Dev Anand Unplugged

Part II of Dev Anand's interview on his 80th birthday anniversary.



Your Guide had an adulterous heroine. How did the censors spare it?

Guide was made in two versions in the early and mid-1960s. Nobel Laureate Pearl Buck and I co-produced the English one with Hollywood’s Tad Danielewski as director. So that gave it an international halo, and suitably impressed people in India. I decided however to shoot the Hindi version afresh with Goldie as director. We wrote a new screenplay retaining the basic theme, but deviating somewhat from R.K.Narayan’s novel. The then I&B Minister Satyanarayan Sinha panicked, saying people are complaining to the ministry about the adultery angle. ‘Didn’t your government give the novel a Sahitya Akademi award at the hands of Pandit Nehru?’ I asked him. That settled it.

But you had no qualms about our audiences accepting the heroine?

Goldie and his collaborators made the heroine’s character sympathetic. I believe that nothing is taboo for the human mind as long as it can be justified. Even a murderer can garner public sympathy if people are convinced that his act is acceptable from an emotional standpoint. Take Bombay’s famous Nanavati case of the late 1950s. A young naval officer discovers his wife’s infidelity, loses his temper, and kills her lover – but wins over an entire nation’s sentiments. Many people thought I’d gone crazy to attempt a Hindi version of Guide after the English one had flopped. But creativity comes with a streak of madness!

Guide was tough to make – its budget was huge. Worse, the distributors were wary of the adultery angle. When it was finally released in 1965, the first audience reaction was one of confusion. I remember we at Navketan were all so depressed. Then slowly, people began to find something thought-provoking in it. It grew on them, and snowballed into a major countrywide hit. That year the Bombay monsoon was delayed, and the city was thirsting for rain. And the day Guide – in which the hero fasts unto death for rain – was released, it poured over Bombay. Our posters said, ‘Guide Brought The Rains!’ Sometimes, even the elements favor you.

You never released Guide’s English version in India?


I saw no point in doing that. Thanks to Pearl Buck’s efforts, it was to be screened at the White House, though President Kennedy was assassinated before that could happen. The Hindi version was India’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar, but it didn’t even get nominated. Several Hollywood personalities who saw both versions however thought the English one was no good, and that the Hindi Guide was outstanding.

And what did the novelist R.K. Narayan think?

After a pre-release screening of the English Guide, Narayan wrote me an effusive letter from America saying it’s simply beautiful. But after the movie was panned by the American critics and failed at the box-office, he began denouncing it publicly. I didn’t bother to get his response to the Hindi Guide because it wasn’t really his story anyway.

After your long innings as an actor and film-maker, are you anywhere close to discovering the box-office mantra?

There is no mantra, no formula. Several good films fail, while some average ones become hits. What’s a box-office hit? Something intangible in a film sets off a certain vibration in the audience’s collective mind. And all of a sudden, people are drawn to it. This phenomenon can’t be explained. You just have to let your instinct dictate your creative decisions. Relying on anything else is more dangerous. If you set out to make the greatest hit, it invariably turns out to be the biggest disaster. I’ve had my disasters – Ishq Ishq Ishq was an out-and-out musical with a very thin plot. Perhaps it might have worked with western audiences.

Your recent brush with the censors brings to mind your 1977 protest against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

I was the first from the film industry to oppose the Emergency. They pushed us to the wall, and I got annoyed. They banned Kishore Kumar from AIR and Doordarshan because he didn’t toe their line. And they called us over to Delhi to sloganeer for Sanjay Gandhi. I told I&B Minister V.C.Shukla: ‘I’ll do it only if you tell me we’re living in a police state.’ He backed off. Then Opposition leaders like Ram Jethmalani approached me for support. I spoke at their rallies, formed the National Party of India (NPI), and became its president. The NPI became so popular that several politicians wanted to join us. Even Indira Gandhi sent feelers. But I wound it up because we were disillusioned with the non-performance of the Janata coalition. Also, my film-industry colleagues were unwilling to fight the 1977 elections – they all wanted to be nominated to parliament. And I realized then that I was more in love with film-making. I’m not cut out for politics. You need a cold-blooded attitude to survive in it, and a willingness to abuse and be abused.


Several film stars are now in national politics. Vinod Khanna represents Gurdaspur in the Lok Sabha.

They’re enthusiastic, but what is their commitment and their contribution? Our entire political system is rotten. The level of poverty in India is appalling because we haven’t grown as a democracy. What sort of a democracy would allow tribal areas to exist, and encourage slogans of minorities and Dalits? Why should a Dalit be proud to be called a Dalit? 

So what’s your prescription for better governance?

Get the country’s best people to make laws for us in parliament. And fill every administrative post according to merit. You can only fight today’s system with literacy. A literate, enlightened people will not allow goondas to rule them. Educated youths with liberated minds must enter active politics. India is a great nation, and we Indians have a raw intelligence that’s probably a legacy of our ancient culture. But our people are also very religious and emotional, and therefore easily swayed. As a film-maker, I take my ideas across through my films. If I were a politician, I’d reach out to people with plans to modernize the country – that was the NPI dream. And I’d do it the right way. When you’re a leader, you should look like one. Not only in your thinking, but also in your speech and dress.

