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How Sanjeev Kumar ended up playing old men

Unconventionally handsome with a cherubic smile, Sanjeev Kumar is remembered more for playing weary, wise, sometimes cynical gentlemen on screen. On his 31st death anniversary, an anecdote from filmmaker Gulzar sheds light on how he ended up as Hindi cinema's perennial oldie.

Shriram Iyengar

When Sanjeev Kumar was cast as the aged Thakur burning with a desire for vengeance in Sholay (1975), he was just 37 years old. His co-star Dharmendra was 40 years old. Yet, few others could have carried off that performance with the same modest gravitas that Kumar did.

Born Haribhai Jariwala in erstwhile Bombay, Sanjeev Kumar remains the personification of the worldly wise old man in Hindi cinema. 

An actor capable of losing himself in a role, Sanjeev Kumar made his debut in the Sunil Dutt-starrer Hum Hindustani (1960) and tested himself in a diverse range of roles from the comic in Angoor (1981) and Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) to the tragic in Khilona (1970), and the sensitive in Aandhi (1975), Mausam (1975) and Koshish (1973). In so doing, he broke rules and re-wrote conventions of the leading man in Hindi cinema.

Yet, the lasting image of Sanjeev Kumar remains as a man weary of the world. At a recently conducted Masterclass by the Indian Film and Television Directors' Association (IFTDA), poet and filmmaker Gulzar said, "My rapport with Haribhai was a rare one. I had only two real partners in the film industry, RD Burman and Haribhai. There were many who collaborated with me to great success. But I could trust these two to deliver anything I asked of them on screen." 

Gulzar should know. The master filmmaker worked with Kumar in half-a-dozen films. Of these, Aandhi, Mausam and Parichay (1972) had Sanjeev Kumar playing old men. In an interesting anecdote, the director pointed to the late actor's days in theatre as the reason for this typecasting. 

He said, "I knew Sanjeev Kumar before he came into films. He did a lot of Gujarati plays. I remember watching this particular one, an adaptation of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, directed by PD Shenoy. Haribhai played the old man, the father, in the play. Leela Chitnis played his wife." 

In 1960, Sanjeev Kumar was only 22 years old while Leela Chitnis was touching 60. Yet, it was Kumar's performance that took the cake. As Gulzar recalled, "He played the role like an old man. That was some performance. That's where we met.

"I remember we were talking later, and Prithviraj Kapoor came backstage. Everyone was falling at his feet. Shenoy was there. Haribhai was standing there. Kapoor asked, 'Woh buddhe ka role kisne kiya? [Who played the old man?]' and he was asking Sanjeev Kumar! He [Kumar] considered it the biggest compliment he had received. He carried it with him all his life."

Unconventional, and lacking the flamboyance of Jeetendra, Dharmendra, or Amitabh Bachchan, Kumar charted his own path in the film industry. His expressive eyes, understated performances, and unique drawl added to the attraction of his personality. Although Gulzar did cast him in fairly younger roles such as in Koshish (1972) and Namkeen (1982), the cinematic progeria of Kumar continued.

With Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in Trishul(1978)

Films like Trishul (1978), Hero (1983), and Vidhaata (1983) only confirmed this position. While his contemporaries Jeetendra, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan continued to play leading men well into the 1980s, Kumar was playing paternal roles. Ever the sport, the actor continued taking them up.

In fact, even Gulzar found it unnerving after a while. He said, "After a while, those were the kind of roles he started getting in films. So I told him, 'Hari, enough. Stop doing these old-man roles.' He laughed and replied, 'Look who is talking! You were the first to cast me in old-man roles in your films.' What could I do? I had seen him first as an old man. That is why that image remained with me." 

A loner, Sanjeev Kumar found solace in drink. Sadly, it led to his early end. The actor died on 6 November 1985. He was aged only 50. For someone who played the old man in films so often, Sanjeev Kumar never lived to be one in real life.