Dev Anand’s entire life, filmography and sex appeal were built on a great contradiction: that he seemed to be in love with any woman he met, but never really loved anybody
We all know the adjectives that will be repeated often as tributes pour in for Dev Anand: evergreen, ageless, romantic, debonair. And you can bring the thesaurus. We all also know that he romanced three generations of Indian women. My mother loved him, and my daughter adored him. And women of my generation, well!
Watch any of his movies, even the ones he did starring himself as a ridiculous caricature of a romantic lead in his seventies and eighties, and he still had that one incredible quality: he so looked in love with the woman he was romancing. And through his younger days in the romance-laden fifties and sixties, he easily convinced a woman watching him on screen that he was in love with her too. Yet, Dev Anand’s entire life, filmography, sex appeal and mystique were built on a great contradiction: that Dev Anand seemed to be totally in love with any woman he looked at, but never really loved anybody.
Well, nobody except one, or maybe, just maybe, two. But more about that later.
What are my credentials to write about a film star? My professional life is consumed in decoding rotten politics, mundane governance or violent conflict. You can get away with writing a bit on sports: we are, after all, a nation of 1.2 billion cricket coaches. But cinema?
I have to say in my defence that most of the films I escaped from a small-town school to watch had Dev Anand in them. Hum Dono (1960) was released when I was too small to be taken to a film or figure out what was going on, but my earliest, and most abiding memory of my late father is of him smoking on the parapet and explaining it away as: “Main fikr ko dhuyen mein udaata chala gaya…” one of the many immortal songs from that classic. For sure, this, as well as a Abhi na jao chhodkar, ke dil abhi bhara nahin still endure, as do several others from his black and white era: Ek but banaunga tera aur pooja karunga (with Sadhana, Asli Naqli), Deewana mastana hua dil (Suchitra Sen, Bambai Ka Babu), Dil ka bhanwar (Nutan, Tere Ghai ke Saamne), Aankhon mein kya ji (Nau Do Gyarah, with wife Kalpana Kartik) and more. Dev Anand was Mr Romance.
Later, Guide, (Waheeda Rahman) in 1965, when I was in Class V, Prem Pujari (Waheeda again) in 1970, and Jewel Thief (Vyjayanthimala), Johny Mera Naam (Hema Malini), Mahal (Asha Parekh), Hare Rama Hare Krishna (Mumtaz, and he introduced us to Zeenat Aman, who played his sister), Tere Mere Sapne (Mumtaz) and Des Pardes where he discovered Tina Munim (now Ambani). Three generations of Indians have hummed Gaata rahe mera dil, Phoolon ke rang se, Baaton, baaton mein hum-tum ho gaye deewane, Yeh dil na hota bechara, Pal bhar ke liye koyi hamein pyar kar le, Kanchi re kanchi, Yeh maine kasam li, and Tu pee, aur ji (in the order I have listed his post black and white hits).
Many of his films were ahead of his (and ours as early teenagers) time. But you always walked out of the sultry small-town hall copying Dev Anand’s leaning-tower gait, his mannerism, and always hummed his songs cycling back home. Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, who formed the holy trinity of Indian cinema in that era, had great talent and versatility, more variety than him. Dev Anand was so urbane, he rarely played a villager. But nobody could match Dev Anand for style.
Dev Anand’s hero rarely beat up the bad guy. He was, on the other hand thrashed often as in the pathbreaking Jaal, Johny Mera Naam, Hum Dono, and Baarish. And when he did, he raised himself bleeding from a split lip (my favourite being Prem Pujari), you didn’t merely feel sorry for him. If you were a woman, you found him more desirable. If you were a man, oddly, you wished you could be in his place.
My justification for writing this comes not from being a lifelong Dev Anand fan. It comes from getting to know him over his last 15 years when he wasn’t doing very much, except indulge himself now and then with a dud. But he would never, never condescend to do a character role “suiting” his age in anybody’s movie. “A star is always a star, Shekhar, and a star has to be always predictable,” he once told me. “You are too simple to understand this. Once you become a star, you have to lead a star’s life forever. Stardom is like your skin. You either lose it, or die in it.” This was in response to my badgering him about stars like him caricaturing their filmi style in real lives too.
I got a taste of his understanding of stardom and my lack of it soon enough. Recording a Walk the Talk for NDTV in 2003, we sat for the concluding part on a bench in the crumbling fort at Bandra’s Land’s End. I inadvertently sat to his left. Dev Anand grabbed my elbow and pulled me to the right edge while he came around and sat to my left instead. The sun was setting and this way his face would get the best light. And then I belatedly figured out why in the entire course of that interview he was constantly moving without any seeming reason. The star takes the best light.
That is why he always, even in his late eighties, dressed as he did in his younger days: scarf, freshly polished shoes, checked shirt with oversized collar, the works. Not a piece was missing from the picture whether you met him late morning, evening (a glass of whisky was added) or on an overnight Air India London-Delhi-Mumbai flight, which is where I found him for the first time.
