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Manoj Kumar, the romantic hero – Birthday special

Known today for his patriotic avatar, Manoj Kumar began his acting career as a romantic hero. On his 80th birthday (24 July), we look at the romantic roles that paved the way for the rise of 'Bharat'.

Shriram Iyengar

The story goes that Dharmendra was so disappointed at struggling to find work in the late 1950s Bombay film industry that he was planning to leave the city forever. It was only at the insistence of close friend Manoj Kumar that he stayed on and eventually found stardom.

Unlike Dharmendra, Harikrishna Goswami had arrived in Bombay to be a writer and filmmaker and taken up ghost-writing, creating scenes and plots for filmmakers at the rather measly rate of Rs11 a scene. Ironically, he went on to make his debut as a hero before Dharmendra.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Manoj Kumar had arrived in newly independent India as a refugee. After graduating from Delhi's Hindu College, he arrived in Bombay to pursue his dream. An admirer of Dilip Kumar, he borrowed the name of his idol's character from the film Shabnam (1949) as his pseudonym.

Though most of the internet generation knows the actor today for his hyperbolic expressions of patriotism and from memes based on some of his really bad later work like Clerk (1989) and Dus Numbri (1976), Manoj Kumar was actually quite a capable actor.

A young Manoj Kumar in Apne Huye Paraye (1964)

Making his debut as lead actor in 1960 after some secondary roles in the late 1950s, Manoj Kumar quickly went on to establish himself in the niche between Rajendra Kumar and Dilip Kumar. The 1960s were the era of the vulnerable, sophisticated hero in Hindi cinema. The meteoric rise of Rajesh Khanna was still some way off, and the trio of Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand was still at its peak.

It was in this scenario that Manoj Kumar's entry took place. It took him more than 10 films before he had his first big hit, Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962). As the man caught between his first love (played by Mala Sinha) and a forced marriage to Shashikala's character, Manoj Kumar balanced vulnerability with genteelness and a calm presence. The role earned him comparisons with his idol, Dilip Kumar. The senior actor even admired the younger man's keen eye for direction and advised him to take up the mantle at some stage.

Manoj Kumar, however, wanted to set himself apart from his peers. In an interview with The Hindu newspaper in March 2016, he said, "Dilip Kumar is my idol and influenced me. I never copied him blatantly. The pauses in my dialogue delivery, my occasional smiles and underplaying are my own attributes as an actor. Even putting my right palm on my face to express my pensive mood was never an imitation of any form. I am certainly not a clone of Dilip Kumar."

The image of a romantic hero stuck to Manoj Kumar through films like Shaadi (1962), Ghar Basake Dekho (1963) and Apne Huye Paraye (1964). Even when he took a turn in noirish thrillers like Raj Khosla's Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) and Raja Nawathe's Gumnaam (1965), he remained the ideal, good-looking hero with a soft heart for damsels in distress. Unlike his later ideal, patriotic hero, he often smoked, drank, and carried off a rakish look that would surprise a generation familiar with the 'offence' he reportedly took to Shah Rukh Khan's mimicry of him in Om Shanti Om (2007).

Incidentally, Manoj Kumar's first great turn in a patriotic avatar, as the legendary Bhagat Singh in Shaheed (1965), was released the same year as Gumnaam. Shaheed went on to win three National awards at the 13th Indian National film awards, including Best Feature Film in Hindi.

This success did not, however, mark an immediate transition of Manoj Kumar into nationalist mode. The same year as Shaheed and Gumnaam, he acted in the hit Himalay Ki Godmein (1965) opposite Mala Sinha and Sunil Dutt. He followed it up with Raj Khosla's Do Badan (1966) opposite Asha Parekh. The period between 1965 and 1967 saw the actor take up multiple projects, putting him on a par with Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, and Shashi Kapoor as one of the leading romantic heroes of the day.

He was a particular favourite of Khosla's, who directed him in three thrillers — Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Do Badan (1966) and Anita (1967).

Manoj Kumar also had the good fortune of having some splendid romantic numbers picturized on him. With a face carved with character, he delivered melancholy with a touch of sincerity. Sample this song from Patthar Ke Sanam (1967). It is an example of the actor's minimalist expression allowing for the song's lyrics to make the maximum impact.

It was in 1967 that Manoj Kumar truly put on the 'Bharat' image that was to become his signature. He wrote and directed Upkar, a film about a farmer who turns soldier to defend his family and his country. The timing of the film, released two years after the India-Pakistan war of 1965, proved to be its greatest advantage. The film touched a nerve with its sensitive plot and inspired soundtrack.

After Upkar won the Filmfare award for Best Film, Manoj Kumar turned to direction with vigour, following up with Purab Aur Pachhim (1969), Shor (1972) and Roti, Kapada Aur Makaan (1974). These films truly built his image as 'Bharat'. Often playing the ideal Indian man, respectful of tradition, with pride in his culture and Indianness, he brought to his roles an authenticity that came from the psyche of a refugee of India's bloody Partition. This sense of displacement and loss of identity was clearly reflected in films like Purab Aur Pachhim and Roti, Kapada Aur Makaan.

By the mid-1970s, however, the rise of the 'Angry Young Man' played by Amitabh Bachchan had rendered Manoj Kumar's brand of patriotism redundant. It was a new generation acquiring a taste for questioning authority and tradition, not accepting it. His last great hit arrived in 1981, when he directed and starred opposite his idol, Dilip Kumar, in Kranti. Again a period epic, the film carried the same strong sense of patriotism that defined Manoj Kumar.

He was, after all, 'Bharat'.