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'The trick is to look forward with excitement, then you're alive all the time'

By VARSHA BHOSLE
September 26, 2022 10:27 IST
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Varsha Bhosle salutes that effervescent icon of Indian cinema, Dev Anand, who would have turned 99 today, September 26.

IMAGE: Dev Anand.

This feature was first posted on Rediff.com on April 4, 1997.

I remember the garden party at RK Studios in the winter of 1961 extremely well. I disengaged my hand from Didimavshi's (Lata Mangeshkar) and walked over to whence the embers flew. One look at the sweaty man turning the lamb on spit, and I fled for dear life. As I darted to my aunt, Raj uncle nabbed me, and up, up, up into the air I was being lifted...

I remember toddling down from the recording theatre of Mehboob Studios and sneaking into its musty sound-stage. Amidst the bustle and flurry of shooting, Dilip uncle leaned down and, lower lip jutting slightly, spoke respectfully, so gently, just as if I were Meena Kumari: "Aap kaisin hain? Badmaash, school nahin gayin?"

Of the third member of the holy trinity, I have no early recollections at all. I'm convinced that during my teens, some defence-mechanism erased all childhood memories of him. Perhaps, my mind couldn't handle the incestuous reek clinging to the feelings he evoked. For, even after strong forays by Shammi Kapoor and Bachchan, my heart remains wholly and solely Dev Anand's.

I will always be passionately in love with the black and white Dev Anand of Taxi Driver (1954), Nau Do Gyarah (1957), Amardeep (1958) and Kala Bazar (1960). Even in colour, and after he got more stylised, my mind perceives only the Anand of Asli Naqli (1962). Therefore, do not expect my characteristic pot-shots -- one cannot be objective about a man whose mere mention effects a serious quivering in one's innards. Men, poor souls, have not been granted the depth to experience such phenomena.

What made Devsaab tick? (Notice, no 'uncle'). It wasn't his cocked hair, since he got rid of it mid-career. It wasn't nimble-footedness, since he couldn't dance. It wasn't a happy/comic persona, since Raju Guide (1965) was anything but. Ditto the tragic figure, as evinced by the delightful Banarasi Babu (1973). Perhaps, it was his smile, which revealed those devastating gaps near the canines. Or, it may have been that equally ravaging horizontal dent on his forehead. Which are only ways of saying that Devsaab's charm is beyond all definition.

Whether in battle (Hum Dono, 1961), or torn by professional ethics (Tere Mere Sapne, 1971), or on the scent of villains (CID, 1956), the common thread through the screen personae in Devsaab's 105 films is the image of the supreme lover. Not a lusty sex symbol, but the wholesome boy-next-door we all want to drag home to mommy.

Some say that Rajesh Khanna was India's ultimate lover -- he had his moments, I agree. But the crucial difference is that Devsaab never really tried -- he simply was. Even when he straightly played the hood-winked sleuth in Jewel Thief (1967), all I wanted was to throttle Vyjayantimala.

IMAGE: Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in Guide.

One magical day, while calling Suneil, I mistakenly dialled his father's number. "Varsha! This is Dev speaking. Are you the one who writes?" "You pick up your own phone?", I stammered.

"Oh I'm easily accessible -- I've no secretary screening calls. What's the big deal? But tell me about yourself: did you Honour in English?" No. Is that so terrible? "I'm not hung up on English, but I do believe that the day every young person will know the language, you will see a change in the intellect, mood and sophistication of the people. They will be more broad-minded, large-hearted and international."

"English is not the monopoly of the British. I object to being parochial: I've been here since 1943; mujhse bada koi aur Maharashtrian ho sakta hai?"

I fell prey to the euphoria of that day: While blowing my trumpet to the devious editor of this webzine, he cunningly slipped in a demand for spiking 200 words from some article. I, who tug and tilt for even two dubious punctuations, said, "Yeah, yeah, strike whatever you want, but listen to this..." After which, I was snared into interviewing Devsaab.

I thought it would be very clever of me to intellectualise scenes from Devsaab's movies. As preparation, I dug out a stack of videos and, notebook in hand, switched on my all-time Dev Anand favourite: Kala Pani of 1958...

The lantern of Navketan glows, and the lean and tall Karan enters my life. Open-necked, standing-collared shirt, cuffs rolled up loosely; high-waisted baggy trousers; and an intensity that makes me wilt.

If Madhubala flits in and out, I do not notice. My notes go well -- till the first song-sequence: Devsaab, in achkan and makhmal ki topi, swinging a cane and chewing paan, saunters into the kotha of Nalini Jaywant: Nazar laagi raja tore... Karan slides his topi forward onto his forehead, as one perfect eyebrow arches in displeasure. "La haul-wila... Tauba, tauba, tauba!" he scowls. Jaywant freezes. I crumple up my notes.

Song-end, Karan tells the smitten Jaywant, "Is shakal se aap jaisi bahuton ne dhokha khaya, aur baad me mar miti... Zara dil thaam ke baithiye-ga! Humne aise bahutse dil uda liyen hain." I fumble for my heart in vain. Then, Hum bekhudi me tumko pukare... begins, and Karan flings out his arms on ...chale gaye.

There is nothing else to be done but fl-y-y-y into them. End of preparations.

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

IMAGE: A scene from Ziddi (1948).

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.

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."

IMAGE: Dev Anand with Madhubala in Kala Pani (1958).

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."

IMAGE: Dev Anand and Vyjayanthimala in a scene from Jewel Thief (1967).

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 attempted 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."

IMAGE: Dev Anand in Johny Mera Naam (1970).

