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April 4, 1997


'A trend-setter must be cold-blooded, selfish and cruel -- he will go down in history as a saint'

It is late evening when I'm ushered into Devsaab's suite. Coffee-table glossies, trade sheets and best sellers vie with Camus, Gide and Tagore one every available shelf, table and seat. Even the floor hasn't been spared. I push aside a stack to make room on the sofa. It's a reader's realm, and I'm already at ease.

Guide An hour passes. The man enters. Poise departs. My heart is wrenched by the obvious changes: the hair has thinned, and the dent on his forehead is lost among the furrows of age. Devsaab stares deep into my eyes, and suddenly, he grins: I see those famous dental gaps, and the colour slowly seeps out of the room. The world is monochrome once again, and I am with Funtoosh.

Which only makes things worse. I go through the motions of questioning. He talks; the tape spins. Each time I struggle out of my fugue to cross some statement, he grins. I retreat into bliss. Does he know what I'm going through? That I'm as hung as that infinitive? How does it feel to be the heart-throb of three generations?

"I revel in the thought. And I feel more responsible, too. I can fathom the mind of a fan; the woman wants to come closer, and she's been denied it. She also realises that it's not possible. She wants something else which she cannot find. I'm a very normal human being, but my education, my sophistication and my decency make me behave in a certain manner. All great achievers have to sacrifice something in life, but I'm soft at heart, agar maine 5 minut diye, to mera kya bighda?"

It cuts to be put in place. I must retaliate: Devsaab, do you really expect me to believe that you have never taken advantage of women throwing themselves at you? "I'm not subnormal; my life is a privately open book. If I've had guilt pangs, they have been few and short-lived. I have always thought that relationships are too beautiful to sully in public -- it's in bad taste. I'm basically a decent man and I respect women."

With Nalini Jaywant One would have to be either extremely clean, or an inveterate villain, to proclaim one's decency so. Perhaps, this is the hook that movie-goers instantly recognised: it is a fact that I could not get even his ex-employees to say anything unsavoury about Devsaab. The worst thing said of him is, "Like all stars, zara kaan ke kachche hain."

It dawns on me that my questions -- directed at a man in his early seventies, and my mother's colleague -- are potentially flirtatious. I'm embarrassed by the ambiguity of my motives, but Devsaab is taking it as if it's the most natural thing in the world. His presumptuousness is infuriating. There are no claims of being over the hill. I move to a wholesome topic:

"My father was an Arya Samaji. He was a freedom fighter, a lawyer and a great scholar. He knew Persian, studied the Quran in Arabic, the Geeta in Sanskrit, and the Bible in Hebrew. The spirit of taking on challenges, the introspective, analysing parts of my nature are inherited from him. The soft, gentle part of me is my mother. Main unke liye bazar se bakri ka doodh laya karta tha. You know, she had this same dent on her forehead. I wish she were alive today."

I do not doubt his penchant for challenges. Despite flops all through the last 16 years, Navketan has not slowed down the production of films. "None of my films are flops; I have conquered something in each. Has anyone attempt0ed the subjects I have? Kisi ne nahin. In Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1972), I probed the growing influence of drugs. It was a blockbuster, and Asha's song is still alive and kicking. Can they do something on an illegitimate child of a holy man (Swami Dada, 1982)? Koi nahi banata. Log dar jate hain: maine banaye. I do not adapt; it is worth taking every chance to be original. One must selfishly follow motivated ideals. A trend-setter must be cold-blooded, selfish and cruel -- he will go down in history as a saint."

Were you always so headstrong? "At the age of 20, I came to Bombay to be an actor, with only Rs 30 in my pocket, in a 3rd class compartment of the Frontier Mail. I was starving, so I did all sorts of odd jobs, including one as a censor in the wartime postal department. But I chucked it up because I didn't want to degenerate in a 9-to-5 job. All I had was my tremendous confidence and my dreams. Ismat Chugtai called me to Bombay Talkies and offered me Ziddi (1948). It was my first hit, and Kishore Kumar's break. Yes, I'm very stubborn. During the Emergency, they banned Kishore; they sent a circular saying that anybody's services could be assumed on behalf of the government. This is not a police State! You can't force me! So I rallied with the Janata Party against Mrs Gandhi. Main darr ke bhaag nahin jata."

With Anu Agarwal in Return of Jewel Theif There's a pattern emerging: despite his BA (Hon) in and disposition for English, Devsaab lapses into Hindi exactly when he gets emotional. In fact, all the off-the-records are in Hindi. I love it. This is a good time to ask about his unfulfilled dreams.

"My regrets in life are that I can't play an instrument and I can't dance. We have a strong musical background. My father used to have musical mehfils every evening. Chetan could play the violin; I wish I could play the piano, the guitar or sitar. In the early days of Navketan, I would never interfere in the other departments of film-making; I was content with hanging on to my acting talent. But music? I always kept the upper hand! I would always participate, even in outside productions."

Behind the camera Yes, Devsaab, I can see your throat bob as you lip-sync to taans and murkis -- you sing within. Besides, with your track-record, who would doubt your ear for melody? Every software company knows that clips of Dev Anand film songs is the ultimate gold mine. Then, how did it feel to work with Bappi Lahiri and Ram-Laxman, after decades with the Dev Burmans and Jaidev?

Straight face: "Human nature needs a change". Devs-a-a-b… I cajole. His eyes twinkle, "Woh tape pehle band karo."

Even the mere topic of music has strange powers. We joust, and the mood shifts completely. My anxiety dissipates: I chat as if I've known him since years. I take liberties I would never have imagined. He doesn't realise that he's begun addressing me as 'tu.'

I come up with weird ones: You smoked a lot in films, but it never feels like you savoured it – not the way Guru Dutt or Raj Kapoor did. He laughs in delight, "I don't smoke and I don't drink - I'm a good boy." He volunteers equally eclectic information: "At Prabhat, they asked me to bridge the gaps between my teeth. I refused, and people liked me, gaps and all. Isn't that funny?" It's hilarious, I shriek. When and why did you button up the collar for good? "I always kept that button closed." Liar! In your old movies you wore open-necked shirts, especially when the role was not that of a 'gentleman'. "That's when I was Funtoosh," and he madly waves his arms in the air. God, you're so horribly straight-laced, uncle! There, that dreaded word slips out on its own accord. I have lost the battle of the ages…

Back Dev Anand, continued