He may have once been described as India’s Gregory Peck. He is now India’s Devsaab.

 

So how do you see me?

Halfway through the interview, Dev Anand comes up with a whopper:

“When you think Dev Anand, what comes to mind?” he asks me.

As a bit of free association, it’s a doozy. Is it that freewheeling lope as he sings Khoya khoya chaand, khula aasmaan in Kaala Bazaar? Is it the moment in Guide, where he unwraps Rosie’s dreams, the ghunghroos she has wrapped up and put away to keep her marriage intact?  Is it the moment in Hum Dono in which he warns his wife, insouciant, always insouciant, that he might return from the war crippled and that people might laugh, “Dekho langde ki biwi ja rahi hai.” Or the face turned up to the light in Kaala Bazaar, cold and unrelenting even as a bhajan winds its way through the soundtrack? The tweaking of Pran’s nose in Munimjee? Or the anguished son, desperate to prove his father’s innocence in Kaala Paani? Or the moment in Johnny Mera Naam, where he says, “Johnny…mera….naam… nahin hai” running the last two words while simultaneously thumping on each of them?

He relents.

“It isn’t easy to define, the image of Dev Anand. It has been five decades of being a star, of being loved, admired, all over the world.”

For someone who is in his 80th year Dev Anand wears his iconic status lightly, with the careless magnificence that has seen him through 55 years of acting and making films. Not for him the current undermining of star status. Not for him the ‘I’m-just-like-you-only-better-known’ dismissal of what being a star means. Not even a star, for in a moment he is destroying that image with finality.

“Film, as every actor knows somewhere, is a director’s medium. If you are at all creative, there comes a time when you grow past what it is to be a star, to do the same things in the same way, to move, to act, to speak to someone else’s direction. If you are not creative, you remain a star and then, as stars do, you fade away.”

But even those stars who become directors may not have his alpine approval.

“Not the kind of director who has someone come in and do the dances, someone come in to organise the fights. The kind of director who feels the germ of an idea somewhere inside him (his hands clench), who feels it germinate (the hands spread out), who gets obsessed by it (the hands rise slowly), who then thinks of it in terms of a story, of a drama, of a screenplay, of dialogues, of music (the hands rise, rise, rise, each movement calibrate) until he begins shooting (hands at the midway mark) and then edits (they still) and finally, finally he has a film (the hands flung out now, above his head), a film in which he mesmerises audiences and makes them think what he thinks, feel what he feels, see what he sees.”

You should know this because it’s now official.

He may have once been described as India’s Gregory Peck. He is now India’s Devsaab.

“I was a star. I am now…”

His voice fades away. His eyes mist as he considers himself, the length of his career, the sheer awesome span of it.

He won’t say it but the word is: legend. 

 

25 miles to the nearest theatre

Like all good legends, this one too has its back-story. It begins in Punjab’s Gurdaspur where Devdutt Pishorimal Anand was born in 1923–a year after Dilip Kumar and a year before Raj Kapoor. Devdutt and his two brothers Vijay and Chetan would travel as much as 25 miles to the nearest big town to watch a film.

“Gurdaspur was a small town in the middle of India. Remember that when I was growing up in the ‘30s, there was no Pakistan. Now it may be a border town but then it was at the heart of India. There were no cinema houses in Gurdaspur. We had to go to Batala to see a film.”

Carry On, Dev Anand

He cannot remember–a rare thing for his memory is generally sharp–what the first film he ever saw was. “It must have been a K L Saigal film, or one of those early films from New Theatres. My romance with cinema actually began when I went to Lahore to Government College. I was doing a degree in literature but I was also watching films.”

One of them, many of them, all of them inspired him enough to travel to Bombay. It is odd that the man who should have taken on the censor board, who has even made a film called Censor in which the bad guys are played by the Censor Board, should have actually worked as a military censor for the Royal Army.

“It was 1945 when I arrived in Bombay, determined to become a star. I pounded pavements in the great romantic tradition of Bombay’s strugglers but I also had to keep body and soul together. Which is why I took a job as a military censor. I had to read the letters sent by the soldiers in the trenches to their wives and sweethearts. This was the war during which slogans like “Loose Lips Sink Ships” had been making the rounds so the idea was to excise anything sensitive, anything about troop movements or even locations.”

Sounds like a great job.

“It was. I read some powerful love letters, some beautiful stories unfolded in front of my eyes. I even wrote to some of them. And now I receive letters.”

