Photographs: NV Reuben Patcy N in Mumbai
At 76, Deven Varma looks very fit and active sitting in his quaint bungalow in the posh Kalyani Nagar neighbourhood in Pune. For an 11 am interview, he is set and ready by 10:15.
Varma has worked in 149 films, with some of the biggest names in the business, like Gol Maal, Angoor, Khatta Meetha, Naastik, Rang Birangi, Dil and Judaai.
In the first of a two-part interview, Deven Varma speaks to Patcy N about his life and times, why he retired from the movies, and the new generation of actors.
My father Baldev Singh Varma was in the silver business. Then he got into film distribution with a friend. My mother was a housewife. I have four sisters
We shifted to Pune because of my eldest sister. She was studying in GN Khalsa College, in Matunga. In those days, there were lots of riots in Mumbai. She wanted to become a doctor, so we chose to shift to Pune. She joined the Nowrosjee Wadia College for Arts and Science in Pune. I studied in a school in Panchgani and joined the same college. In my college days, I would participate in dramas and youth festivals.
After my graduation, I joined the Law College in Mumbai but got fed up after six months.
My eldest sister became the principal of a government school in Pune, my second sister was a doctor practising in Mumbai, the third sister is a school principal and the youngest is settled in Houston; she is in charge of foreign students at Texas University.
'I started mimicking film artistes on stage before anybody else did'
I was doing stage shows and was part of a drama group. (Actor) Johnny Whiskey and I started mimicking film artistes on stage before anybody else did.
I was performing a one-act show at a function of the North India Punjabi Association and B R Chopra was in the audience. He picked me for Dharmaputra (1961). I was paid Rs 600 a month.
After Dharamputra, I went abroad to do stage shows. Dharamputra flopped. I was in Mauritius where Shashi (Kapoor) sent me a letter that said, ‘Picture has flopped and nobody knows the reason why’.
When I returned to Mumbai, A V Meiyappan of AVM Studios hired me on a contract for Rs 1500 a month, for three years. I had to stay in Madras where I was coached in acting.
In the meanwhile, another film of mine, Gumrah (1963) released, in which I played Ashok Kumar’s servant. It was a comic role and was appreciated.
Mr Meiyappan asked me to choose between Madras and Mumbai and I chose to come back to Mumbai after a year. After Gumrah, I did Qawwali Ki Raat (1964) opposite Mumtaaz. It was her first film.
Next, I signed Devar (1966), Anupama (1966) and a Bhojpuri film Nahihar Chutal Jaiye opposite Kumkum. I did about two films a year. I was in no hurry.
'Affairs were common in those days too but nobody tom-tommed it'
Shooting on the sets
We would never shoot on location. We would shoot on the sets in a studio and we all shot for 15 days at a stretch on one set only. And then we came back after a few days.
It was a friendly atmosphere; people liked to be together. Nowadays there is no camaraderie. People shoot on different days.
Affairs were common in those days too but nobody tom-tommed it. Nowadays, the only news about actors is who is dating whom.
When we watched a film, we discussed the remarkable performances of Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar. We would discuss acting. Today’s generation discusses dance and stunts -- this is what it has come down to.
'There was never a period when I had no work'
My career really took off in 1975 after Chori Mera Kaam, which gave me my first Filmfare Award. It was a big hit and I was flooded with offers.
I have a record of working in 16 movies at one time. There was a time when I was shooting for Esmayeel Shroff’s Ahista Ahista through the night in Mumbai, then early in the morning I would go to Hyderabad to shoot for Jeetendra’s Pyaasa Sawaan and at four in the evening I would leave Hyderabad for Delhi to shoot for Yash Chopra’s Silsila, then back to Mumbai for Esmayeel Shroff.
The reason I was doing so many films at a time was that I couldn’t say no. I was in the industry for so long and had made so many friends, so I couldn’t say no and disappoint anyone.
In this industry, you can last for 10 years on your talent but on good behaviour you will last forever. I have worked in the film industry for 47 years. I retired after my father-in-law (Ashok Kumar) died.
My last film was Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi but Calcutta Mail released last. Till the time I was working I had lots of films on hand. There was never a period when I had no work.
I received three Filmfare Awards, for Chori Mera Kaam, Chor Ke Ghar Chor and Angoor. I lost all three trophies when I briefly moved house. My wife was operated for lung collapse in Mumbai and the doctor advised a pollution free place for her so I shifted to Chennai. When we moved back to Mumbai after two years, I lost my two bags in transit.
My first film as producer was Yakeen in 1969. I produced eight films. In 1971, I directed and produced Naadan, starring Asha Parekh and Navin Nischol. Then there was Bada Kabootar (1973) with Ashok Kumar, Besharam (1978) with Amitabh Bachchan, and Daana Paani (1989) with Mithun Chakraborty.
