Matinee idol Dev Anand has been seducing audiences for 50 years. As a tribute to him opens in the UK, Lalit Mohan Joshi meets the Gregory Peck of the Indian film industry
Monday 18 November 1996
"Dev Anand has always done things with class," writes noted film critic turned media tycoon, Amit Khanna, in the winter 1989 issue of the film quarterly Cinema in India. "From the days of Jawaharlal Nehru to those of Rajiv Gandhi, Dev has always been in the midst of high society and in the headlines. He has gathered around him not just merely glamour but a host of enthusiastic youngsters. And he has relentlessly made films, irrespective of their fate at the box-office."
Dev Anand, together with Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, was the dominant star of the golden period of Indian cinema throughout the 1950s and early 1960s - a period when the masses identified with many socially relevant films. Bimal Roy's legendary Devdas (1955) threw the mantle of tragic hero upon the shoulders of Dilip Kumar, where it remained for Madhumati (1958), Ganga Jumna (1961) and Mughal-E-Azam (The Emperor of the Mughals, 1960). Raj Kapoor, meanwhile, won international celebrity, projecting himself as the underdog - a tramp with hints of Charlie Chaplin - in his own productions like Awara (The Vagabond, l951) and Sri 420 (Mr 420, 1955).
But of the three, it was Dev Anand who rose to become the role model for the post-colonial urban middle class. His "do-gooder boy-next-door" image, established in such films as CID (1956), Nau Do Gyarah (To Vanish, 1957) and Hum Dono (We Two, 1961), made him a hot favourite of the fair sex.
Dev Anand was also the first Indian movie actor to add style to stardom. In the Fifties and Sixties he set the fashion in the way men dressed: college students had their hair done in imitation of his high "puff" cut, while his unique way with dialogue - characterised by a rapid delivery of two or three lines in a single breath - became the rage among all age groups. Above all, his screen image boasted a unique blend of the Indian with the Western: some critics even detected a slight hint of Gregory Peck in his performances.
"Dev's eyes and his ambitions were turned continuously westwards," writes Bollywood film journalist Bunny Reuben in his 1993 book Follywood Flashback. "Dev met Gregory Peck, whom he so closely resembled in looks and in histrionic style, in Europe long before Peck visited India. Dev was in Rome when Peck and Audrey Hepburn were making Roman Holiday in the Eternal City, and he became friendly with him there."
Born on 26 September 1923 in Gurdaspur, Punjab, the son of a lawyer who was heavily involved in the independence struggle, Anand graduated from the Government College in Lahore, a city (now part of Pakistan) that had grown into a vibrant cultural and educational centre. But the pull of Bombay, the nation's film capital since the 1940s, was too strong a magnet for a 20-year-old with his eyes set on a career in popular cinema.
"I still remember landing in Bombay with just 30 rupees [nearly 70p at today's exchange rates] in my pocket," Anand recalls. "No one will ever know how hard I worked. I realised my dreams through the sweat of my brow." As the veteran film journalist and script writer VP Sathe also remarks, "He was a shy kind of person, but with a lot of zeal."
After an initial struggle to find his feet, during which time he also involved himself with the famous Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), Anand got his first break playing one of the male leads in PL Santoshi's Hum Ek Hain (We Are One, 1946), an allegorical tale about a woman who adopts three orphan boys each from a different religion. But it was the success of Ziddi (1948) that made him a star. A year later, with his elder brother Chetan Anand (who had by that time established himself as an avant- garde film-maker), Dev Anand formed his own film company, Navketan.
"Navketan heralded the golden age of popular cinema," wrote Amit Khanna: "a cinema that was entertaining but not mindless. The urban middle class who formed the bulk of the audience found identification in the characters of these films."
Navketan established its credentials with its second production, Baazi (The Wager, 1951), in which Anand played Madan, a small-time gambler who becomes embroiled in criminal activities while struggling to fund his sister's medical treatment. A big commercial draw, Baazi remains a milestone in Indian cinema for many reasons. It was a debut film for the renowned film-maker Guru Dutt; it introduced several artists who were soon to become celebrities; and it launched both the great Urdu Leftist poet Sahir Ludhianvi as a lyricist and SD Burman as a music director. At the same time, the script - written by a former BBC Hindi Service producer turned Bollywood actor, Balraj Sahni - set the trend for future crime thrillers.
