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Taxi Driver — one of India’s first ‘cabbie films’, which sealed Dev Anand’s romantic hero image

On Dev Anand's 98th birth anniversary, ThePrint revisits a film close to his heart — a complete Anand family production, whose heroine he married.

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New Delhi: If you want ‘classic’ Bombay and Dev Anand in the same movie, Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver (1954) is the film to watch. Wide, empty streets where cabbies have a free run, little boats bobbing in the sea, rows of sea-facing palm trees, a city where the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is the place to be and be seen at, and an utterly charming hero whose haunt is a seedy nightclub — Taxi Driver sealed the image of the young Dev Anand, then just a decade-old in the industry, as a romantic hero, and Bombay as the City of Dreams.

On Dev Anand’s 98th birth anniversary Sunday, ThePrint revisits a film that has always been close to his heart — for a reason.

Taxi Driver was a complete Anand family outing. Dev Anand’s elder brother, Chetan Anand, who had made the Palme D’Or-winner, Neecha Nagar (1946), was the director. His youngest brother Vijay Anand and his sister-in-law Uma, Chetan’s wife, collaborated on the script. And then to top it all, the heroine joined the family! Dev had met Kalpana Kartik — her name is actually Mona Singha — during her first break as a Navketan heroine for the film Baazi (1951). They got married during a break in Taxi Driver’s shooting when the lights were being changed on set.

Taxi Driver is very close to my heart as it was an objective film with subtle nuances and because the entire Anand family worked in it. I got married to the film’s female protagonist, Kalpana Kartik during the shooting of Taxi Driver”, Dev Anand had once said in an interview.

An outsider in the ‘city of dreams’

In the film, Dev Anand plays Mangal — his friends call him ‘Hero’ for being a do-gooder — a dashing, tough-talking cabbie who gets to choose between two pretty girls and kick around some bad guys.

Life is simple for Mangal. He drives his taxi throughout the day roaming around the city of Bombay, as if looking for something which he has not yet found —  the classic search of the outsider in the city of dreams.

The film opens with a scene where Mangal is seen dropping a rich businessman accompanied by Anglo-Indian club dancer Sylvie, played by Sheila Ramani. Sylvie dreams of dancing at the Taj Hotel one day.

Soon enough, Mangal finds himself meeting Mala, played by Kalpana Kartik, a girl who has arrived in Bombay to meet a music director without even having a place to stay. Our Hero offers her his kholi (room) to stay in.

Mala wants to be a singer, she sings verses from the Ramayana in the morning, she is simply dressed. Sylvie’s eyebrows are arched, she dances hitching her skirt up high, she wants the high life. Of course, she doesn’t get the hero — this is the ’50s mind you, so while both girls truly love him, his heart beats for the ‘simple girl’.

Mala — with Mangal in tow — continues her search for a director who will give her a break as a playback singer. As the days pass, they fall in love while Sylvie seethes at Mala’s moving in with her man.

Taxi Driver was quite radical for the times in some ways. Was Navketan perhaps pushing the boundaries with mainstream cinema’s first depictions of a live-in relationship?

The film, however, found a way around that otherwise what would society say if an unmarried man and woman are found to be staying together? Enter Mala the Tomboy who wears a cap and has a new haircut.

The ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ girl

Mala and Mangal’s life together takes another turn when she learns about Sylvie’s love for Mangal, and doesn’t want to come between them.

Will Mala and Mangal unite or will Mangal have a change of heart and choose the street-smart Sylvie after all? Taxi Driver was one of the early post-Independence era films where the hero’s two women are presented as two stereotypes. (Interestingly, both the heroines were Miss Shimla in the ’50s before they joined the film industry).

During their first meeting, Mala innocently assumes Mangal is a rich man with a bungalow, since he is a ‘motorwala’ and those who ride cars are the rich. “Motorgadi amiro ka naukar hota hain, aur taxi gareebo ka annadata (Motorcar is the slaves of rich, taxi puts food on the table of poor people),” replies Dev Anand in a memorable dialogue from the film.

Bombay, the real hero of the film

Even though Dev Anand plays the quintessential lead actor to the hilt, the ‘real’ hero of the film is Bombay (what we now know as Mumbai) which Dev Anand as the cabbie drives around in his Chevrolet Fleetmaster. The city’s name also appears during the end credits along with the name of other characters. Taxi Driver is also one of India’s first ‘cabbie films’ and does a fine job of showcasing the taxi culture in the city standing up on its feet post-Independence.

In an interview, Chetan Anand had said: “I never was able to write another screenplay like Taxi Driver which was original and portrayed the working class of Mumbai with real dignity.”

Every character in the film is a survivor and seeker of better opportunities — and they believe things will get better. That’s a promise Bombay has traditionally held out to all those who land there. Whether it’s Mangal’s everyday fight for survival, or Mala and Sylvie’s ambitions, everyone tries to find their own place here. Bombay is brutal, but it’s a city with a heart. All those who persist, are accepted, all those who try, win — in some form or the other. If Hero’s life is full of oddballs, he also has a friend like Mastana, played unforgettably by Johnny Walker, who turns up drunk every other day and makes Hero’s struggles seem lighter by joining in his many capers.

Music and dance are an integral part of this film. Sheila Ramani has played the character of a sensuous and charismatic dancer with such verve that many a time in the film, you wonder if Dev Anand chose the right girl! Thankfully, there is a lot of her in the film; the other woman in this film is not the ‘vamp’.

Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics have provided the necessary depth to songs such as ‘Jayen to jayen kahan‘, or ‘Ae meri zindagi’. S.D. Burman won his first Filmfare Award as a music director for this film. ‘Jayen to jayen kahan’, sung by Talat Mehmood, is filmed on Dev Anand at a serene and empty Juhu beach. Who wouldn’t want to turn the clock back to this Bombay?

(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)

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