The story of how the young Dev Anand got his first break is now well known. In 1946, he walked straight into the office of Baburao Pai who managed the legendary Prabhat Studios’s Bombay operations. Something about the young man must have impressed Pai (the clothes, the panache, the air of having seen it all and done it all?) and he sent him off to Poona, as it was then known, with a first-class ticket on the Deccan Queen. P L Santoshi auditioned him and seven days later, he was offered a job with Prabhat at Rs 350 a month.

His first film was Hum Ek Hain, a film in which the good intentions poke through the narrative. It was a Hindu-Muslim unity picture with Dev playing the Hindu and Rahman playing the Muslim. Hanging around Prabhat, variously described then as only being a choreographer or an assistant director, or an assistant editor (versions differ) was a certain G D Padukone.

Awww, you know he was to later become famous as Guru Dutt and you know that the three of them (Rahman, Guru Dutt and Dev Anand) cycled around Poona together, getting to know and like each other.

But it is time now to introduce the other two brothers. Chetan Anand was teaching at Doon School but his eyes were also fixed on the distant klieg lights in Bombay. He arrived next and…

“In 1949, I started Nav ketan Studios,” says Dev Anand.

It takes a moment to absorb the proprietary pronoun. But it must be seen in context of a sibling rivalry that was once one of the most productive in the history of Bombay cinema. There was Chetan Anand, unusual looking to say the least, maker of one of the best Indian war movies in Haqeeqat, which didn’t star Dev Anand. There was Vijay Anand, whose role has been variously described as the creative force behind Nav Ketan, the man who tailored the image of the hail-fellow-well-met, devil-may-care Dev Anand, or just the editor, the director with a love of film noir. And there was the public face of the troika, the loose loping, machine-gun-mouthy, quiff-coiffed Dev Anand.

There must be as many ways to see that historic moment that began with Afsar (1949). The chronology is clear. Next came Baazi, written by Guru Dutt and Balraj Sahni and starring Dev Anand. After a series of hits, the Nav Ketan partnership, one of the most creative in the history of Hindi films, ended only when Dev broke away to make his own Prem Pujari (1969). Why the brothers parted is a story that has never been told.

Some say Vijay Anand was envious of his brother’s fame, unhappy about the fact that he was never given any credit of having created the distinct ‘Dev Anand’ persona.

Others say Dev Anand felt he could do as good a job or better as a director than his brother. There was a time when Dev Anand himself seemed to be about to tell it, flirting with several publishers. Many a hapless ghostwriter turned up at the penthouse office in a by-lane of Pali Hill, Bandra, one of Mumbai’s most sought-after suburbs.

All of them went away charmed by the politesse of the star; all of them went away empty-handed.

 

The past is another country

But then to want to write an autobiography is to want to look back. Dev Anand does not want to look back. Other stars his age, correction, even stars much younger than he, will reminisce about the golden days when shooting was a picnic, when So-and-So would cook her famous Bengali curry for the entire unit, when Such-and-Such pulled out his harmonica and played and everyone got up to dance. No nostalgia clings to him. 

“Nostalgia?” he broods over the word for a moment. “To be nostalgic means you are yearning for the past. Looking back at days gone by. Seeing them as better than today. For me, today is exciting. This moment is exciting. This film I am making is exciting. The past is only where I came from. The present counts.”

That explains why Dev Anand is not the paterfamilias of the Industry, not the respected guru at whose feet journalist sit for stories such as “What’s Wrong With Hindi Cinema”? He is part of the Hindi cinema of today. He refuses to be dated, to be associated with a particular era.

That also explains the affection everyone feels for him. There is also the fact that he is (after Ashok Kumar and Dharmendra) the easiest to mimic. Tilt a shoulder and get up a lope, run your words, and you’ve recreated Dev Anand enough to amuse your friends.

But that isn’t Dev Anand.

He may have created a signature, an almost impregnable elan, an almost absurd suavity but that wasn’t all he was. His signature tune might have been

Mein zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya

Har fikr ko dhuey main udaata chala gaya

(I have always been faithful to life and blown away my worries in a cloud of smoke.) from Hum Dono but it wasn’t the whole of it.

And he might also well be remembered as the madcap romantic, edging around a well backwards (backwards!) while asking Kalpana Kartik, “Aankhon mein kya ji?” (Nau Do Gyaraah). Had that been all, we would not have the Dev Anand of Jaayen to jaayen kahaan and of Chup hain dharti, chup hain chaand sitaare (House No. 44) and of those two definitive songs of despair: Hum bekhudi main tumko pukaare (Kaala Paani) and Dukhi man mere, sun mera kehena (Funtoosh).

