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When Dev Anand died on December 3, 2011, at the age of 88, 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.
Whenever I introduced myself to anyone, the first question many would ask me was, “Are you related to Dev Anand?” I used to reply, “Yes. We both even have sisters with the same name, Uma Anand.” (She co-wrote Dev Anand’s movieTaxi Driver, and later read English news on All India Radio.) After I allowed for a few incredulous moments, 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.
Once, 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. The box-office performance of his movies was inconsistent but the songs from these releases were always hot hits. They filled the airwaves constantly and people sang and hummed them.
As a child, I rarely saw Hindi movies. However, I heard the radio and listened to the great melodies of the era. Dev Saab’s movies were produced by Navketan, which he owned with his brothers. Moreover, he was a superstar. He could influence every aspect of his films. In hindsight, the key one that mattered was 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.
The first Dev Anand starrer that I saw was Guide. It was an act of defiance. An older cousin, who had moved to Bombay from a sleepy southern town, 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.
When we saw the movie, all my siblings and I saw were people my parents’ age not acting their age, dancing and lip-synching to some of the best songs composed by SD Burman. Waheeda Rehman was very 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 caught 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, circa1950s), historical references, and the casts’ youth brought back a rush of memories of sensations and information about 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 are allowed wistful reminiscences.
In the 1970s, I saw only one Dev Anand movie through a concerted effort—it was the English version of Guide. The actors spoke English and the script adhered to RK Narayan’s original story. The film was so different from my expectations that it seemed awkward and unnatural.
I did see other Dev Saab’s movies on my college campus, 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 reigned 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 holding their undivided attention.
Fast forward 25 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 mouthing 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 wonder if Indian movie songs become larger than the movies that contained them, their actors, directors and other players. Indian films are mostly musicals and 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.
Pradeep Anand is the author of An Indian in Cowboy Country.