Are you suggesting a dress code for our politicians?

Why not? Make the Nehru-style bandh-gala jacket compulsory. I’m sick of watching ministers in crumpled unbuttoned kurtas and worn-out chappals, with dhotis flying all over and exposing their hairy legs, taking the salute at military parades. A dhoti is fine at home in a hot country like India. But not at a formal function, for heaven’s sake! Leave aside the immaculately clad Western leaders, have you ever seen a shabbily dressed politician from China or Japan?

Critics say your acting ability seldom goes beyond your mannerisms.

A critic is one individual – the nation is a billion people. If it was a fluke, my success as an actor could not sustain for decades. There were no acting institutes when I started. My speech, my delivery, my pauses – that’s me, not a put-on. And most of my films were written around ‘Dev Anand’ – a city-bred boy with a modern outlook. So I just had to be myself, unless the character demanded something outside of my own personality. Look at the later parts of Guide, or the second half of Hum Dono where I modeled myself on a real-life major I knew.

But you so often depend on props like headwear and scarves.

That’s me again. I love wearing hats and caps. And people love it too when I wear them. My Jewel Thief cap became a style icon in the 1960s. Early in my career, the Prabhat bosses gave me a huge complex about the two gaps in my front teeth. They had me wear an uncomfortable filler which I insisted on taking off because I couldn’t speak my lines properly. And audiences liked me – gaps and all. It’s the total personality that counts.

What’s the secret of your youthful personality?

My mind. I’m mentally and therefore physically active. I can work 17 hours a day. My sorrows don’t stay with me because I’m an optimist. And I forgive easily. That’s a great quality – it makes you live long. I don’t follow any exercise regimen, but neither do I smoke, drink, or eat meat. I gave up smoking because it stained my teeth. I used to guzzle beer and colas, and stopped that too for my digestion. Man’s greatest disease is losing control of his habits. I threw and attended lots of parties earlier. I stay out of the current film-party circuit because it’s boring: the people, the conversation, the self-promotion.

What relaxes you then?

Any music that’s melodious. My love for music was instilled in childhood by my father. So my films had wonderful songs. Let’s face it: Indian movies cannot be made without music and songs. Our people love it, so why not give them what they love? If the songs are good and integrated seamlessly into the screenplay, there are very good chances that the film will be a hit.

Your skills as a man-manager are well known. You got the best work out of a short-tempered eccentric like composer Sachin Dev Burman.

His greatest compositions were created in the most informal sittings – Dada Burman playing around on the harmonium for hours, and I huddled next to him, rejecting one tune, and egging him on before approving another. It was a great feeling. But he had to be handled carefully. We once recorded a ghazal by an Urdu poet – which Dada composed and got Mohammed Rafi to sing. After the recording, Goldie and I thought it fell short of the mark. Baat bani nahi jo banne chaahiye thi. But we didn’t dare tell Dada right away. That night, I called him and asked how he felt about it. Bahut achha hua Dev, he said. I said, Dada usme kuch zarasi baat reh gayi hai, but I can’t explain what exactly is missing. He said, Nahi, nahi, bahut achha hua hai, and banged the phone down. I sensed he was mildly irritated, but also knew I’d succeeded in sowing a doubt in his mind. And the very next morning, he called to say he was coming over that evening. He came, played the harmonium for a little while and hummed the first notes of a new tune. And I said, that’s it. We summoned lyricist Shailendra who wrote the mukhda, and right there was born the famous Guide song: Din dhal jaaye, raat na jaaye.


Rafi sang that one. But what made you select Kishore Kumar as your screen voice?

Kishore Kumar got his break as a playback singer for me in Ziddi, which his brother Ashok Kumar produced. And his voice suited mine. I particularly liked its resonance. But there was always this discussion over whom to choose – Rafi or Kishore – till we finally arrived at a rule of thumb: Rafi got the ghazals, and Kishore got the geets.

You chose Jaidev as music director for Hum Dono.

Jaidev came to Navketan as assistant to Ali Akbar Khan who was our staff composer. After Aandhiyan, Khan left but Jaidev stayed on to assist S.D.Burman. And being in the company over the years, we gave him a break in Hum Dono. It’s his best work. But we didn’t really drop him after that. S.D.Burman was there all the time as the mentor. And Jaidev had branched out because he got outside assignments.

What prompted the switch-over to R.D.Burman?

Dada Burman was reluctant to do Hare Rama Hare Krishna – he was uncomfortable with the subject of drugs and hippies. So we decided to assign his son instead. Pancham – who had earlier assisted his father for our films – thus got his break as an independent composer for Navketan. And he scored in a big way.

