Thirty years ago, Nasreen Munni Kabir met a man who had long been a legend. Excerpts from an interview with the inimitable Dev Anand
In late 1987, I was producing and directing a 49-part series for Channel 4 TV, UK, called Movie Mahal. It was a first of its kind, because at that time there were no programmes on British television that showcased Hindi cinema. The series focused on film music and profiled a number of leading names. One of the episodes was a profile of Dev Anand (1923–2011), which was aptly titled “Star of Style”.
I first met Dev Saab in the early 1980s and, when I asked him if we could feature him in Movie Mahal, he agreed and asked us to come to his Navketan office in Mumbai for the filming. Formed in 1949 by Chetan and Dev Anand, Navketan gave Indian cinema wonderful films that introduced a modern take on film and film stories, new directors, talented cinematographers, fresh characterisations of heroes and heroines, and exceptional music. The excerpt below is taken from my first filmed interview with Dev Saab which took place on April 28, 1987. He spoke in detail of his long journey in cinema.
You’ve been working in films for over 40 years now. Could you tell me how you got your first break?
Well, 40 years is a very long time, yet it seems like yesterday to me. I was very young, maybe 19, when I moved to Bombay from Lahore. I was looking for a break in the movies. For a year and a half, I struggled—walking the streets, dreaming, idling away my time, travelling in buses, trams and trains—until one day somebody told me about Prabhat Film Company in Poona that was looking for a young actor. I went to see Baburao Pai, a big boss of Prabhat who had offices in Chowpatty, Bombay. Baburao Pai looked at me and asked: “Why do you want a break?” I said: “I just want to be in the movies.” I must have made some sort of impression on him because he said: “Okay, can you go to Poona tomorrow? I’ll give you a first-class ticket.”
The next morning I boarded the Deccan Queen from Victoria Terminus. I stayed at Prabhat’s guesthouse for a day and had my audition. They gave me lines to read from a play. The next evening they called to say I was in. I was so thrilled. They offered me a monthly salary of 350 rupees and a three-year contract. 350 rupees was a lot of money for me in those days. I had no money at all; I was literally starving. Today you earn lakhs and lakhs and you feel you don’t have enough. I think one must struggle and come up the hard way.
I joined Prabhat on July 19, 1945. There I was thrown into a group of professionals—dance directors, composers, film directors, writers and studio bosses. I started opening up and learned how to be on my own. You’ve got to be thrown into the world to make something of yourself.
But the first real break, in terms of audience recognition, came to me from a film called Baazi (1951). The film was produced by me, directed by Guru Dutt and written by Balraj Sahni. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote the lyrics and the music was by SD Burman. We formed a team that clicked for years.
For quite a few years, you played the role of a poor young city man who is forced to turn to crime in order to survive. Did you choose to play these roles?
In Baazi I played Madan, a good-hearted, unemployed young man. He’s a character straight from the pavements, an underdog, and an underdog is always popular with audiences. After Baazi, I was cast in similar roles. Taxi Driver (1954), Kala Bazar (1960) and many others followed. Baazi gave me an image that people believed suited me. I don’t really analyse it because it’s no use analysing yourself. You ought to go on doing things and it’s for the world to judge. And once certain roles click, you have a tendency to choose similar roles because that’s the image that people love.
Why is a star a star? A star is a star because he’s got a style, and people want to see the same aspects of his personality on the screen. It’s the personality that comes off in certain types of roles. Maybe I was liked in the role of a lovable underdog so those roles came to me in abundance.
You said audiences liked your style. How would you describe it?
I don’t know. I think I just behaved normally. I made no effort to act. I think it’s my normal behaviour that people fell for.
You were also known as a romantic hero and you had the best songs. What do you feel about being the romantic hero?
[smiles] A hero is always a romantic hero. Name a movie that has no love angle. I’ve worked with almost all the leading ladies of Indian cinema and even today I am working, maybe that’s why they call me a romantic hero. Maybe people liked the style of love scenes I performed on the screen, or my personality is so oriented that they loved me more in those types of roles. Every role has a bit of romance in it because there’s no movie made without a love interest. In any case even life has no meaning without a love interest and more so in the films.
When you came to Bombay wanting to be an actor, had you had any kind of acting training? And if you hadn’t, was there a particular actor who inspired you?
In those days, there were no acting schools. We’re talking about the late 1940s. We used to see motion pictures from America, England and India, and we had our own heroes. Ashok Kumar was a big hero in those days, so were Motilal, Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. They were big heroes for us.
As far as acting goes, we learned from our mistakes. Maybe that’s the best form of training. Today’s youngsters have many advantages. They have acting schools and colleges and are exposed to the world. They’re exposed to the best motion pictures. They can watch videos and watch the old and new masters. They can go to international film festivals and hobnob with anybody. The world has shrunk considerably. But in our times there were no such opportunities. Even going abroad was extremely rare.
What about the big directors, Mehboob Khan and Shantaram? You didn’t happen to work with them?
I used to admire them—they were the big directors. Unfortunately, I have never done any movie with a big director. Three of my early films were with Guru Dutt, who was new in the industry. After that, most of my movies, especially the ones that became popular, were directed by newcomers. I always believed that newcomers have a fresh mind—they’re eager, more excited and brimming over with energy. They want to achieve something. I got used to the idea of carrying newcomers along with me. Many, like Guru Dutt, became great directors in their own right.
