[Yes, I know this is the fourth post in the last 10 days involving the Dev Anand biography. Yes, I’m obsessed. But want to put the full-length review up here anyway; this appeared in Business Standard last week.]
There’s so much fun to be had with Dev Anand’s new memoir (assuming, of course, that you have a basic interest in the man’s life and work) that it’s almost pointless to read the book chronologically. Instead, you can randomly flip pages to chuckle at the elaborate prose, marvel at Anand’s many blithe descriptions of being chased around by crazed fans, mainly pretty young girls (“a sensuous mouth lunged forward to rub her lipstick on my laughing but bashful face”), or the conviction with which he continues to defend the turkeys that he’s directed in the last couple of decades (the early Aamir Khan-starrer Awwal Number was apparently “ahead of its time” because it alluded to LTTE terrorism a year before the Rajiv Gandhi assassination; further, its cricket theme “found some resonance years later in the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, which Aamir produced”).
You can also scan sex scenes that incongruously combine Mills-and-Boon-style soft porn with a quaint, old-world reticence (“she offered me the opening to her ecstasy”) while noting how these passages are always about anonymous women (his candour is selective; when it comes to public figures, he doesn’t kiss and tell to the same degree, which makes this a disappointing book for stardust-collectors). And you can roll your eyes while reading passages such as the one where, during the shooting of Heera Panna, the red cap he was wearing flew away to land – where else? – on “the bulging breasts of a village belle”.
Romancing with Life is a carelessly structured, overwritten and often meandering book (especially in its many conversation-driven passages, where it’s common to see 20 sentences used where five or six would have sufficed), but it has one thing going for it that most other star autobiographies in India lack: this is almost without question Dev Anand’s own work. It’s full of the cheerful, uninhibited floridity that marks everything the man does, and that no ghostwriter would have been able to simulate. (How could anyone but Dev Anand himself have produced a sentence like this one: “Those I am closest to, those who like and love me and I them, call me ‘Dev’, just ‘Dev’, short and sweet and possessive, godly and sexy, and intimate to the extreme, in bedrooms, in drawing rooms, in the streets and in public squares.”) The reviewer’s stock complaint “it should have been better edited” would be completely irrelevant here, for Romancing with Life is an immediate representation of Dev Anand on the page in a way that a better written, better edited book could never be.
Which is just as well, for no one is going to read it for its literary merits anyway. This is a memoir meant for Anand fans or for those who have, at least sporadically, admired certain things he has stood for over his career: the flamboyant screen persona (watch his best early films to see how his mix of style and substance often holds up better than the heavy-handed work of his two great contemporaries Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, both of whom were taken more seriously by critics at the time); the determination to keep going in the face of dissuasion and mockery; the willingness to throw his arms around the world, even when the world didn’t particularly want to be embraced.
And of course, the eternal optimism. A reader casually skimming through this book might get the impression that Anand has received nothing but love and adulation from everyone he’s ever met in his life, but it would be short-sighted to see it as a mere litany of the peaks that he conquered (or imagined he conquered). Look closely and you’ll realise that he’s equally open about his failures, but since his default mode is sanguinity, since he so insistently looks at the bright side of things, the downbeat passages are brief and it’s easy to gloss over them. When a beautiful girl he’s made an impromptu date with – for New Year’s Eve at Times Square, no less – doesn’t show up, he handles this with the same savoir-faire that he would any of his conquests. And though he cast himself in all his films as the "Heera" who was irresistible to the "Pannas" (even if the Panna in question was a hot model, 30 years his junior), he has no qualms admitting that in real life he was the one infatuated by Zeenat Aman, and that he felt humiliated when she left his production house for Raj Kapoor's.
Or take the much-anticipated (and disappointing, for it tells us nothing we haven’t read in film magazines before) chapter about his relationship with Suraiya, which was ended by her domineering grandmother. Anand makes it clear that this was one of the most traumatic incidents in his life, but even here he ends on a positive note, with his elder brother Chetan telling him that the episode would make him stronger for battles ahead. (The effect is also leavened, though unintentionally, by a friend's declaration that "Shakespeare will be reborn to give this tragic love story immortality in a play that will beat Romeo and Juliet”.) The recurring imagery of a “special ray” that the sun reserves for Anand (“it brightened my face anew”) when things are looking down would be unbearably trite elsewhere, but it almost (almost) works here, because you can believe that the man is being sincere; this really is the way he’s lived most of his life.
Is Romancing the Life worth the Rs 695 it’s priced at? Not unless you’re a rabid fan (or one of the apparently millions of nubile young girls still lining up to be cast in his next film or plant smooches on him in public). But if you get it as a gift, it’s as entertaining in its own goofy way as his mid-period movies were.