Do you miss working with your earlier composers?

I do, but now one has to take the best of what’s available. The emphasis in film music today is on orchestration, so the melody suffers. And there’s very little originality: every ten years, song tunes get recycled with a little tinkering. Ditto for film stories, which come repackaged with superior techniques, particularly in sound recording. Some, like Devdas, are blatant remakes. Others are rehashes. I featured Aamir Khan as hero in Awwal Number. It was about cricket and politics – with a terrorism angle – and its climax had Aamir batting away to glory. His Lagaan had a similar theme.

Several of your films were shot in the mountains – in Nepal and Sikkim.
Mountains fascinate me. The green heights, the clean refreshing breeze, the trees, the valleys – they put fresh life into me. And their solitude gives me new ideas. Whenever I get the urge, I drive off to Mahabaleshwar hill-station. But I can’t afford to take time off frequently.

As a busy star, have you been a good father?

I educated both my kids in the best of schools abroad. Beyond that, I never intruded into their lives because I never let my father intrude into mine. My daughter Devina returned to India, found a boy, and that’s that. My son Suneil came home and joined the movie industry. He now runs my recording studio.

Do you believe in role-models?

To the extent that they charge you into bettering yourself. But you outgrow them. People said I looked and acted like Gregory Peck. I was thrilled – after all, he was a big Hollywood star. But I soon realized I’m my own man. And in fact, I’ve myself become a role-model for Indian actors. Sab logon ki acting mein main hun, mujhe maloom hai. (I know I have influenced the acting styles of them all.) It’s most apparent in the love scenes. Watch my films – the romance just flows effortlessly.

Old-world chivalry?

It’s natural, but never old or outdated. I’m more modern than today’s youngsters. They dress stupidly, and don’t know how to carry themselves – apart from exceptions like Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. They’re very fortunate that the works of the old masters of world cinema are now easily available: they can pattern their styles accordingly.

Who were your favourite Hollywood actors?

Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy.

And Indian?

Ashok Kumar and Motilal.

Your all-time favourite film star?

Ingrid Bergman. What grace, beauty, and charm! And all this in a sweet, non-sexual kind of way. Any man would feel so good just being with her. Sadly, our paths never crossed.

Your favourite films and film-makers?


The great musical West Side Story and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. I met Capra in Hollywood, and he came over later for a film festival in New Delhi, and we became good friends. I saw It’s A Wonderful Life with Guru Dutt in Poona, and we both had liked it so much, I remember we saw the film again in back-to-back shows. Elia Kazan was another fine film-maker. I met him in his Broadway office in New York City.

Your favourite roles?

Guide and Hum Dono.

Your favourite book?

Irving Stone’s Lust For Life, a biographical novel about Van Gogh. I met Stone and his wife at his home during a cultural-exchange trip to America in 1964. Over cups of coffee, we discussed literature. He was thrilled that I liked his book.

Anything you wanted to do in life, but couldn’t?

I wish I could play a musical instrument or dance. If I were both – a great musician as well as a great dancer – there’s no doubt I’d have conquered the world.

In all your travels, which VIP of world renown impressed you the most?

Jawaharlal Nehru. I met him after his paralytic stroke, but he was so pleasant and spoke with such intellectual authority. Soon after, I went abroad and read about his death there. No other international leader would have got so much media coverage. But I’ve outgrown that admiration too. The more I read about the Kashmir mess, the more I’m convinced that he and others of his ilk were responsible for it. Partition was the most horrible tragedy in world history. Any right-thinking person would have known what was coming. Trainloads after trainloads of slaughtered families crossed the border into Amritsar and Lahore. And in the communal riots that followed, human beings behaved worse than animals. The lust for power blinded leaders on both sides.

Were you personally affected by the Partition?

My maternal uncles and their families barely escaped getting killed. They left behind their belongings in Pakistan, and fled to Delhi as refugees. In my case, Muslim friends and neighbours who had grown up playing with me on the streets of Gurdaspur, and those who’d studied with me at Lahore, became aliens and enemies overnight. The creation of Pakistan was an unnatural phenomenon, and should have been avoided at any cost.

Do your Muslim friends who migrated to Pakistan echo these sentiments?

Over the years and across continents – London, Washington D.C., and elsewhere – several of my college-mates have lamented the separation. You’ll find many people in Pakistan too saying the same thing – maybe not as openly as I do. During our Lahore trip, I was taken to a posh restaurant where a Pakistani Muslim flautist in his 50s was playing the song Jaayen to jaayen kahaan from my 1954 film Taxi Driver. He claimed to be my ardent fan – he’d seen all my films and could play any song from them. I thought he was pulling a fast one. So, off the cuff, I mentioned Shokhiyon mein ghola jaaye from my 1970 film Prem Pujari. And he played it so well, I wondered: the same language, the same music, the same culture, the same cuisine, the same lifestyle, the same temperament – then why two hostile countries?

Part I
To view Part I of the interview, click here: 

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