Remembering Dev Anand
When Dev Anand died on December 3, 2011, at the age of eighty-eight years, my initial reaction was one of a personal loss. We don’t want anyone to die, especially talented people, who gave us so many wonderful memories. I stayed with that thought and mourned the loss of the matinee-idol who lent my last name, Anand, so much credibility and acceptance in the remotest corners of India. There was no place in India that I visited where his fame hadn’t preceded me.
Often when I would introduce myself to anyone, the first question would be “Are you related to Dev Anand?” I used to reply, “Yes. We both even have sisters with the same name, Uma Anand.” (co-writer of screenplay for Taxi Driver and later news reporter on All India Radio). After a few moments of incredulity, I would tell my questioner the truth that we were not even remotely related. We both lived in Bombay but his roots were in Northern India and mine were in the South.
Another time, this common last name fetched me a wonderful dinner with another sister of Dev Anand (or was it Uma?) who was visiting a friend in Houston. This friend was a colleague at work, a Pakistani, who thought that perhaps we were distantly related. Both the sister and I were embarrassed for our host and pretended all evening that there was some distant connection.
Yes, there was a connection—he was a matinee idol and we adored him and his movies. As a child in Bombay (Ye Hai Bombay Meri Jaan!) in the 1950s and 1960s, his movies were part of the Indian masses’ cinematic and musical diet. While his movies did not always perform well at the box office, the songs from these releases were always hot hits. As a child, I rarely saw these Hindi movies, However, I listened to him on the radio and heard the greatest melodies of the era.
Dev Saab could influence every aspect of his films. Not only did he co-own with his brothers the studio that produced his movies, Navketan, but also he was a superstar and could call the shots. In hindsight, his key influence was the music and his keen ear for songs. His films’ melodies could evoke the right emotions and stir the human heart in memorable ways.
These songs’ lyrics were usually in Urdu, a language I understood superficially. I would understand a few words here and there to comprehend the general sense and emotion of the song. These songs came from short wave and medium wave AM radio stations. The quality of transmission was poor—we could barely hear the lyrics.
Listeners who were keen on learning the lyrics bought poorly produced booklets from street vendors. Many who liked to sing these songs (like my sisters) hand-copied lyrics from these booklets in special books, corrected them over time, and stored them like treasures, retrieving them for practice or performance on stage. My brother and I were satisfied with singing-along with the sprightly, fun songs of the era. Every Dev Anand movie had a few of them.
I saw my first Dev Anand feature, Guide, as an act of defiance against an older cousin, who had moved to Bombay from a sleepy southern town. My cousin had advised my parents that my sisters, brother and I were too young to be exposed to the adult content of the movie; it didn’t matter to her that the Indian Censor Board with its Victorian outlook had given it the equivalent of a G rating.
At the movie (I went with all my siblings), we saw actors my parent’s age acting like they were younger, dancing and miming to some great songs (composed by S D Burman). Waheeda Rehman was charming and could dance very well. Dev Anand’s acting seemed stylized. However, the pair’s presence on the screen was powerful. My fifteen year-old-mind loved the movie. My sisters and I wondered why our cousin was scandalized by the movie. We attributed it to her small-town exposures; she was from Bangalore.
Later, I saw his subsequent movies, which, like Guide, were directed by his brother Vijay Anand—Jewel Thief, Tere Mere Sapne, and Johnny Mera Naam. This string of hits made me wonder if I hadn’t missed an important part of Dev Saab’s repertoire in the Black and White movie era. I went back and watched a few like Taxi Driver, Hum Dono, Tere Ghar Ke Saamne, and Kala Bazaar. They were wonderful movies that gave me my first experiences of nostalgia.
The songs, the scenes (especially those from Bombay, circa 1950s), historical references, and the cast’s youth brought back a rush of memories and sensations from the period. My later excursions to Dev Anand and his contemporaries’ older movies were to simply enjoy the nostalgic rush that accompanied them. Even teenagers enjoy wistful reminiscences.
As I got older, I continued to watch Dev Anand movies. In the 1970s, I saw the English version of Guide. The actors spoke English and the script adhered to R K Narayan’s original story. However, the film seemed so different from my expectations that it seemed awkward and unnatural.
On my college campus, Dev Saab movies took a prime spot in the riotous company of about fifteen hundred bored engineers-in-the-making, who looked upon weekend movies as a chance to blow some steam. Dev Saab was in his fifties and his heroines were barely in their twenties. Moreover, his stylized moves and dialog delivery seemed old fashioned. Pandemonium reined in the auditorium during his movies, except during songs. He still had that immaculate ear for reaching out to his audience’s musical hearts and ruling them.
Fast forward twenty-five years. When I heard that Dev Saab had had a heart attack in a London Hotel and had passed away, all I could recall were his associations with some of the richest popular songs of Indian cinema. I was not alone. He was a giant in the Hindi film industry, who contributed immensely to every facet of its unique position in global film-making. However, homage that began to pour in focused on songs from his movies.
There was an explosion of vintage Dev Anand song videos on television and the internet. The media overflowed with Dev Saab miming songs sung by a playback singer, composed by a music director, and accompanied by an unseen orchestra. A man who began his movie career in about 1945, and was a lead actor for at least three decades deserved at least a few film clips that showed off his acting talent. I saw none of those; just hours and hours of song clips from his popular movies.
Later, I couldn’t help but wonder if Indian movie songs have become larger than the movies that contained them, their actors, directors and other players. Indian films are mostly musicals. What survives and endures in the viewers’ minds are its songs and the façade that presents them. The rest just fades away.
RIP Dev Saab. You will live forever.