SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Eternal optimist

Still going strong: Filmmaking is a passion for Dev Anand.   | Photo Credit: Photo: AP

AJIT DUARA

There are scripts to write, actors to be discovered, movies to be made, books to be written... Life is just too short for veteran actor Dev Anand.

If Guru Dutt got to direct a film, Anand would be in it and if Anand got to produce one, Dutt would direct it. Sure enough Dutt got to direct Navketan's "Baazi" (1951) and Anand acted in Dutt's "CID" (1956).

DEV ANAND is an astonishingly charming man. It is a contagious charm. Most of us have moments in the light, dark and shade, but Anand is sunshine personified. After six decades in cinema, his mannerism a nodding head as he speaks has been copied and frequently turned into parody by lesser and common artists. But nothing prepares you for the energy and the sense of goodwill towards the universe that floats across the ether in his zone. He talks fast, he thinks fast, he moves fast. He gives you the feeling that life is short; why on earth should anyone waste their time feeling depressed or negative. There are ideas to be thought of, books to be written, films to be made. He has just written his autobiography, Romancing Life, to be published by Penguin on his 84th birthday (September 26). He does not use a computer and writes with a pen in long hand. He started writing the book in New York when he was there just as the Americans started bombing Baghdad in 2003. The war continues, ad infinitum, but Anand has finished the 600-page book. Sometimes irritated with young journalists who can't write themselves but who keep asking if he has written the book on his own, Anand says: "I am an educated man. I have a degree in English literature."

Wide range of interests

Of all the post-Partition immigrants to join the Hindi film industry in the 1940s, Dev Anand was the most erudite. With a wide range of interests and a voracious appetite for books, he made an enormously successful Hindi film adapted from a novel by one of the finest exponents of Indian writing in English, R.K. Narayan. Guide, released in 1965 with Waheeda Rehman and himself in the main roles, is still regarded as his finest work. The gift of friendship, of attracting people unlike his own personality, writers like R. K. Narayan, film makers like Guru Dutt, has led to some of the most interesting collaborations in his life.

Deal with Guru Dutt

Anand met Guru Dutt in Pune, when they were both working for Prabhat Studio. The same dhobi washed their clothes and one day he mixed up their shirts. They made a deal it would be the same with their careers. If Guru Dutt got to direct a film, Anand would be in it and if Anand got to produce one, Dutt would direct it. Sure enough Dutt got to direct Navketan's "Baazi" (1951) and Anand acted in Dutt's "CID" (1956). What kind of man was Guru Dutt? Dev Anand drops his voice. He says he was withdrawn, melancholic, unable to take failure. Even in those days in Pune, the most distinguished filmmaker in Hindi film history was chronically sad. Yet they worked together, the eternal pessimist and the eternal optimist the glass both half empty and half full, depending on the camera angle.I ask Anand about that glorious period in Hindi film history. When he was working, did he perceive the influences film noir on thrillers like "Baazi" and "CID", Italian neo-realism on social documents like "Do Bigha Zameen"? Anand says, of course, this was the golden period of American and European cinema as well. And then he makes a remarkably thought provoking statement. He says that just as World War II and social unrest in Europe displaced many continental film makers particularly Central Europeans like Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitch, Otto Preminger and many others who went to work in Hollywood, the Partition of the Indian sub-continent did the same to artists from the North West and Bengal who drifted to Bombay to work in films. The commonality is that they carried with them a migrant's hard work, creativity and a certain sadness of having left their homeland. This showed in their films. Anand compares Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) and Guru Dutt's "Kaagaz Ke Phool" (1959), with their themes of the artificiality of the film world, make-belief versus the reality of life.

International Indian

Dev Anand is probably our first cross-cultural filmmaker in Hindi cinema, a man who intuitively understood the international Indian and the coming of a globalised world. Way back in the 1970s, for example, he was excited by the hippie culture long before it became fashionable. When he made "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" (1972) with Zeenat Aman, nobody took the notion of Westerners looking for salvation on the sub-continent very seriously. Also, nobody had shot extensively in Nepal before. Indeed many of Anand's films are shot abroad, frequently using foreign actors in substantial roles and more often than not introducing fresh faces to Indian cinema. I ask him about this. He says he has an insatiable curiosity about cultures and about what happens when one society encounters another. Both "Des Pardes" (1978) and, much later, "Love at Times Square" (2003) were based on this notion. In politics, Anand is as well read and as outspoken as in his films. He speaks about this in his book, particularly about his opposition to Indira Gandhi's dreaded Emergency (1975-1977). He was one of the very few actors from the Hindi film industry to openly campaign against the Congress at that time and to support the Janata Party. It is another matter that he grew disillusioned with the Janata Party later and with the cynicism of the political world. "I realised that I am primarily an artist and the two worlds are very different." I ask him what he thinks of religion being so much a part of politics today. He says that religion is a part of the human psyche, but religious intolerance is not. "It seeps into the human mind in childhood. This is the stage during which it has to be eliminated. Education is the key. We should not preach to children. Give them knowledge, information, the ability to think for themselves. But do not preach."Anand's next Hindi film, "Chargesheet", is about another burning subject; not the Jessica Lall case, which he has followed closely in the media, but the issues that it has brought to the fore murder, corruption in high places, the guilty trying to get away. After that, he says, he plans an international film in Croatia. How does he manage to juggle all this practically, psychologically and financially?

The `luck' factor

He says that despite the lack of commercial success, filmmaking is a passion, a compulsion, perhaps an addiction. When he speaks like this, at a rapid pace, it is impossible not to think of the titles of two British classics Lindsay Anderson's film "O Lucky Man" and Kingsly Amis's novel, Lucky Jim. The key word is luck. Is luck a product of destiny or do you construct your own luck? Is it made by the ability to completely ignore distasteful things around you and concentrate at the job on hand? It is a rare man who can do that. How has the film world changed over the decades? "Publicity," says Anand, "you can't do anything without publicity." Television and the media sell a film these days, not the content of the movie. "And publicity costs money." With the smaller, cost-effective budgets Anand works with these days, he finds projecting his ideas to be increasingly difficult. But does that deter him? Of course not. Has anything ever deterred him for more than five minutes? There are thoughts to think, scripts to write, actors to be discovered, movies to be made, books to be written. Life is just too short!