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 (his elder brother, the film-maker Chetan Anand) 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."

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...

I have a complex that I'm not a muscular man. Yeh chhaati chowdi karke, aur sehat karke. I didn't even accept costume dramas as they did not suit me." Uncle, what about Hindustan Hamara in 1950? Your Krishna Bhagwan was cute as a button. "I did it only for my friend Paul Zils. I hated doing Insaaniyat (1955), too. They stuck a moustache on me." Aah! the only film with Dilip Kumar...

Okay, don't get mad now, but many call you a non-actor, like Cary Grant.

"My range, my stay, my span speaks for itself. I'm not just a fluke, am I? It cannot be! Koi kuchh bhi bol deta hai. Go ahead, enjoy yourself, I say. Tomorrow is another day." My heart hurtles to him. Given my bias, maybe it doesn't count, but I think he was a good actor through the sixties. Navketan deliberately planned films with a spectrum of roles, and he acquitted himself with honour.

IMAGE: Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

But, Guide was something else again... "The world will say that -- because it was a climax from the point of view of film-making, story material and thought. It was a great book. Yet, you can't compare every film with it. Whatever I may do, they love me only in romance." That's not true, I wail. He has a strange smile: he knows I'm lying.

I realise that I've stopped seeing the shadow of my dreams as the pain in the eyes of the real man comes into focus. I recall someone saying that Devsaab is a very detached man, that nothing gets to him. Although at that time a Heathcliff-like image added to his charm, I don't buy it anymore. I'm convinced that the feet of my idol are made of vulnerable flesh.

"I have faced so many losses in my personal life and in this business. People try to rein me in. if I listen to them, main khatm ho jaoonga. To main akela ho jata hoon -- I read, I write, I create. My solitude helps me to pick up something of greater interest. Or, I may travel abroad and meet new people, see new places: That gives me inspiration for creativity. Aise karke detachment develop ho gaya. The trick is to look forward with excitement, then you're alive all the time. That's the way to be perennially young."

IMAGE: Dev Anand in Hum Dono (1961).

Uncle, it is hardly an acquired trait. Are you telling me that you do not hurt inside? "Did I say so? I'm a possessive man: When my loved ones go away, jhatka lagta hai. Ekdum takk-se ho jata hai. But pain can be very beautiful, too. You start feeling, yaar, maza aa raha hai. Koi baat nahi, duniya me aisa hi hota hai, that is the process of growth."

"Remember the philosophy from Guide: Dukh woh amrit hai jis-se paap dhote hain... Zindagi ek khayal hai; na sukh hai, na dukh hai, na deed hai, na duniya. Na insaan, na bhagwan - sirf main hoon, main hoon... Sirf main. Detachment is a difficult process, but it can be done. You must control yourself and mature; or you may end up in an asylum, a jail, or as an alcoholic."

Images of Guru Dutt flash before my eyes, of Kagaaz Ke Phool, of his untimely demise: He never developed detachment. I say so. Also, that this is turning out to be rather gut-twisting. Where are the stars in my eyes I had come with?

"Chalo, I'll tell you something amusing from when I was employed with Prabhat for my first film (Hum Ek Hain, 1945). One day, the dhobi mixed up my laundry. I went looking for my shirts and found them with the assistant director/choreographer of Vishram Bedekar. That's how Guru (Dutt) and I met and became pals."

"We were a set. We made a pact that, some day, ours would be a Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra-like alliance. After Afsar (1950) flopped, I told Chetan to bring in Guru for Baazi (1951). What novelties it introduced: Geeta Bali and I; Balraj Sahani's script; Johnny Walker's, my wife's and Sahir's first film; the S D Burman/Sahir combination... Then Guru set up his production, and I starred in Jaal (1952). He became a big director."

IMAGE: Dev Anand and Nutan in Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963).

But you never worked with him again. Shrug: "Meri kitaab badi zabardast likhoonga. I joined films on July 19, 1945. I will go into the 21st century -- Dev Anand has something to say after five decades in this great profession. Real education is what life teaches you, your contact with humanity, your starvation, your observations, your frustrations, joys and sufferings. Duniya ko nahi pata hai maine yeh kitni baaten tere saath ki hain."

I sense that he is spent. I, too, have an ache in my clenched jaws and a lump in my throat: I know that this evening has robbed me of all the pleasures of yearning, of swooning over 'Karan' and his makhmal ki topi/ I have been stripped of my fantasies.

To top it all, I can't be absolutely certain of his sincerity. After a half a century of charming people with his little toe, I was a push-over, anyway. He interrupts my thoughts, "Teri humne koi khaatir bhi nahi ki..."

Uncle, it's late, I have to go. In any case, you made me wait for an hour just for that BBC crew. "Apne samajh sakte hain." Hmmm... verry charming. It doesn't wash, but what the hell: If not Devsaab, then who? I realise that he hasn't really used his legendary charms on me. I don't know if I'm not insulted.

IMAGE: Dev Anand and Mumtaz in Tere Mere Sapne (1971).

However, I do know that everything is changed. A part of my life has vanished forever. I may never see him again; our paths have no reason to cross. The lump intensifies. Devsaab escorts me to the lift. Before getting in, I have one request -- Uncle, may I touch your face? He is a little startled, "Yes, of course!" I feel the dent. I touch his cheeks. "Thank you. God bless you," he says.

KD Lang croons on the car radio: Constant craving... Has always been... I cry all the way home.

Yaar, kuchh-kuchh maza aa raha hai...

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VARSHA BHOSLE