‘He was an 88-year-old youngster’

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Sidharth Bhatia, Author, Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story

Dev Anand with wife Kalpana Kartik
Dev Anand with wife Kalpana Kartik
Photo: Indian Express Archive

I’VE BEEN amazed by the outpouring of grief for Dev Anand. What surprises me is how the youth, who would not have grown up on his films, is feeling genuinely bereaved. But then, he was a contemporary icon. Unlike his peers, he belonged to our age. He was an 88-year-old youngster in a country of young people.

So, how did Dev Anand strike a chord with today’s generation? I feel it is his eternal optimism. The India of 2011 app – reciates the positivism he embodied. His journey in cinema began in the late ’40s and early ’50s in a newly indepen dent India. The film industry then was in the throes of transition. Bollywo od was producing social dramas that tended to be preachy. Enter Dev Anand, with brothers Chetan and Vijay, highly educa ted, progressive and modern in their out look. They created Navketan Fil ms, a studio that had a distinctly urban sensibility.

With movies like Baazi, Taxi Driver, House No 44, CID and Jaali Note, they created a genre that has been dubbed “Bombay noir”. They were defined by certain common elements, with scenes shot in nightclubs, dark lighting, murders , molls. It was distinctly influenced by Western cinema, which adds up, as Dev Anand was always a bit of an Anglophile. He went on to repeatedly play the role of a gangster, a criminal, a police officer. It was his love of the noir genre. Not once was he ever a goody-goody hero and none of his films had a social message. These movies came to define our idea of modernity. The figures in Navketan were all modern and ahead of their times, people like Vijay and Chetan Anand, Guru Dutt (who worked with them repeatedly), SD Burman, RD Burman, Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri.

The ’60s was perhaps his defining decade, as Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were on the descendent. It’s fascinating how the biggest hit of his career, Johnny Mera Naam (1970) came out when he was 47. With his essential coolness, he paved the way for a cool hero like Shammi Kapoor. In the ’70s, two things happened: he became older and the audience discovered Amitabh Bachchan. Even then, he continued to make films. It was an indulgence, his way of staying relevant. He had the money, so why should he have not spent it? Essential Dev Anand fans will ignore the last 30 years of his career, but one has to appreciate his infectious enthusiasm.

When I started writing Cinema Modern, I spent a lot of time with him for the research. While watching Taxi Driver, he’d have tears in his eyes as it was a film on which all brothers collaborated and he met and married his wife on the sets. He was ever the optimist, and always so dapper. He would have three caps lying on his table and revealed that in his first big hit, Baazi, he wore a cap, and that went on to become his trademark.

What’s interesting is how we are rediscovering the relevance of his films after so many years. I am fairly certain that in the years to come, we will recognise his contribution even more.

As told to Sunaina Kumar

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