[Did a version of this for the Sunday Guardian]
Hindi-movie buffs have many reasons to be grateful for the production house Navketan, founded in 1949 by the Anand brothers Chetan and Dev – the former an established director who had won an award at the inaugural Cannes festival, the latter on his way to becoming one of Indian cinema’s best-loved leading men. Without the breezy unselfconsciousness of this studio’s best films, its refusal to get too mired in ideology – and, of course, Dev Anand’s urbane and upbeat star persona – 1950s Hindi cinema might have been suffocated by quasi-realist social dramas filled with tragic heroes and martyrs, and by a limited idea of what “Indianness” had to mean.
“In the 1950s filmmakers were involved in the ‘national project’, which inevitably involved the village in some form or the other,” writes journalist-author Sidharth Bhatia in the Introduction to his book Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, “But the urban world of Navketan, created by the sensibility of the Anands, was as much about the Indian reality… The difference lay in the fact that their early films looked at urban India in an entertaining rather than a disaffected way.”
Personally, when I think of the early Navketan films – such as Baazi or Taxi Driver – and compare them with the more overtly socially conscious cinema of the period (some of the work of Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy, for instance), I’m reminded of the critic Manny Farber’s distinction between Elephant Art and Termite Art: the latter (especially relevant to high-quality genre films) doesn’t self-consciously set out to make a strong statement but creates something meaningful and abiding through an accumulation of fine talents jointly doing their best work. It bears considering that while Dev Anand wasn’t taken too seriously as an actor in his own time, some of his early performances hold up better today than the work of more highly regarded dramatic performers. And the genre films directed by his prodigiously talented younger brother Vijay – Jewel Thief and Teesri Manzil among them – have a fluidity and cinematic assuredness that was often overlooked because of their lack of “serious” content.
As you can guess from its title, Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story is a history of this studio and its films. It’s a terrific-looking book, full of rare photographs and stills, but it sits – sometimes uneasily – on the ridge separating coffee-table publications from conventional, text-driven histories. The research is efficient, the writing lucid, but there is also evidence of the Repetition Malaise that hits so much of our non-fiction: on many occasions, exactly the same thought is expressed multiple times, with only minor changes in word arrangements. To take just one offhand example, the section on Taxi Driver finds different ways to provide identical information about Sylvie the dancing girl (also referred to as “Sylvie the Anglo-Indian dancer” and “the dancer Sylvie”, all within the same three or four pages). She “goes with clients to the Taj Mahal Hotel, the unattainable bastion of the upper classes” and “she likes to spend time at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the watering hole of the city’s elite”. Plot synopses do tend to be vulnerable to such repetition, but it isn’t all that hard to avoid. I also thought it a little puzzling that almost every reference to Dev Anand (and there are hundreds, as you might imagine) uses his full name. Given the book’s candid tone, a simple “Dev” might have sufficed.
On the positive side, I was glad that Bhatia doesn’t pass off every Navketan film as a classic; he is frank about what he regards the failures, and also about Anand’s embarrassing post-1970s directorial ventures. (“The treatment of the women was often gratuitously voyeuristic; the scripts were shoddy and the plotlines thin.”) But the principal mode is that of casual, one-line judgements – a limitation probably imposed by the book’s format. Of the early film Afsar, he says (having watched just the surviving three reels), “the overall effect is stagey and immobile”. He writes disapprovingly of the 1951 Aandhiyan that it “was shot in dark overtones”, that it “was unrelieved by any lightness” and that it “was designed to make you think” – as if these things in themselves make for a poor movie. Reading this, one would almost conclude that the good Navketan films were mindless entertainments that followed a fixed formula (and that is far from the case).
Which means that as a history this book is a passable addition to the meagre literature on popular Hindi cinema. The best things about it are the photos and the posters: I particularly liked the delightful illustrated advertisements for Afsar, the stills from lesser-known movies like Humsafar, and the shots of Dev Anand and Nutan from Tere Ghar ke Saamne, but you'll have a good time picking your own favourites.