Monday, August 06, 2018

Two faces of Haribhai, a.k.a. Sanjeev Kumar

[Inadvertently continuing the mother theme, with this Mint Lounge piece about my mom's favourite actor. In the early years of blogging, I had many run-ins with Sanjeev Kumar fans because I mocked his Great Actor status. Actually, I was restrained and self-censoring compared to my friend Shamya Dasgupta, who often took over my comments threads and wrote sentences like: “Because Ray was the director, even a fool like Saeed Jaffrey acted well in Shatranj ke Khiladi. Sanjeev Kumar didn't have a choice but to do well."

Anyway, here’s an effort to say some vaguely nice things about SK

When an acquaintance mentioned recently that Sanjeev Kumar’s 80th birth anniversary had just passed, and wondered why there was no biography of this actor, so admired in his time, I had two contrary responses.

The first went: yes, of course it would be great to have a well-researched book about “Haribhai” (as Kumar, born Harihar Jariwala, was affectionately known). Movie-star biographies – good ones, bad ones – appear nearly every month now, some of them about celebrities who are still in their prime. The recency bias irks me. I often encounter young film buffs who know little about film history, and Kumar is among the old-timers whose work is seen as quaint or stodgy. It’s easy to feel defensive on his behalf.

But the second reaction was a kneejerk one, rooted in my own less-than-kind feelings about Kumar the performer. In fact, a lot of my online time used to be spent mocking the poor man for what I felt was an inflated reputation. One enjoyable blog exchange – nearly 15 years ago – involved a friend and me taking on a Sanjeev Kumar devotee in a thread that became more hysterical and less sincere as it went on. (“Just for the record, Hari didn’t look too bad when he was playing the dhol while his wife made out with Amitabh to Rang Barse,” my friend conceded, tongue-in-cheek.)

Much of our trolling was calculated, aimed at driving our victim into paroxysms of righteous indignation. But it was also rooted in real annoyance about an actor getting disproportionate credit for his choice of roles, for “opting to” playing elderly character parts rather than “heroes”. I had grown up with the idea – expressed by sermonizing adults and by film magazines – that Kumar was a Real Actor, while others were Just Stars. Superb performances by his more glamorous co-stars (Dharmendra and Hema Malini in Sholay, for instance) were downgraded or taken for granted (while SK’s Thakur got all the plaudits for his gritted teeth and trembling lips). This was a simplistic celebration of “subdued” or “understated” over “showy” or “flamboyant”.

Another factor, for me at least, was the tedium generated by numerous bad SK films that continued to be released posthumously right up to the 1990s. I was particularly annoyed by the final scene of Professor ki Padosan, released in 1993: Amitabh Bachchan makes a cameo appearance to say a few nice things about Kumar, then solemnly places a garland over the actor’s photo – all this right at the end of a slapstick comedy, effectively taking the wind out of the audience’s sails and making us feel like we had to stand up for the national anthem.

Which is why it’s fun now to recall another SK avatar: the much younger, mid-1960s version in such films as Nishan and Ali Baba aur 40 Chor. To watch those costume dramas is to see a lithe, beaming young man gamely doing whatever he could with conventional leading roles. These are tacky films by most measures, and I wouldn’t ask you to watch them in their entirety, but look at some scenes like his first appearance in Nishan: an adolescent prince is seen riding and singing along, and then a dissolve gives us the adult version (played by SK), fitted in period costume, long curly hair blowing in the wind.

I’m not saying SK was great in those early roles. He often overdoes things spectacularly (watch him playing drunk while Helen sings “Aap ki Adaon Pe”; the scene at approximately 40 seconds in the YouTube video is unintentional-comedy gold). But in his better moments, he shows personality, panache and a sense of humour, things that faded in later years as he adopted the somber, old-man persona. I feel there’s an element of post-facto myth-building in the idea (often expressed in discussions about SK) that he always set out to be an Actor rather than a Hero. It’s more likely that Kumar would have taken whatever cards were dealt to him by fate and the box-office, but for some combination of intangible reasons, he never found large-scale popularity as a dashing lead. Maybe it’s because he did the wrong films early in his career, or wasn’t conventionally good-looking in the way that Dharmendra or Shashi Kapoor were, or didn’t have the visceral appeal that Rajesh Khanna rode such a wave on. From the mid-70s on, corpulence (brought on partly by alcohol and, rumour has it, romantic rejections) also played a role in his taking on restrained character parts.