As I walked into that nightly Delhi-Bombay connection in 1997, I just saw a stylish gingham cap bobbing up and down as its wearer shuffled for comfort. Who else but Dev Anand would fly all the way from London wearing a cap like this? We renewed acquaintance some months later in more dramatic circumstances. I was walking past the lobby of mid-town Manhattan’s Lexington, then run by the Taj Group and an Indian hangout, when a familiar voice came booming out of the half-exposed bar: “Kahan chale Shekhar, idhar aao. Meet these lovely ladies…” There was Dev Anand “auditioning” four very young and very pretty women for his “next” film, set in New York. I gulped a glass of wine nervously and bolted, but could not help noticing that Dev Anand seemed in love with all four at the same time. He would have found it a wrench to drop three out of four.
From star and fan, we inevitably became friends. He invited me home many times. He was generous with affection, stories of a colourful past, and of course, with Black Label. The stories of his celebrated romance with Suraiya (but mind you, it was romance, not quite love). He was besotted with her. She, in turn, adored Gregory Peck and was so excited once when she heard he was coming to town. Dev Saab was charcoal with jealousy when he heard that Suraiya had gone to meet Peck one evening. He was honest enough to admit that that is what inspired him to style some of his mannerisms after Peck. Of course, my generation discovered Peck through The Guns of Navarone.
He spoke freely about his other co-stars: Waheeda Rahman had incredible talent and discipline, the first truly professional woman star in his times; Nutan was really classy but ziddi, and made poor choices in her personal life; Vyjayanthimala was from another planet but could dance her way out of anything; Simi Garewal was the first really modern English-speaking heroine and in the Bollywood of the sixties, nobody quite knew what to do with her, particularly when she was so talented, but slim and sexy in a Western style (“Did you see her in Teen Deviyan? And that song, Khwab ho tum ya koyi haqiqat. Brilliant, but so un-Indian”); and Madhubala, well, and I say this with apologies to her fans, she was so beautiful, but you know what, “itna roz-roz nahaati nahin thi aisa lagta tha”, so the body odour was a problem. His face romanced each one of his leading ladies as he talked about them. But it looked in love only when he talked about one, the youngest of them all: Zeenat Aman. Zeenat was the only woman he truly fell in love with. “She was incredible, so classy, so sexy, had so, so much attitude… my first look at her and I knew she was the lead for HRHK.”
He also fell for her at first sight. This was the only love he talked about in some detail in his autobiography (Romancing With Life) and of how he felt jilted when she shifted loyalties to Raj Kapoor, “ditching” him, rather Hindi-film style, by preferring to go for a Kapoor party, dressed in something she would rarely wear, a white sari, while he waited for her for a candle-light dinner at the Zodiac Grill, where he wanted to propose to her, sort of formally. But he says Zeenat really wanted that role in RK’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Now you know why I said he only loved one woman. And I said maybe two, because there was some for Suraiya and Kalpana Kartik, the very young Miss Simla he married and co-starred with in hits like Nau Do Gyarah and Baazi.
Mian Nawaz Sharif is among the most passionately knowledgeable Hindi film enthusiasts anywhere. Yet he asked me in a conversation once how old Dev Anand was, and whether he could still walk without support, etc. This was 1998, and Dev Saab was a very sprightly 74. What a nice idea if we could get him to come to Lahore, he said. And sure enough, when Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore was set up, through an interview Nawaz Sharif gave to me, he asked me again if Dev Anand could be on that bus as well. Our PMO got on the job on the night preceding the visit, reached Dev Saab through me and, sure enough, he was on that bus the next morning. Of course, once he reached Lahore, he was the star. Cameras followed as he discovered the old “spots” in Lahore, including his college: this is where I had my first crush, first kiss, first break-up and so on. For a while we wondered what we had come to cover, the summit or a most famous Lahori exile’s homecoming.
A less-known fact is how politically aware he was. In a nation where artists and entertainers stay out of all politics, he led the only protest carried out by creative India against the Emergency. Maybe some of it came from his left-leaning college days in Lahore. But because he was so interested and curious, in politics, history, the world around him, that it was such a delight even for a non-film journalist to converse with him.
His curiosity about my life and years as a reporter was never-ending. Sometimes, on those long evenings, I would end up telling him stories from the pickets, trenches, minefields and snipers’ alleys just as I might tell my children. And he listened as curiously as the children. So he said to me one day, “Shekhar, let me make a film on your life.” I said thank you, and that it was such a funny idea. But he said no, there will be a journalist like you who goes from one battlefield to another, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur under tribal insurgencies, Amritsar under Bhindranwale and Operation Bluestar, the massacres at Nellie and in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Afghanistan and Pakistan during the first (and “good”) jihad against the Soviets, Jaffna under LTTE and IPKF, Tiananmen Square, Baghdad’s Al Rashid hotel and Jerusalem under Scud missile attacks in the first Gulf War — he remembered all the various stops in my years of reporting conflict. There will be many, many interesting women in his life, including an ambitious politician, a Pakistani spy and a pretty foreign journalist, he said, “What a film it will turn out to be, Shekhar, socho zara.”
I asked him, cheekily, so, Dev Saab, who will play me in your film?
“For the younger phase, we will have to find somebody. Lekin thoda senior hone ke baad,” he said, of course he would be playing that lead role himself.
That film will now never be made, sadly. I will never have the privilege of Dev Anand, even at 80 (this conversation goes back to 2003), playing me. I laughed then at his audacity to play me, 35 years his junior. But later I understood this was all a part of his mystique of agelessness. It looked real because he believed it was so. He believed it was so, because Dev Anand was really a man deeply in love with life — and himself.