Dev Anand, one of the most charismatic actors of Indian films passed away last year at the age of 88. In a career spanning almost 65 years, he acted in 125 films and directed 36. Dubbed “the evergreen hero”, Dev Anand did not believe in hanging up his filmmaking boots and continued to make films virtually till the day he died. As his nephew, Shekhar Kapur, also one of India’s most celebrated directors having made his mark in world cinema with his Elizabeth (1998), tweeted: “Dev Anand lived and died on his own terms. He was working one minute. Sat down and smiled. And was gone the next minute.”
Dev Anand began his career in the early 1950s and competed with two other iconic actors of Indian cinema, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, for the hearts and minds of the Indian audiences. While Raj Kapoor epitomized the underdog in his films, and had a Chaplinesque quality in the way he portrayed his characters, Dilip Kumar was the thespian who excelled at epic sagas of love and betrayal. Dev Anand, in contrast, with his Westernized mannerisms and resemblance to Gregory Peck was the charming lover boy of Indian films. But it wouldn’t be right to classify him as a stereotypical lover boy. In many of his films, he essayed the role of the anti-hero, and his characters often had a moral edginess to them that was quite novel for the times in which these movies were made.
To quote Namrata Joshi, film critic:
The dark, noir feel of the films added to the shadowy characters he played. Be it Taxi Driver (1954), where he is a cabbie who gets involved with criminals who steal his cab for a robbery, or House No. 44 (1955), where he is a pickpocket-turned-police informant. The get-up, easy swagger and cool attitude added to the persona. As did the smoke of the innumerable cigarettes in film after film. In his world, there is moodiness and atmosphere and certain prominent motifs. Like the grungy gambling dens with bar girls seducing, singing and dancing with abandon. And often falling in love with him.
But perhaps the film that Dev Anand will always be remembered for is Guide. (1965). The story was based on celebrated author R.K. Narayanan’s book and is considered to be a classic. It tells the tale of a tourist guide, Raju, whose love for Rosie, a woman married to a philanderer, encourages her to leave her husband and renew her passion for dancing. Raju helps Rosie resurrect her career as a dancer. Raju’s life spins out of control when he betrays Rosie and gives into greed and turns to crime. The arc is completed with Raju’s redemption, that ends with self-sacrifice. Apart from the epic scale of the film, the musical score was arguably the best ever composed by Sachin Dev Burman. To date, the songs remain a favourite with Indians of all ages.
Ironically, while the film is today called a ‘classic’, when it was first released, it drew immense flak from critics and audiences for dealing with the controversial (and taboo) subject of adultery. Dev Anand wrote in his autobiography, Romancing with Life:
“The results at the box office were mixed to start with. Days passed into weeks, and weeks into months, and Guide started being talked about as no other film was. Though not much money in terms of hard cash flowed in, the film kept sending gold to the coffers of our jubilant minds, in terms of recognition of our artistic achievement. As time passed, people found more and more meaning in it, and enjoyed seeing it again and again. I have met people who have seen Guide thirty times or more and still want to see it again. It was declared an all-time classic, for all ages and all eras.”
Guide even had an English version, titled Survival for Western audiences, for which renowned author Pearl S. Buck wrote the screenplay. It was directed by Tad Danielewski. The movie bombed in the US and didn’t do much for Dev Anand’s Hollywood career.
What makes the behind-the-scenes story of Guide so interesting is that despite the huge financial risks involved Dev Anand went ahead to make the film, through his own home production, Navketan Films. He wrote:
“Taking risks can at times be dangerous. But they are worth taking nevertheless, for without risks, there can never be any extraordinary achievement.”
What if Dev Anand had played safe, stayed on the beaten track, refused to make Guide for fear of its so-called “bold” subject being rejected by audiences or for avoiding financial risk? We would have been deprived of one of the best films that Indian cinema has had to offer. Food for thought for many filmmakers today who seek safe creative paths, on the pretext of “catering to audience tastes”.