Dev Anand is not letting up at 80.
Sons will be sons. Had Dharamdev Pishorimal Anand heeded his father’s advice and joined the local bank about 60 years ago, he’d be pottering around today in a middle-class retiree’s apartment in his hometown of Gurdaspur in Punjab. Instead, the glamour-struck teenager took the train to Bombay with 30 rupees in his pocket. After a period of struggle and penury, he became a Hindi film hero and Indian banking’s loss became Bollywood’s most durable legend –
As actor and later as film-maker as well, Dev Anand has worked in more dev1than 100 movies. He wooed dozens of heroines on-screen and captivated millions of fans off it with his urbane charm. With Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, he formed a dominant troika in the golden years of popular Indian Cinema. But unlike Kumar’s intense brooder and Kapoor’s bumbling simpleton, Anand’s city-smart hero was also a loveable rake who brought a touch of mischievous buffoonery to Bollywood’s seduction routine, and his own trademark mannerisms: loose-limbed gait, tilted head, and a rapid-fire dialogue delivery. A journalist once described him as “evergreen.” It was to prove prophetic. At an age – he turned 80 on Sept 26 – when his contemporaries are either dead or nursing creaky joints, a sprightly Dev Anand is planning two films to be made in the United States, besides writing his memoirs. “And I’ve only reached 1954,” he shrugs, implying its wealth of detail. The veteran, awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2001, can shame younger directors with the volume of his output – and younger men with his agility.
Having defied age, he’s also known to subvert gravity. Keeping up with a buoyant boss gives his staff a daily aerobic workout. And during our interview – in his penthouse office littered with magazines, scripts, posters and snapshots of aspiring starlets – an animated Dev Anand was apt to spring up to emphasize a point as he unspooled his life and times. Outside, Mumbai was depressingly grey and wet. But it was clear it would take much more than a mere monsoon to dampen the man’s spirit.
At 80, what gets you out of bed every morning?
The sheer excitement of my work. Age has nothing to do with it. I’m working on my autobiography, and on Song Of Life and Between Two Worlds to be shot in the United States. In the first film, I play a famous Indian musician who discovers he has a gifted daughter from an affair with an American girlfriend.
Is it about Ravi Shankar and Norah Jones?
Stories are written when something triggers off. I was to return after the New York premiere of my film Love At Times Square, when a local Indian journalist mentioned the Grammy ceremony scheduled that evening. I saw Norah Jones on television winning five awards – and in a flash I decided to stay put at the hotel for a month, and wrote the entire script. But if I publicly say it’s about someone, I’m obliged to satisfy him or her about the story’s authenticity. A film’s characters should be larger than life – or else there’s no drama and you can’t write a good climax. So let’s say it’s not about particular individuals, but about the relationships in the lives of famous men.
And the other film
Both are English-language projects with an Indian temperament and an American feel. Who knows, an Indian film-maker making a movie in America might just strike a chord with American audiences! The best Hollywood directors have been imports from abroad – Capra, Hitchcock, Wilder, Chaplin.
Your films as director deal with contemporary themes.
I see cinema in incidents. My directorial debut Prem Pujari was based on the 1965 Indo-Pak conflict. During King Birendra’s wedding in 1970, I visited Kathmandu’s hippie hangout – The Bakery – and saw this brown-skinned girl swaying in the lap of a dirty, bearded, bespectacled white foreigner. What’s a nice Indian girl doing in a place like this? I wondered. She inspired the story as well as Zeenat Aman’s character in Hare Rama Hare Krishna. I picked up the idea for Des Pardes – on illegal Indian immigrants in U.K. – during a trip there.
Why haven’t your recent films done well?
How do you continue getting money to make films?
I close my eyes, and God pours money on me.
God in the form of NRIs?
Not just NRIs. I manage because I’m not extravagant. I own a post-production studio. I don’t pay myself. And I enjoy tremendous goodwill – not just in India. I was very close to Nepal’s royalty: they rolled out the red carpet for the shooting of Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Many Nepalis want me to make a film on the family’s massacre. But it’s a sensitive subject, so I’d like to take everybody into confidence: the King, the Prime Minister, the Maoists. Why the Prince killed – or why he was provoked to kill – we don’t know for sure. Here again is an intriguing love story. The Prince wanted to marry his girlfriend, his mother didn’t want it. But he must have had other affairs. If I were a prince, I’d have them.
You too were a prince of sorts in Bombay’s film industry.
That happened with singer-actress Suraiya, right?
It did. Suraiya was my first and only real love. I wanted to marry her and she was willing. But her Muslim family objected to my being a Hindu, and created a big row over the communal issue. Remember, she was already a big singing star when we first met, and I was a nobody. Fans mobbed her, her songs were on the air, and her star image added to the attraction.
Film lore has it that you still send Suraiya a rose on her birthday.
You married secretly on the sets during a lunch break?
Your marriage, from all accounts, isn’t a happy one. Is marriage more difficult for celebrities?
Is that why Atal Behari Vajpayee has remained a bachelor?
You went with him on the bus to Lahore. Tell us about that 1999 trip.
The Pakistanis recognized me as I got off the bus – that’s the power of popular cinema. Nawaz Sharif rushed forward and grabbed my hand, saying we’re from the same college. When he told me he’d seen my films, I promptly put his hand into Prime Minister Vajpayee’s, and said “This should be the beginning of the end of our problems.” It was great revisiting Government College Lahore – the same architecture, classrooms, hostels. Only, the buildings now have Muslim names. I was never a good student. But I was fond of reading, and keen on doing my M.A. My father’s legal practice wasn’t doing well, so he asked me to join a bank instead. I hated the thought of a sedentary job, so I came to Bombay to become a film star.
Didn’t your mother stop you?
She wasn’t around by then. Our society treats its women very badly. My mother was a simple housewife who bore nine children, and died young of TB when there was no cure for it. My siblings were either away in college or too young, so I was the only child close to her. As a young boy I nursed her before she was taken away to a sanatorium. She never came back. Every morning, I brought her goat’s milk which was prescribed by the doctor. I remember her gentleness and loving nature. On her deathbed, she held my hand, looked into my eyes and told my father: ‘This son of mine will become a very important man.’
A woman’s intuition?
A mother’s intuition. Similarly, I’d gone to Amritsar to fetch her medicine. It was a burning hot afternoon in June, and I stopped outside the Golden Temple for some cold sherbet. As he gave me the glass, the man kept staring at my face, then said in Punjabi: O baau, tu baut vadda banda banega. (Brother, you’ll become a very big man.) I was only 16 then, and he was a complete stranger.
You think someone up there has scripted your life story?
Which was the most depressing of your struggling days?
The day I sold my beloved stamp collection. I spent my last penny for the bus to Bombay’s Fort area and then walked along the main road, hungry and thirsty. I found a stamp-seller on the pavement who gave me 30 rupees for it. It was a godsend, but I was also heartbroken – that collection had many rare stamps. Looking back however, I don’t regret the day. It made a man out of me. I continued looking for acting roles. I went to IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), where the senior actors never took me seriously. Meanwhile at the military censor’s office, my degree got me a job scanning soldiers’ letters for wartime secrets. Reading letters is like peeping into lonely hearts pining for their sweethearts and their desires. It was educative, but still a routine desk-job. Then one day I barged into the Bombay office of Prabhat Studio. The boss gave me a ticket to Poona for a screen test and I got hired for Rs 400 a month – a lot of money in those days. But it wasn’t just the money. The best turning point in life is finding the first job that you truly like.
Who were your closest buddies those days?
Chetan Anand and Guru Dutt. Both are dead now. Chetan was more than my brother – he was my confidant. I remember weeping on his shoulder like a child when Suraiya broke up with me. I set up Navketan only to let him make movies. I asked a producer for a huge advance and we made Afsar. It didn’t do well. I then gave Guru Dutt his break as director in Baazi, which was a hit. We’d made a pact during our Prabhat days: If ever I became producer, he’d direct my film, and I would, in turn, act in his production. While I kept my part of the promise with Baazi, Guru kept his with CID.
Was your first meeting really the result of a dhobi’s blunder?
Baazi onwards, Navketan introduced a lot of newcomers. Nearly 80 per cent of our movie people either began at or were associated in some way with Navketan. We’ve made some 35 films, and after 54 years are still functioning under the same ownership and management. Not even Fox or Columbia or any other Hollywood studio can claim this unique distinction!
What provoked you into making Censor?
I’m not advocating nudity or gratuitous sex and violence. But our obsolete code of moral censorship is made even worse by the conservative bureaucrats who implement it. Cable TV and Internet show more objectionable stuff – why is that allowed? Urdu poets have written exquisite verses on liquor, and Kama Sutra is a part of Indian philosophy. Each society has its own norms. And so, without scrapping the code, we need to liberalize it after a healthy debate. As Censor Chief, my brother Goldie [Vijay Anand] tried hard for a less dogmatic system, but they didn’t like him and his ideas. There’s a strong lobby in the government that wants censorship to continue in its present form.