October 2023

The star who wore the scarf of eternity

Dev Anand wanted to live on the screen, sometimes with a switchblade in hand, more happily with a song on his lips, and always with the certainty that life was worth every moment of existence. He knew the inevitability of death, but hated the cruelty of age. MJ Akbar remembers the evergreen hero, a hundred years on from his birth

No man is a hero to his mirror. Or, perhaps, no hero is heroic enough for his own mirror. On my memory calendar, I can date the moment when the mid-life syndrome began to hit Dev Anand: after the release of Guide, one of the great films of Indian cinema, a phenomenon of 1965, and a turning point of a star’s trajectory. Dev Anand was 43, or about half the age he would live to, and at the cusp of turning into a legend.

When his next film Jewel Thief was released in 1967, the wardrobe had changed. The collar had widened to cover the neck. The mass idol had introduced a new style, of course; but he was also hinting at the onset of a familiar human trauma. Dev Anand knew where the body began to age, in the jowls, which begin to go soft before they eventually start to sag. Dev Anand did not want his image to cross that threshold of a firm 40.

He hid behind the fashion he created. No one knew this of course, least of all the millions in big towns and small, who began to wear the Dev collar on their shirts even if they were not audacious enough to place the jaunty, slightly slanted Dev cap on their heads.

Dev Anand had the exquisite ability to look well-dressed even when wearing slipshod trousers that stopped above the ankle because they had run out of cloth in the street-smart films he made in the 1950s, like BaaziJaal and Taxi Driv­er. Everything became immaculate on him. And so when Desmond Doig of The Statesman began designing his couture, it was modern flair weaning age away from a handsome man with a disarming grin. Dev Anand added a scarf to his ensemble, both on and off the screen.

IMMACULATE: Dev Anand, actor, writer, director and producer
IMMACULATE: Dev Anand, actor, writer, director and producer

Guide was the high point of his career, the apex of his Diamond Decade from 1961 to 1971, from Hum DonoAsli-Naqli and Tere Ghar Ke Samne to Jewel ThiefJohny Mera Naam and Haré Rama Haré Krishna. His bejewelled career took off in 1948 with Ziddi, hit an early peak in 1951 with Baazi, and climbed to a crescendo with Kala PaniBombai Ka Babu and Hum Dono. That was the Golden Decade. Fortune, always fair to the bold, gave him a Filmfare Award for best actor in both periods, for Kala Pani and Guide.

The interesting bit is that the diamond phase might have turned into paste if Guide had flopped, as it threat­ened to do in its first week. The theme of women’s empow­erment, of a wife abandoning an indifferent husband for a creative career managed by a lover, of economic inde­pendence which led to a second estrangement; and the transition of Dev Anand from Raju, the smooth-talking guide-cum-entrepreneur to the accidental godman and saviour was simply too revolutionary for 1965.

Guide was the high point of his career, the apex of his Diamond Decade from 1961 to 1971

Dev Anand could hardly hide the wonder from his voice as he recounted the premiere of Guide in the opulent Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai. There was absolute silence when the film ended, he told me during one of our many conversations; there was not even per­functory applause. The glitterati of cinema were there, as well as political dignitaries and business magnates. Dev Anand, standing at the door along with director Vijay Anand to say goodbye to celebrities, whispered to his younger brother that they were sunk. All their money had disappeared into the making of Guide. There was only one man who leapt up to congratulate the two, Russy Karanjia, the legendary editor of Blitz.

Anand was projecting his own convictions through the form of a story

But instead of deserted box-office counters, audiences began to grow. Dev Anand attributed this to the remarkable music composed by Sachin Dev Burman, a string of melodies rarely heard in such fabu­lous succession: as the music caught on, so did the film. But surely, it was also a case of a historic film beginning to change consciousness in its own quiet, immeasurable way. Music might be the food of love and an abacus of the cash register, but if it was also the engine of success, then the biggest hit of 1966, Phool Aur Patthar, would never have made a rupee. This extraordinary film, starring Meena Kumari, unhappy, alcoholic, and close to an early death at 38, and the young Dharmendra, did not have a single song worth a hum.

‘A revolution,’ said Mao Zedong, ‘is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temper­ate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.’ If Mao had seen Guide instead of leading a cultural revolution in 1966, he might have conceded that you can knit a revolution with film spools.

It is only fair to note that Dev Anand never thought he was writing a manifesto for the future; he was projecting his own convictions through the form of a story. It worked because he believed in what he was saying and did not shy away from a paradox: he was both in love with a rebel like Rosie, played by the immacu­late Waheeda Rehman, and the orthodox manager who fell out with his protégé over the rewards of success. As Raju, he recognised his moral failure and left the world, only for the world to seek him when, by pure accident, he became a saint. He promised some gullible villagers that he would fast unto death until penance and piety brought rain for their famished crops. Raju had no intention of doing so until he did so.

Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in Guide (Photo: Alamy)
Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in Guide (Photo: Alamy)

Guide, as I have also noted elsewhere, is the only film in which Dev Anand dies.

Dharamdev Pishorimal Anand had the uncommon quality of understanding the true value of common sense. He knew that his birth name was too heavy for cinema, but Dharam Anand did not possess the ubiquitous genius of Dev Anand. He wrought change with a big smile, convinced that serving mass consciousness did not mean surrendering to conventional. He was always experiment­ing, from the explosive start to the lingering demise of a long career. If Guide was radical, then Bombai Ka Babu, released five years earlier, was startling, for it touched on the theme of potential incest. At another level, there was a touch of the extraordinary by Hindi cine­ma’s mores in the 1950s even when Dev Anand was singing ‘Hai apna dil to awara’ in Solva Saal. He was wooing a beautiful woman on a night train in the company of her boyfriend, not a dutiful lady searching for marriage. The wonder is that the customer loved each experiment.

Dev Anand wanted to live on the screen, sometimes with a switchblade in a hand, more happily with a song on his lips, and always with the certain­ty that life was worth every moment of existence. He knew the inevitability of death but hated the cruelty of age. That ex­plained the mystery of the scarf as he slipped into his sixties and slid into his seventies.

Our last conversation was in the breakfast room of the Washington Mayfair Hotel where he stayed on his regular visits to London, and where he died in 2011. I saw him by accident; we greeted each other warmly and he invited me to join his table. One forgets the specifics of this conversa­tion, but I cannot forget the furrows on the face, outside the reach of any scarf. The eyes were still bright and spotless as ever, and the smile remained beyond the reach of time.

That memory will not fade until one’s own time comes.

MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj