(Wrote this experiential piece – based on going for some of the Dev Anand centenary screenings – for Money Control)
In conversations about the best-looking leading men in Hindi cinema, a few names repeatedly come up, from the young Prithviraj Kapoor to Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna in their prime to Hrithik Roshan today. Ten years ago, during a screening of the 1951 Baazi at the Centenary Film Festival in Delhi, I witnessed a sight that could make all those discussions irrelevant. The film’s protagonist Madan, a small-time gambler about to be led into an upper-crust world of crime, is glimpsed from the back during a game of dice. He throws a double-six, the camera pans up to show him in full glory – and the entire auditorium bursts into cheers and whoops. Because here is the young Dev Anand, looking just a bit disreputable, peaked cap on head, cigarette in mouth. And completely breath-taking.
At a festival that was all about nostalgia – about older viewers coming to relive memories of the films and stars they had loved in their youth – there were many enthusiastic audience responses; but nothing that quite compared with this moment in terms of the electricity it generated in the hall.
If the Dev Anand of the 1950s – in films like Baazi, Jaal, CID, Taxi Driver – was pure gorgeousness in stark black and white, the later, Eastmancolor avatars had a slightly different texture of charm and confidence: in films like Guide and Jewel Thief and Johny Mera Naam, we can see that version of Dev, still lighting up the screen, not having yet fully succumbed to the self-congratulatory mannerisms that would annoy many viewers in the last two or three decades of his career. Careful restorations of these three films, along with the much earlier CID, were screened in multiplexes across the country this weekend, creating more gasps of admiration – and a few inevitable titters of amusement. I went for Guide, CID and Jewel Thief, and was thrilled by the quality of the restorations (though the hall I watched Guide in had messed up the aspect ratio in projection, turning the print into an exact square; other friends, watching in other cities, had similar stories).
The first thing that happened when I entered the hall: a man in his seventies, at least, standing in the aisle and about to shuffle in to find his seat, caught my eye. With my white hair and beard, in a dimly lit hall, he probably thought of me as someone of his vintage, and he smiled widely. It was a very specific smile of kinship and knowingness directed at a stranger – can you believe we are here watching this film in this setting, after all these decades, it seemed to say. It was one of those rare times when I haven’t minded being mistaken for someone much older.
There were, as expected, many other old people in the hall for the screenings – some of them seemed fairly independent, even coming in groups and chattering away; others were brought by younger family members, a few of them even moving with the aid of foldable walkers; I sympathised when I saw them going painfully, slowly to the washrooms during the interval, where they had to wait a few minutes because of the queues. But while the films were actually on, there was a palpable energy in the dark hall – I doubt anyone regretted having come, regardless of physical inconvenience.
During Guide – the most respectable and canonised of these four films – viewers clapped with reverence after every one of Waheeda Rehman’s dance performances (and, though never a demonstrative viewer myself, I couldn’t help joining in). The responses to the beautifully restored Jewel Thief, one of our finest thrillers, were more extreme and varied: on the one hand, there were gasps of admiration during the film’s many visually beautiful moments, such as the night-time “Rula ke Gaya Sapna” sequence, and Tanuja’s performance of “Raat Akeli Hai”; but on the other hand, viewers clearly also felt liberated enough to laugh at the things they found unintentionally funny, such as the prolonged shoe-and-sock-removal scene at the party where Dev’s character Vinay shows that he isn’t the mysterious missing Amar. Or the moment where viewers imitated Dev’s sing-song delivery of the line “Meri Shaalu?!”, or Ashok Kumar’s angry “You dirty rat!” This may have also been because Jewel Thief, billed as an exciting genre movie, drew a larger number of young viewers who couldn’t process the cinematic tropes of a different era, or felt embarrassed by them.
Then there was CID, which is film noir on magic mushrooms: a ridiculous, sometimes-existential, sometimes-slapsticky thriller, the main secret to which is that everyone – good guys, bad guys – is incompetent at literally everything they do; so the resolution hinges on whoever happens to be a little more incompetent at the crucial moment. Much as we celebrate Rehman’s magnificent performance in Guide, it was possible to see, through this big-screen experience, that even at age 17 or 18 she was a natural movie star and a future great – raw as she is in her role as a tempered-down femme fatale with a heart, she manages to keep a straight face throughout all the lunacy happening around her. Which is some achievement.
What was more important, though – it was a wonderful print, making the film, as well as its 1950s Bombay setting, look fresh and relatable. And of course, the young Dev looked superb.
By the time the evening and night screenings came to an end, on both Saturday and Sunday, my online film groups – on WhatsApp and email – were flooded with messages from members who had attended as many shows as possible in their respective cities. If Jewel Thief was being shown at the same time in Pune or Ahmedabad as Guide was shown in south Delhi, I could be sure that by 1 AM my phone would be beeping with photo or video notifications – from speculation about a misspelt name in an opening credit to an awestruck few minutes from “Tere Mere Sapne” or “Din Dhal Jaaye” in pristine prints. It was palpable, this enthusiasm for the superstar who was turning 100, and for the experience of familiar old films coming alive in the forms that they were always meant to be seen. Anniversaries notwithstanding, we need many more of these screenings in the near future.