CAME LATE, LEFT TOO SOON
Two new books pay tribute to Sanjeev Kumar and examine the cinematic era he defined
AAmong the many anecdotes told across two recently published books about Sanjeev Kumar (or “Haribhai” as he was known, being Harihar Jariwala by birth), there is a poignant story about an interviewer asking the acclaimed actor why he kept playing old men. Hari’s reply: a fortune-teller told him he wouldn’t live long, so he tried, through his roles, to “live” an age that he would never experience firsthand.
Kumar did in fact die at 47, succumbing to a genetic heart condition in 1985 that had plagued him for years (worsened by a careless lifestyle). For the last decade and a half of his life, he was one of Hindi cinema’s most canonised actors. Movie buffs well-versed with the 1970s and ’80s know how admired he was by his peers, as well as by viewers who cared less for starry mannerisms and more for “character acting”. But for those who came of age later, Kumar is in danger of being forgotten, or barely known. One can only imagine the opportunities he’d have got had he been around, and in good health, during the multiplex and OTT eras.
And so, any literature on the man is welcome. But here are two books by major publishers, within a year of each other—the first an “authorised biography” with inputs from the late actor’s surviving family, and the second co-authored by his nephew Uday Jariwala (who is also acknowledged in the earlier book). You’d think they might represent different approaches to the actor’s life and art, but that isn’t quite the case. Structurally, the major difference is that An Actor’s Actor follows a straightforward chronology, starting with Harihar Jariwala’s family background and early life, before covering his peak years. On the other hand, Sanjeev Kumar: The Actor We All Loved is more free-flowing and playful, moving back and forth in time, including first-person accounts by Hari’s friends, family and admirers.
Most of the milestones and stumbling blocks are covered: the early death of Hari’s father, leaving him the oldest male child at age 11; his struggles to establish himself, first in theatre and then in film; the brief period as a lithe leading man in much-derided “stunt films”; the award-winning parts in films like Koshish (1972) and Dastak (1970).
A LIFE SHORT AND SWEET Clockwise from top left With director K. Asif on the sets of Love and God; a shot from his theatre days, he was not even 30 when he started playing old characters on stage; with friend, philosopher and guide A.K. Hangal; the artist as a young man; and another one from his theatre days
There are anecdotes about his generosity of spirit, and an emphasis that though he suffered heartbreak he was not an unhappy man. Inevitably, there is some repetition and overlap between the books—for instance, in the accounts of controversial episodes that once provided fodder to gossip magazines: the near-wedding to Hema Malini (one reason for the relationship to fall through was the condition that his wife would not continue to work), or the closeness with the married Nutan, which culminated in her slapping him in front of a film unit.
Needless to say, given the official status of these books, there is a tendency to tiptoe around less savoury matters. One running theme—which couldn’t have been avoided by anyone attempting a Sanjeev Kumar study—is the actor’s notorious unpunctuality. The stories of Hari’s late-coming are legion, and perhaps this is something the authors could have been more seriously critical of, rather than going down the anodyne route of “but everyone always forgave him because he was so good once he got down to work—or because he was so pleasant”. It might also have been a way of commenting on the workings of an often-very-unprofessional film industry where one of its most respected practitioners was regularly allowed to get away with keeping his colleagues waiting for hours. But adulation follows its own rules; what we are left with are tribute books that will hopefully motivate at least a few young readers to seek out and develop an appreciation for the Hindi cinema of Sanjeev Kumar’s time. ■
- Jai Arjun Singh STORIES OF HARI’S UNPUNCTUALITY WERE LEGION, YET THE AUTHORS ARE FORGIVING INSTEAD OF BEING SERIOUSLY CRITICAL OF IT
Of the many schools of sacred Indian art, there is none as vivid, captivating and instantly recognisable as that dedicated to Shrinathji, the “living” deity enshrined in the temple town of Nathdwara, near Udaipur. Either in the form of large painted backcloths, pichhvais, or small miniatures, the iconic images of the dark-faced, sumptuously bedecked manifestation of Krishna—that emerged in the 16th century by the Pushtimarg sect founded by Vallabhacharya—are much prized by museums and art collectors. Like infinite variations on a theme, the art of Nathdwara evokes the ever-changing adornment (shringara) of Shrinathji in the complex rituals of daily worship.
In more respects than one, this volume is a rarity. First, for its illuminating backstory. The cache of 60 miniatures, only 9 x 7 inches each, was made for a formidable personage—Pannalal Rai Mehta (1843-1919), an enlightened prime minister of Mewar (Udaipur) who served four maharanas. Pannalal was an ardent Shrinath devotee and art patron. Raja Ravi Varma painted him in a magnificent portrait that is reproduced here.
The miniatures were the creation of Sukhdev Kishandas Gaur, an exemplar of the golden age of Nathdwara painting, who worked in the late 19th century. The artist’s acquaintance with European perspective and early photography adds verisimilitude to the architecture and portrait studies. One compelling image shows four generations of the Mehta family (seen above) worshipping at the altar of Shrinathji.
For decades, the valuable hoard lay in careful storage till a current descendant, Vikram Goyal, decided to make them public. Goyal was motivated by reasons both familial and art historical. “While growing up, I often heard my late maternal grandfather Gokal Lal Mehta, an IAS officer, wishfully romanticise that the family collection be published. They were in mint condition and very dear to him,” says Goyal, a reputed product and interior designer. “I was also inspired by them in my own work. Despite their traditional ornament, they felt boldly modern in their pulsating design vocabulary of stripes, squares and chevrons.”
Together with Bipin Shah of Mapin, Goyal conceived a limited-edition, large-format volume (each in its individual case). The paintings, interleaved with closeups, glow to the highest standards of design layout and photographic reproduction. They enlisted the authority on Nathdwara painting, Amit Ambalal, author of the pioneering study Krishna as Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdwara (Mapin, 1987) to write the text, describing the varying adornment of the deity during its eight public viewings a day, as well as changing pichhvai backdrops, raiment and regalia to reflect different festivals and seasons. In winter “the divine child” is swaddled in warm clothes, with ornate shringaras and deep colours; in summer, “the predominant colour is white [with] plenty of flowers.” The iconography, too, is replete with symbolism: Shrinathji’s lotus garland, for example, symbolises Radha’s heart “that he keeps close to his own”.
This high-value publication serves a purpose larger than being an art connoisseur or bibliophile’s delight. It offers signal encouragement to privately-held collections to be placed in the public domain.n