Hari was off to a good start, but he still had a long way to go. In a bid to meet prospective directors and producers, he would walk long distances – from Chembur Railway Station to RK Studio, from Bhuleshwar to Famous Studio, Mahalaxmi, from Andheri Railway Station to Mohan Studio; he walked and walked and kept walking. He wasn’t alone on his journey. Jamnadas often accompanied him, and at times even went alone on his behalf.

Even though Shantaben supported Hari with the occasional buck, there would still never be enough for clothes. His only clothes were two pairs of white kurta pyjamas, which he had to wash every night so that there would be a fresh set on the next day. ‘Heroes’ don’t dress like that . . . but Hari did.

Filmalaya Production House chose promising students from Filmalaya Acting School and offered them small roles in their films. On one such occasion, Ram Mukherjee sent his assistant to find him a student actor for his movie Hum Hindustani (1960), starring Sunil Dutt and Asha Parekh. The role was small, but the actor would be paid. Upon being approached, Hari immediately accepted the offer of playing a police inspector for Rs 12 per shift. Hari’s role had no dialogues, but he gave it his hundred per cent; this was the first time he was facing the camera after all!

Sanjeev Kumar with his mother Shantaben Jariwala. Courtesy Sanjeev Kumar’s family.

Imtiaz Khan, who was assisting K Asif in the making of Love and God (also known as Kais Aur Laila, 1986), found an opportunity to direct Zindagi Ki Raahein after the director of the film quit. The film’s lead actor, Sanjay Khan, was a friend of the previous director and he quit the movie as well. Imtiaz Khan was in a fix because he couldn’t find an actor to replace Sanjay Khan. His brother Amjad Khan told him about Hari.

When Imtiaz Khan asked Hari to step in, he immediately agreed to do so, no questions asked. However, Hari’s run of bad luck was not over. The film was shelved due to a dispute between the producer and the financer. Not one to be subjugated by his circumstances, Hari continued looking for work.

The kurta-pyjama problem

He heard that V Shantaram was looking for an actor to cast in his film Geet Gaya Patharon Ne (1964), and he headed out to ask him for work. Once again, the shabby kurta-pyjama stood between him and his success. Far from being impressed by Hari’s appearance, V Shantaram couldn’t imagine how this person could aspire to become a hero. The director believed that a man dressed like Hari would not be able to do justice to a romantic hero’s role. The role went to Jeetendra instead, and Geet Gaya Patharon Ne became his debut film.

While the big break Hari was looking for was still a long way off, small opportunities came his way now and then. When R.K. Nayyar was directing Aao Pyar Karen (1964) with Joy Mukherjee and Saira Banu, Hari and Mac Mohan bagged the roles of Joy Mukherjee’s friends and received a monthly salary of Rs 125. The roles were small but significant, and even though Hari’s six close-up shots were reduced to two, he was content with the outcome.

One evening, Prabodh Joshi, Tarla Mehta, Mahesh Desai and Hari were sitting at Jaihind College, Churchgate, and discussing the on-screen names of eminent Bollywood artists. Hari declared that his name, Harihar Jariwala, was not befitting for an aspiring actor. While discussing the various possible names he could adopt, he decided that it should begin with the letter ‘S’, as his mother’s name began with an ‘S’, and should end with ‘Kumar’ as most actors’ names ended with ‘Kumar’. After a gruelling debate and discussion, the name ‘Sanjay Kumar’ received unanimous approval, and Hari was credited in both Ramat Ramade Ram and Aao Pyar Karen by this name.

Enter Sanjeev Kumar

Both Badal and Nishan were on the floor when Sanjay Khan’s superhit film Dosti (1964) released and he instantly became a household name. Hari was in a dilemma yet again, since two Sanjays could not rule the screen at the same time. Aspi Irani advised him to alter his name once again. Hari was reluctant because two of his films had already been released as Sanjay Kumar. However, Aao Pyar Karen focused on Joy Mukherjee, and Ramat Ramade Ram was a regional film. He decided to take his chances, and Sanjeev Kumar was born.

Apart from the stunt roles, Sanjeev’s roles in films like Husn Aur Ishq (1966), Alibaba and 40 Thieves (1966), Aayega Aane Wala (1967), Gunehgar (1967) and Gunah Aur Kanoon (1970) did nothing to improve his career or his finances.

Between trying to overwrite his status as a C-grade hero and finding many of his movies shelved, Sanjeev experienced a bout of depression. The films in which he had invested hope, like Kamran’s Badnam Farishte, Aspi Irani’s Return of Qaidi No. 911, S. Mehendi’s Ghar Ki Izzat, Mahesh Kaul’s Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain, Sameer Chaudhary’s Mitti Ke Dev, Qamar Narvi’s Chand Phir Nikla and Daya Kishan Sapru’s Jeevan Chalne Ka Naam, had all been shelved.

A ‘C-grade’ image

When Hari learnt that BR Chopra was making a film titled Aadmi Aur Insaan (1969), he tried very hard to be a part of this venture to finally erase his C-grade image. He was in such a rush to get the film that he went to meet the Chopra brothers in his infamous kurta pyjama. Both BR Chopra and Yash Chopra refused to let him be a part of their film and the role went to Feroz Khan. Years later, they acknowledged that they had misjudged Sanjeev Kumar’s talent and cast him in films like Silsila (1981), Sawaal (1982), Trishul (1978) and Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978).

Unaware of the success waiting for him just around the corner, Sanjeev Kumar felt overwhelmed with all the missed opportunities, all for little fault of his own. A despondent Sanjeev decided to shelve his dreams of becoming an actor and start looking for other means of income. Sudhir Dalvi remembers Sanjeev coming to him with a bar of gel soap and announcing:

I don’t think producers and directors need a talented actor. I am fed up of struggling. I have decided to get into the soap business.

Disheartened to see his optimistic friend so depressed, Sudhir convinced him to hang in there for a bit longer. He assured him that success would come to him, and soon.

Excerpted with permission from An Actor’s Actor – The Authorised Biography of Sanjeev Kumar, Hanif Zaveri and Sumant Batra, Penguin Random House.