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 Jethalal Jariwala, was affectionately known). Movie-star biographies 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.

But the second reaction was a knee-jerk 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 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 aimed at driving our victim into paroxysms of righteous indignation. But it was also rooted in annoyance about an actor getting disproportionate credit for his choice of roles, for “opting to" play elderly character parts rather than “lead roles". 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 Kumar’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".

Which is why it’s fun now to recall another Kumar avatar: the much younger, mid-1960s version in such films as Nishan and Alibaba 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, 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 Kumar), fitted in period costume, long curly hair blowing in the wind.

I’m not saying Kumar was great in those early roles. He often overdoes things spectacularly (watch him playing drunk while Helen sings Aapki 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 sombre, old-man persona. I feel there’s an element of post-facto myth-building in the idea 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-1970s 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."

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, fuelled by scripts and directors—most notably Gulzar, to a lesser extent Basu Bhattacharya, on one occasion Satyajit Ray—who tapped the best of him. I preferred him in lighter parts—in fine comedies like Angoor and Lakhon Ki Baat, of course, but also in Satyakam 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 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 Kumar as an alien who crashes down into the big bad world of Hindi films and improves it with gravitas.

Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

He tweets at @jaiarjun

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