Sunday, September 24, 2023

Good, bad, silly: why all of Dev Anand's work is vital (sort of)

(Wrote this piece as part of the Times of India’s package around Dev Anand’s centenary)

Our movie history is full of instances of male stars trying to reinvent themselves, making alterations to their screen image or choice of collaborators – to fit a new zeitgeist, to stay relevant for new audiences, or simply to play their age. Thus, most recently, Shah Rukh Khan teamed up with the Tamil director Atlee for a new sort of masala action film; in an earlier time Amitabh Bachchan (when he was exactly the same age SRK is now – 57 going on 58) overturned his shaky fortunes by hosting Kaun Banega Crorepati. Mass superstar Rajinikanth worked in the explicitly political Pa. Ranjith film Kaala, and even Rishi Kapoor played gritty roles in indie cinema late in his career.

By way of contrast, there is Dev Anand – who was not just forever young, as the cliché has it, but also confident (or over-confident?) enough to not seek an image overhaul (one can imagine him disapproving of the Kaala scenes where the younger version of Rajinikanth is evoked through animation interludes). Dev, for that’s what he wanted us to call him (“those who like me and love me call me Dev, just Dev, short and sweet and possessive, godly and sexy,” he declared in his extraordinary memoir Romancing with Life, a book that reads as if he had personally written every word and never allowed an editor near the thing) – Dev just went on and on, regardless of what anyone thought, confident that his fan base would follow him anywhere.

This attitude would result in a number of latter-day films that very few people think of as good cinema. The stories behind the making of some of these films – the continuing infatuation with much younger actresses, the rush to launch a new, untested face as fast as possible – can be embarrassing too. And so, in assessing Dev Anand’s career, one usually sees a clear divide made between the quality of the work in the first two decades (broadly the period from Baazi, 1951 to Johny Mera Naam, 1970) and the diminishing returns that followed – the head-bobbing mannerisms, the displays of narcissism on screen, the hurriedly made ego projects.

As a critical approach, this is useful, because his best work shines so bright. Taxi Driver, Kala Bazaar, Paying Guest, Guide, Jewel Thief… these, to name just a few, are enshrined films that define his legacy, and the reason why he is one of our most important star-actors whose centenary deserves to be celebrated with nationwide screenings.

But here’s a proposition: drawing a sharp line between Dev’s early and late career – and emphasising only the quality of the films and performances – can be a barrier to understanding something essential about the man and the star: the unflagging optimism and self-belief that fuelled him through six decades.

For my generation, many of the 1980s Dev Anand films, which are thought to represent a decline (from Swami Dada to Sachche ka Bol Bala to Awwal Number), had a strange power because he was a bridge between a much earlier time and the “now” that we were growing up in. As a child, watching my family’s sentimental reactions to him, I realised that this funny, nodding gent – still playing the youthful hero on equal terms with a Jackie Shroff or Aamir Khan – was also the dashing star whom my grandmother had crushed on three decades earlier. This was a very different revelation from watching, say Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar reunited in Saudagar, two respectable old men who clearly were old men, with their younger versions played by other actors. (Dev, who infamously cast Cindy Crawford as his mother in a still photograph around the same time in Awwal Number, would have scoffed at such timidity!) For me personally – and I’m sure for others – Dev provided a living, immediate link to the distant past in a way that an elderly Dilip Kumar, singing “I love you” to an elderly Nutan in Karma, couldn’t quite do.

Playing devil’s advocate, one can make a small, defensive case for the last few films too – the ones that most people either politely overlook today or turn into funny internet memes. Such as the Love at Times Square phone conversation where Dev’s character tells his daughter about her mother dying in a grisly plane crash, and then, within seconds, changes the subject with a sing-song “Ab aur rona dhona nahin, jo ho gaya so ho gaya”. It’s unintentionally funny, yes, but it is also very much part of the DNA of this forever-sanguine man, the man one finds in the pages of his memoir – where, each time a chapter in his life closes on a sad note (the broken love story with Suraiya, for instance), he quickly moves on to the next phase, with a mention of the ray of light that is forever showing him the way.

That buoyancy, however caricatured it may have become in his later work, is inseparable from the qualities that made him such a great star-actor in his prime – the dashing hero forever associated with “Main Zindagi ka Saath Nibhaata Chala Gaya” and “Gaata Rahe Mera Dil”. At the level of personal preference and good taste, it’s understandable that a movie buff would pick a repeat viewing of Guide over a first-time viewing of Mr Prime Minister, but if you really want to grasp the spirit of one of our most beloved legends, all of Dev Anand’s work is vital.

1 comment:

  1. I was never a big Dev Anand fan but Jaal was marvelous. How many stars would have had the guts to play a flawed protagonist who does not get redemption even at the end?