'Kishore Kumar performed my engagement with Rupa Ganguly'
Photographs: Marshall Fernandes
When (my sister-in-law) Preeti Ganguly died last December, I got so many condolences as the newspapers had reported that my wife had died! I am married to the other daughter of Ashok Kumar, Rupa Ganguly, who has never acted in a film.
I worked with Ashok Kumar in many films like Dharamputra, Gumrah, Aaj Aur Kal, and would work with each other everyday. He would call me home for dinner and that’s how I came to know the family.
Rupa and I liked each other and wanted to marry and I asked Ashok Kumar saab for her hand in marriage. He looked at me and said, “We will think about it.”
It took two years for us to finally get married. They would say she is too young, we will decide later, and kept on delaying because Ashok Kumar’s elder daughter Bharati had also married a Gujarati, Dr Patel.
Kishore Kumar performed our engagement. We got married at the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai.
'Angoor has a repeat value that beats some of the biggest blockbusters'
The goof up in Angoor
Angoor is a story of two days and one night but it has a repeat value that beats some of the biggest blockbusters. It has the highest sales in video because the comedy was not loud and fake, but believable.
The twin characters (Varma has a double role in the film) dress the same, and there is no dress change. Their names are the same too.
When I dubbed the movie, by mistake I pronounced ‘sa’ in two different ways for the two characters. After the dubbing, I went to the US.
The film was ready and nobody noticed the mistake. It was ready to release when (director) Gulzar saw it and pointed out that there should be no difference between the two characters. I got a trunk call in New York to come back immediately to re-dub the film.
I came back and we sat the whole night and redubbed the dialogues. Just for that little difference Gulzar called me back. He was very particular.
Still, there were differences in the two Bahadurs -- one has sleeves folded while the other has full sleeves. In some places, both the Bahadurs are wearing long sleeves. We saw these mistakes after the film was released so we all kept quiet over it and nobody caught it.
'In this industry, you get films depending on the hits you have delivered'
The movie that he enjoyed doing the most
I enjoyed doing Deedar-E-Yaar (1982) but it flopped. It was produced by Jeetendra. I loved the role; even the critics loved my role.
Throughout the film, I have to look deadpan. I had no expression in the whole movie.
It was difficult to do because I had dialogues where I had to react but still keep a straight face.
In this industry, you get films depending on the hits you have delivered. A hit means more people saw you. On the other hand, if you give a good performance but the film works for just seven days, it means people have not seen you (in those days, films had silver and golden jubilees of 50 to 100 days).
'Today's youngsters have lots of attitude'
Why he retired
I believe that if you have worked hard, then there must be time in life to enjoy the hard work. I have worked hard in this industry and I had to rest and so I retired.
There was another reason for my retiring. When I was doing my last film, I found that youngsters in the industry have brought in a new style and pop culture of which we are no more a part of.
I would get put off when a young girl who is assisting on the sets would come up to me smoking and snap her fingers and say ‘Chaliye saab aapko bulaya hai’. I would get upset.
We used to be treated well, with tehzeeb (manners) but I find today’s youngsters have lots of attitude. I can’t blame them -- the new generation is like that, their attitude is different. So if it doesn’t make you happy, you should not work. I can’t ask others to change.
Before retiring, I had bought a bungalow in Pune and moved there in 1993.
'Ranbir Kapoor is the best actor today'
What he does like about present day actors and films
With the television culture, no bad actor can prevail in the industry for long. No more can star kids dominate the silver screen if they are bad actors.
Only a good actor will do well, like Govinda, who was not a star kid. But Randhir Kapoor could not stay. He may be Raj Kapoor’s son and Govinda may be from a chawl but people have become more discerning.
This has helped the movie system. People appreciate actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui as he has done good work.
I have never enjoyed a movie so much as I have enjoyed Vicky Donor. It belonged to my genre. I loved it because it is a believable comedy.
Movies like Rowdy Rathore where jeeps fly, and if a hero kicks a villain he flies 15 feet in the air, also work. Audience is the boss.
I have friends in Pune, who own small theatres. I call them and tell them about some movie I have heard a lot about and would like to watch, and they arrange a show for 10 to 15 people.
The last movie that I saw in the theatre was Vicky Donor. But I keep watching movies on television.
There is tremendous talent in all spheres of the film industry.
Ranbir Kapoor is the best actor today. He has the guts to do different kinds of roles and the confidence to do it and get away with it.
At a time when you are doing so well in the industry and are offered the role of a dumb and deaf boy (Barfi!) where you can’t say a single dialogue, and you still accept it…you have to have confidence to do that and plus be successful doing it.
Actresses are evolving. I did not like Deepika Padukone in the first movie I saw her in but as I see her now, she has evolved as an actor.
I consider Vinay Pathak of Bheja Fry fame as the best comedian in recent times.
People today want to work in films because if their film does well, they will get to do lots of ad films.
The fiercest competition is in the singing field because if a singer gets a hit song, he will get that many shows to do.