Orson Welles once perceptively noted that hamming shouldn’t be synonymous with over-acting. “Ham actors are not all of them strutters and fretters […] a lot of them are understaters, flashing winsome little smiles over the teacups, or scratching their T-shirts.”

Sanjeev Kumar could, at different stages in his career, be both varieties of ham actor, but there was also a middle zone made up of many periods of grace, fueled by scripts and directors – most notably Gulzar, to a lesser extent Basu Bhattacharya, on one occasion Satyajit Ray – who tapped the best of him. Overall I preferred him in lighter parts — in fine comedies like Angoor and Laakhon ki Baat, of course, but also his Satyakam role as the hero’s boisterous friend. Even a non-fan like me can acknowledge that in such films, he found a character’s pulse without being either self-consciously subdued or theatrically over the top.

So, a biography? Bring it on. Just don’t turn it into a Rajkumar Hirani-helmed film with Aamir Khan playing SK as an alien who crashes down into the big bad world of Hindi films and improves it with gravitas.


[Here, in the interests of 'balance', is a piece where I say appreciative things about Kumar - in Gulzar's Koshish. And here's a post about SK and MacMohan - who would play Sambha in Sholay - sharing space together as young supporting actors 10 years before Sholay]


  1. So Sanjeev Kumar was an overrated actor! Interesting that you compare his performance with that of Hema and Dharamendra.
    You are generous in your critique. Even though you are not a fan, you have liked him in a few films. This is indeed kind of you.

  2. Oh God never thought someone will be able to break the idol so well in a single post!!

  3. Oh God never thought someone will be able to break the idol so well in a single post!!

  4. Superb write up, Jai. It's hilarious how you demystify all the popular notions about Sanjeev Kumar. And I agree with you that he was over celebrated. For example a lot of people remember him in Mausam but Sharmila Tagores performance is forgotten, who I thought was superb in the role.

  5. Sermonizing adults, indeed! I've also heard multiple adults say that he was the only original actor of his generation, the rest apparently modeled themselves on Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor or Shammi Kapoor.
    "Sanjeev Kumar could, at different stages in his career, be both varieties of ham actor"
    Off the top of my head I couldn't think of any 'understated' performances by him. Which ones were you referring to? When I think of his hamming, I'm always reminded of close-ups of his popping eyes (trishool and sholay). I always thought that he couldn't resist doing actorly things in his more serious roles, and was unable to find any moments of relief (pun intended).

  6. Hi everyone,
    thanks for the comments. Just putting up this boiler-plate comment here (and on other posts) to say: I have been missing lots of "to be moderated" comments because for some reason they are no longer coming to my email.
    Will have to figure out what the problem is -- I think it may be that Blogger's spam-detection is no longer too good, with the result that literally hundreds of spam comments every week are going into the "to be moderated" folder, and then they don't get sent to Gmail because there are too many of them. I just had to sift through hundreds of recent comments on the Blogger dashboard to find the genuine ones, which I have now published.

  7. He is my fav. He was awesome. Desi Marlon Brando.
    The actor is only as great as the times he worked in. Directors he got. roles he selected.
    If Prithvi Raj Kapoor lived today, he would be a completely different actor.
    SK had lot of potential and maybe it wasn't fully exploited.
    Having said that, SK was theatre trained actor. Hamming, serious, understated, overacting, humor...he could do it all, so versatile and was very handsome in those black and white movies. He was like a clay in the hands of a director. if the director is bad, even AmitabhBachchan cannot save the day. So we cannot point to that drunken scene. There are so many other with Jayab or Suchitra, where he is outstanding. Sholay was commercial film. Look at hema-dharam in that movie. Jaya and bigb had almost no lines and they are above par actors. IF SK didn't do the proper hindi cinema commercial acting in sholay and over the top gabbar, then sholay wouldn't be sholay!!
    And the reason your mum liked him (good taste apart), he was quite hot and sexy. Watch this: