20 years to look for a girl he had fallen in love with as a student of medicine. Throughout the film, almost each frame depicts how much he regrets not having come back when he should have, to marry the girl. The film is, I feel, the best of Gulzar and Sanjeev Kumar, with Madan Mohan’s haunting music adding to its sense of nostalgia and romance. A true classic.
Sholay too came in 1975 and we saw Sanjeev Kumar in his epic role as Thakur Baldev Singh. Since then, people always recognise him as Sholay’s Thakur! He towered over the many other well-known actors who were part of Sholay.
Sholay's Thakur shone among the galaxy of stars in the movie. (Photo: YouTube)
His voice modulation and the fluidity of his face distinguished him from other actors of Hindi cinema. His voice quality was matchless. A resonant and dreamy voice, it had a beautiful quiver to it when he became emotional.
His roles in Yash Chopra’s Trishul and Silsila also exhibited how he could beautifully underplay, and give immensely controlled performances .Who can forget the gentle Dr Anand of Silsila and RK Gupta of Trishul? In both films, he was working with the great Amitabh Bachchan, and not for a moment did he fade even a bit before the star of the millennium.
It says a lot about his versatility that he played Jaya Bhaduri’s husband in Koshish and her father in Parichay, with equal ease and grace (both these films came in 1972).
It may be interesting to mention here that Sanjeev Kumar and Guru Dutt were born on the same day, 13 years apart. Sanjeev Kumar was born on July 9, 1938 while Guru Dutt was born in 1925. One must note that there is a definite similarity in their approach to acting. Sanjeev Kumar, in a way, carried forward the seriousness and depth that Guru Dutt lent to the craft.
While being able to work in an off-beat film like Dastak and bringing alive the character so well, Sanjeev Kumar could perform brilliantly in commercial films such as Seeta aur Geeta, and Angoor, which was based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.
In Koshish (1975), he was Jaya Bachcan's husband. In the same year, he would play her father. (Photo: YouTube)
His comic timing can be seen at its best in Angoor, Manchali and Pati, Patni aur Woh. One should not forget Satyakam (1969), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, which gave us a taste of what would Sanjeev Kumar’s career have been in the future. He plays Naren, the friend of Satyapriya Acharya, played by Dharmendra. Both actors gave memorable performances in this idealistic film.
In serious roles, in comic roles, roles of a young man or an older person, Sanjeev Kumar excelled each time he appeared on screen. He lived his roles. And no doubt, he was a born actor.
Today and always, people will watch the classics he acted in and wonder at the amazing talent and versatility of this man who bid us good bye too soon.