Do you recall the filming of the Baazi song “Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer banaa le?”
I think it was one of Geeta Bali’s most enchanting pieces of acting. I was in Jodhpur for the premiere of Baazi, and I was mobbed. People from the audience told me: “We have come to watch two songs and then we leave.” One was “Tadbeer se bigdi hui,” and the other was a song in which I rode a donkey, “Mere labon pe aaj phir taraaney hain.” [smiling]
Do you think there was any connection between films like Baazi or Taxi Driver and Independence and Partition? Did the lm themes reflect their era?
No, you see, the days of Partition or Independence had nothing to do with these pictures. I don’t think that people made many patriotic films. Except for Shaheed (1948), I cannot remember any film on the subject. Independence was won and most people were just making escapist musical romances. There were no violent films either because that was not a violent era—no upheavals as there are today. I think the mood of society matters a lot in the kind of films that are made.
By the 1950s and 1960s, we were digging ourselves deep into the economy and people were happy. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister and we all looked up to those great leaders. I think it was a very happy period.
In Kala Bazar there’s an extraordinary sequence at the beginning of the film where you play a ticket tout. The scene shows you selling tickets in black for the premiere of Mother India (1957). The premiere is attended by all the top names of Hindi cinema of the time and they appear in the film entering the cinema hall. It’s a real archive. Do you remember how this sequence came about?
Yes, it was a very good sequence. I think Goldie (Vijay Anand) filmed it very well. When Mother India was being premiered, we were in the middle of filming Kala Bazar. We wanted to capture the stars who were attending the premiere. Goldie asked Mehboob Khan Saab if we could film the event and he agreed. We had cameras planted all over and we photographed the stars as they arrived.
I got into the crowd and acted my role, selling black market tickets. I wore a big overcoat with a high collar that hid my face. We shot in secret. Nobody knew I was mingling among the fans. Before they could recognise me, we had taken the shots. Location filming is always very interesting because you get the feel of things—you get natural characters and action.
In the 1950s, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and you were the big stars. How do you feel about those times today?
[smiles] I remember they used to call us “the Big Three”. We happened to be very popular. I’ve never had the time to think about why people called us that. We were stars. Raj Kapoor is still around, and so is Dilip Kumar. Now new people have come into films and it’s a natural phenomenon because the world has to be taken over by new people or ideas get stale.
One of your most important films was Guide (1965). Could we talk about that?
Guide was a milestone in my career and in the history of Indian cinema. The film was processed in America and was based on a novel written by the great author RK Narayan. Guide was made in two versions—and it was my first film in English. The English version was produced in collaboration with the late Nobel Laureate Pearl S Buck, who came to India with an American director called Tad Danielowski. They wanted to make a film and were looking for Indian actors. We met and hit it off. They offered me a role but I didn’t like the subject of the book they wanted to adapt. I said I would find them another book.
I was in London and a friend of mine said: “There’s a book called The Guide, which is also being performed off Broadway. It is a very fine book, why don’t you read it? It might be a possible movie for the West.” So I went to Foyles and ordered the book and liked it. Raju’s character was fascinating. I sent Pearl Buck, who was in New York, a cable saying: “I have a book which I think is good to make into a film. If you’re interested we could collaborate.” I was then invited to America. That’s how Guide was made.
It was considered a mad thing to do. People said: “Dev is mad. Why is he wasting so much money on a book? It’s so un-Indian because there’s adultery in it. Indian society cannot accept adultery.” I said: “We’ll see, we’ll see.” I stuck to my guns. If you’re convinced about a project, it’s good to stick to your convictions. There’s no such thing as taboo or anti-society as long as the audience is convinced; and that’s where a good screenplay comes in—people don’t realise that.
Guide was a very unconventional film by Indian standards. My casting was very unconventional, the book was very unconventional, but the Hindi version, directed by Goldie, is remembered as a milestone in Indian cinema. It was not a very big hit in terms of money, you must know that, except in big cities where you have a sophisticated and discriminating audience. People loved it and they even love it today, but it went over the heads of people in small towns and villages.
It sounds like the experience of making the film was enriching.
Guide took me to the West. It put me in touch with a lot of wonderful moviemakers, actors, actresses and writers. After I made the film, I realised that a film is a director’s medium and to make the films you want to, you have to become a director because then you’re in total command of the medium. We got many awards for Guide, but more than that, it changed my thinking. I was in touch with the best of the world and I was growing internally.
Before you turned to direction, you had vast experience as an actor. What do you feel actors can bring to direction?
An actor can become a great director because he understands the psychology of an actor. He understands the movements, he has a certain rhythm and he can command. A good director is a bit of everything. He has to have a sense of writing, acting, a good sense of music and should understand the mind of the masses. He has to be a leader. Supposing you’re shooting on location with 5,000 extras, you’ve got to be a great leader.
I decided to be a director only for this reason—that nobody should interfere with what I wanted to do. Whatever I want to say, whether good, bad, or indifferent, I’ll give it to the world and the world will decide.
How does it feel being a part of the lives of millions who have grown up with you entertaining them?
I feel tremendously good…and responsible. I still want to give my best to the people before I quit. Though I don’t think I’ll ever quit, I’ll go on and on. That’s me because I’m made that way. I’m totally restless—I’m on my feet all the time. I want to give something to the world that they’ll remember me by. And I don’t think I’ve given them what I can. Let’s wait and see. I’m still working.