But a star is only what you remember seeing. You do not remember Bachchan whispering in anguish to Rekha in Silsila; you remember him locking the doors of the godown in Deewaar. You do not remember Dilip Kumar’s light-hearted swordplay in Azaad, you remember his despair in Devdas. Nor do you remember Meena Kumari laughing or Rekha playing. Stardom is memory and amnesia and choice, wrapped in one luscious package. We need them to laugh and cry and rage—that’s when they touch us—but we choose only to remember a certain emotion, a certain way of speaking, a certain frame.

Likewise you do not choose to remember the Dev Anand crushed by despair, sitting by the sea, with the tide racing in greedily. What you, I, we remember seeing is composed of the inimitable (try how you and Dev Anand Jr might) drop-shouldered lope, the dandy-esque quiff, the half effete, half macho play with eyes, the run of words that barely escapes gibberish.

Where did they come from? From Gurdaspur? From Lahore, where the fashion conscious student then foregathered?

“It was all just me,” says Dev Anand now. “I speak fast and so I spoke my dialogues fast. I have a stoop and that explains the way I held my body. I walk fast and that explains my movement.”

 

City Lights

Raj Kapoor collided with the city, an innocent suddenly confronted by the horrors and seductions of hell. Dilip Kumar avoided the city, his eyes fixed on a Romantic vision of Elysian fields where pure forms met and mingled. It was left to Dev Anand to confront the city, to wander its bylanes in Taxi Driver, to run down the purveyors of forged currency in Jaali Note, to limp through its uncaring bylanes as a crippled war veteran in Hum Dono.

“I suppose I was always a city boy after Lahore,” he says reflectively. “But Lahore, however charming and beautiful, was a small town in comparison to Bombay. (Parenthetically: ‘I went back to Lahore nearly 50 years later with the Prime Minister, Mr Vajpayee, on his visit. It was wonderful.’) There was something about Bombay when I first arrived here something infinite and charming. It was a city in which you could dream big dreams and which would forgive those dreams. It was full of dreams: high rise buildings, film studios, and the sea.” But the urbanity, the suavity, the polish still are a mystery to him. “I was well-dressed but so were many others. I had style but so had many others. I carried myself well but there were others who carried themselves well too. At the end of it, stardom is a mystery.

Why do audiences want to see more of one person? Is it some reflection of themselves that they see? Or some image of what they would like to be? No one knows. No one can actually guess. You can analyse it after it has happened but you can’t figure it out before the fact. It’s alchemy. It’s a mystery. If anyone says anything more than that, they’re lying.”

Take it from the horse’s mouth.

 

Stars don’t die. They implode

Prem Pujari. I have seen the film. I know I have. I can only remember two things about it. Two spectacular songs:

Shokhiyon mein gola jaaye phoolonka shabaab

Usme phir milaaee jaaye thodi si sharaab

Hoga yoon nasha jo taiyaar woh pyaar hai

Which has Dev Anand in the haystacks of Kolhapur, chasing butterflies (handmade in London) and Waheeda Rehman in red salwar kameez and stilettos.

And there is the spectacular song in a train somewhere in Europe:

Phoolon ke rang se dil ki kalam se

Likh doon tujhe roz baati

Kaise bataoon kis kis tarah se

Pal pal mujhe tu sataati.

You would think that it was time for the refrain. But the song pours on:

Tere hi sapne lekar mein soya

Teri hi yaadon mein jaaga.

Tere khayaalon mein uljha raha hoon

Jaise ki maala mein daaga.

Here? Not here.

Badal bijlee chandan paani jaisa apna pyaar,

Lena hoga janam hame kaii kaii baar

Haan, Itna madhir, itna madhur, tera mera pyaar

And finally, breathtakingly, a refrain.

Lena hoga janam hame kaii kaii baar.

Those two songs define Prem Pujari. Somewhere I remember reading that S D Burman was appalled at the way the songs had been picturised. I remember wishing I had not seen them. Hearing them had been enough. Sandalwood and cloud, lightning and water—would you want another definition of Romantic love? Or would you prefer to dissolve the scent of flowers in some deep secret sorrow and then mix in a little wine? The intoxication that would result is love. Perhaps it is simply the colour, perhaps it is simply the reliance on the stars but the way the songs were visualised was (and remains) deeply disappointing.

It is unfair to say that the breaking up of the troika began the decline. For Dev Anand, it seemed to have been a natural progression. He was a star. He wanted to be more.

“I could have made more films. I could have owned half of Bombay. I could have continued playing the roles other people wanted me to play. But I began to get restless. I found that I had a talent for writing. I found that I knew enough about the mechanics of filmmaking to be able to watch an idea grow into a film. I wanted to be able to control everything, from the songs to the dances to the fights to the drama to the dialogues. Filmmaking involves every single art form from music to choreography, from poetry to prose, from dramaturgy to story-telling. I felt I could do it. I did.”

He did. There was that two-bags-of-popcorn Johnny Mera Naam and Des Pardes, an investigation into illegal immigration. There was the savagely violent but successful Loot Maar and the film that made him an icon in Nepal, Hare Rama Hare Krishna with its all-time dance-hit Dum maaro dum. There was Bullet, Banarasi Babu, Heera Panna, Amir Garib, Ishq Ishq Ishq, Chupa Rustom and many others in the ‘70s and early ‘80s  that  had  a bit of  old Dev Anand and  Nav Ketan in them. Some made money at the box office, most bombed.

The dive into complete and embarrassing mediocrity began sometime in the mid 1980s with movies with names like Awwal Number, Lashkar, Gangster and  Anand Aur Anand (which featured his son).

Everything about them was third rate: acting, direction, story and music. And not surprisingly all of them tanked without a trace. Many wondered if the great man had gone senile. Others saw the positive side—at 75, when most of his contemporaries were dead or retired, here was a man who was slogging away unmindful of what the public at large thought of him.

It isn’t easy broaching the issue when you are confronted with someone cloaked in self-assurance, a star in whose mind he is as successful today as he was 40 years ago, someone who seems to have missed out on ironic self-appraisal.

So I ask the question everyone keeps asking. Where does the money come for this almost annual event? “People keep asking that,” he says. “But look at how I make my films.

I work with newcomers, only casting stars when I need them. I have my own production outfit here, one of the best-equipped studios in Asia. I know what I want when I go on to the set. I don’t overshoot. I am a careful disciplined director. That makes it easier.”

And so the year 2003 offering Love in Times Square will be out this month. It will feature three newcomers, Chaitanya, Shoaib Khan and Heenee Kaushik. Going by his recent track record, it might end up unwatched. But this is the man who says his philosophy might well be “barbaadiyon ka jashn manaata chala gaya” (I turned my disasters into celebrations too) another line from Hum Dono.

“When you make the films the way I make them, taking them from the idea to the editing suite to the screen, you are responsible for all of it, for the bouquets and the brickbats. I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what I wanted to do. No regrets.”

No. None.


Ten Dev Anand films you ought to see (some selected by the boss himself; some by us)

Guide (1965)

R K Narayan was bitter about what happened to his novel but it has some wonderful moments and an English version in which a body double did a nude scene for Waheeda Rehman.

Hummable songs: Wahaan kaun hai tera, musafir and Kaanton se kheenchke yeh aanchal…

Hum Dono (1961)

A double-role war movie with an interesting exchange-of-identities twist.

Hummable songs: Main zindagi ke saath and Kabhi khudpe, kabhi haalat pe rona aaya are classics.

Jewel Thief (1967)

A tightly-plotted thriller that inspired some real-life thieves too.

Hummable songs:  Hoton pe aisi baat and Yeh dil na hota bechaara

Kaala Paani (1958)

Admirably supported by Madhubala, Dev Anand sets out to clear his father’s name.

Hummable songs: Hum bekhudi mein tumko pukaare and Achchaji main haari, chalo maan jao na…

Kaala Bazaar (1960)

A great tradition was inaugurated, one that continued right up to Aamir Khan in Rangeela, when Dev Anand sold his first black market cinema ticket.

Hummable songs: Apni to har aah ek toofan hai and Khoya khoya chand

Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai (1961)

One of those light-hearted love stories with Asha Parekh.

Hummable songs: The title song of course, and Uff Yumma

Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963)

Another light-hearted love story with Nutan in it. Watch the battle of the fathers-in-law (Harindranath Chattopadhyay and Om Prakash).

Hummable songs: The title song and Dil ka bhanwar kare pukar

Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971)

Shot in Nepal, it featured Zeenat Aman, Mumtaz and a drug habit before the Indian middle-class started worrying about any of them.

Hummable songs: Dum maaro dum and Phoolonka taronka sabka kehna hai

Heera Panna (1973)

Good action flick with Zeenat Aman and Raakhee.

Hummable songs: Panna ki tamanna hai and Door chale jaana hai…

Des Pardes (1978)

Illegal immigration and Tina Munim in her debut film

Hummable songs: Aap kahen aur hum na aayen and Nazraana bheja kisine pyaar ka.


This story was first published in the 2003 issue


Image credits: Harsh Man Rai