But it is Guide (1965) that remains the high watermark in Anand's 51- year-long film career. Based upon RK Narayan's famous novel of the same name, the film tells the passionate tale of Raju (Dev Anand), a guide who motivates a talented but utterly neglected housewife Rosie (Waheeda Rahman) to become a dancer. Rosie becomes a celebrity, but Raju is jailed for forging her signature. Released from prison, he goes to a distant village where he is mistaken for a Mahatma, eventually undertaking a fast unto death for the sake of the villagers.
Guide was an international co-production made in two languages - English and Hindi. While the Hollywood version, directed by Ted Danielowski, failed to come off, the Hindi version, directed by Dev's younger brother Vijay, collected five coveted Filmfare awards (India's answer to the Oscars) and is still reckoned one of the best films ever produced in India.
As Sumita Chakraborti observed in her major study, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987, "it captures a particular ethos of the post-independence era in India, a kind of turning-point in the Sixties when the moral earnestness of the years immediately following the end of colonial rule had not evaporated into the national cynicism and the artistic polarisations of the Seventies and Eighties."
From the late 1960s, Dev Anand increasingly took up direction himself and, in 1970, made his debut as a director / producer with Prem Pujari (The Worshipper of Love). To date, he has directed 14 films, including such hits as Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1972), Heera Panna (Rare Jewels, 1974) and Des Pardes (1978).
Hare Rama Hare Krishna documented the way the early Seventies cult of hippiedom trapped Indian youth into a world of drugs. With its racy subject matter, treatment and music, the film itself became something of a cult, and still remains one of the most popular movies Anand has ever made. Another film that went down very well with audiences was Des Pardes, shot in different parts of Britain.
His new venture, Main Solah Baras Ki (I Am Sixteen), unravels the passionate tale of a British born Indian girl Madhu who falls in love with the screen image of Dev Anand, and how her radio journalist boyfriend Suneil helps her to meet Dev. "The idea grew in my mind last year when Asians in the UK and USA welcomed me to celebrate 50 years of my film career. So I am not in Scotland just to picturise a song or two. The story demands this location. I encounter the girl for the first time in Scotland," explains Dev Anand. London's West End is another location that has always attracted him, and many of the film's sequences are shot there.
Filming in Britain has proved lucky for him in the past. Des Pardes (1978), shot mainly in London, was a big draw. Dealing with the issue of illegal Asian immigrants, the film is still relevant 18 years after its making. "I have many friends in the UK and Asians have always gone out of their way to help me," says Dev. Through his recent films like Sachche Ka Bolbala (Truth Will Triumph, 1989), Awwal Number (First Rank, 1990), Sau Crore (A Thousand Million, 1991) and Gangster (1995), Dev Anand claims to have raised topical issues like the drift of the young generation, political corruption and growing violence in society. Most of these films bombed and did not fare well with the critics. One reason seems to be that the scripts and the treatments lacked credibility and another that his enacting the lead role tended to take his concentration away from sensitive directing. Many feel that Dev is out of touch as a film-maker and that he should confine himself to producing. He emphatically disagrees. "Always remember with growing years you become wiser. I am absolutely alert and my faculties are at their best. Critics said similar things about me when after Hare Rama Hare Krishna some of my films didn't do well. Remember with Des Pardes I proved myself. With my latest venture in Scotland I have the same combination and I will be back."
Next year, Dev Anand intends to go one step further and make a film not only in Britain, but in English too. "Times have changed," says the 73- year-old, exuding a confidence that is both incredible and infectious. "Indian film-makers, if they want to survive, will have to go international"
Lalit Mohan Joshi is a journalist and film historian. He will be talking to Dev Anand before a live audience at 4pm on Sunday at the Picadilly Cinema, Birmingham, as part of the 12th Birmingham International Film & Television Festival's tribute to the director, beginning on Thursday with a screening of `Hum Dono'. Festival hotline: 0121-634 4909. The tribute goes on national tour, starting at the Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford (0181-568 1176), 7-12 Dec
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