“I missed the first flood of Dev Anand obituaries because I was not sure I had anything to add. I knew him from the time I was a child and interacted with him frequently when I became a journalist. But I was not the world’s greatest Dev Anand fan. His finest hour came before I started watching Hindi movies and by the time I knew him in a journalistic capacity, he had stopped making films that were worth watching. So, I wasn’t sure that I had anything useful to add to the tributes that came gushing out.
So, why am I adding my two bits now?
Well, it’s because I think that many of the obituaries have missed the one factor that defined Dev Anand: his stardom. He was a star first and a human being second.
People who have interacted with movie stars will tell you that for most of them there is a distinction between their private and public lives. They choose what image they want to present to the outside world and conform to that image when they are in public. But when the curtain falls, when they go home in the evenings, they revert to being the people they really are. They don’t worry how their hair is combed. They wipe off the make-up. They get drunk. They play with their kids. They fight with their wives. They talk about their frustrations and let their real feelings flow.
Not Dev Anand. When it came to Dev, what you saw was what you got. There was no distinction between the man and the star.
I always thought that the difference between him and two major contemporaries – Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor – was that while his contemporaries were willing to let go and to settle down to old age, Dev clung on to the stardom of his youth. Raj Kapoor became a fat old man who cared more about direction than acting. Dilip Kumar used his talent to recast himself as a character-actor and was content to let the ravages of time show on his face.
But Dev was determined to cheat time. Even in his 70s, he continued to play the romantic lead. When nobody else would cast him as the hero – largely because he should have been playing the hero’s grandfather – he wrote his own scripts and made his own movies, all of which revolved around him. The distinguishing characteristic of any Dev Anand film was how the hero rarely left the screen even when the film would have benefitted from less Dev Anand and more plot. Within the film industry, they would say that Johnny Mera Naam, perhaps the biggest hit of Dev’s career, succeeded because the director (Dev’s brother, Goldie) managed to keep him off the screen for a crucial reel and a half.
What the critics didn’t get was that Dev did not hog the screen in a shameless effort to promote himself. He genuinely thought that he was irresistible and that audiences couldn’t get enough of him. On the rare occasions that he talked about his failures, his single-minded belief in himself always shone through. Discussing the failure of Ishq Ishq Ishq, his 70s bomb, he once said to me, in all seriousness, “The picture failed because audiences could not understand why a man like me could find Shabana Azmi attractive.”
Given that he was 30 years older than Shabana, it took considerable faith in oneself to attribute the commercial failure of what was really quite a stinker to the imagined ugliness of his heroine.
In almost everything Dev did, his concern for his image remained paramount. Look at the pictures of Dev Anand that the press is now filled with. In not one of these photos – many of them taken at the end of a long day or when he has stepped off an international flight – does he look at all dishevelled. His clothes are never creased. There is never even the hint of stubble. And not one hair is out of place.
Though it was a taboo subject which we could never discuss with him, there is no doubt that Dev Anand was Bollywood’s pioneer of cosmetic surgery. These days every star has a hair transplant, has Botox injected into his face and goes abroad to have the bags removed from under his eyes. But back in the days when plastic surgery was considered an outlandish procedure, Dev would disappear abroad for several weeks. When he returned, he would look much younger. I don’t know what he did to his hair. I don’t think it was a wig so I guess he had some kind of implantation done way before it became fashionable.
His contemporaries would joke about his vanity. “Dev Anand can never pass a mirror without stopping to look at himself,” a fellow star of that era told me. But because he cared about his appearance, his career outlasted all his contemporaries. Look at Dilip Kumar in Dastaan or Raj Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker and compare how they looked with Dev’s youthful appearance in Johnny Mera Naam (made around the same time) and you’ll see why, in visual terms at least, he remained the true star of that trio. Moreover, Dev went on to convincingly play the leading man for another ten years after Raj Kapoor became a whiskey-loving large person.
The visual obsession had parallels in the way in which Dev conducted himself in private and public. Catch stars in unguarded moments and they will reveal their true selves. But when it came to Dev, either there were no unguarded moments or there was no true self. He was never indiscreet. If he felt any frustrations or heartbreak, he rarely complained. He must have been jealous of some colleagues but he never once had a bad word to say about anyone.
The closest I got to seeing an unguarded side of Dev was after the release of Satyam Shivam Sundaram. By then, it was clear that Zeenat Aman had chosen her career over him. But Dev would not say anything bad about her. His only complaints were about the way in which Raj Kapoor had shot her in the movie. “You know Vir,” he said, sounding distressed, “there are some scenes where the camera lingers too long on the area below her neck.”
“You mean her breasts?”
“Yes, yes. It is not in good taste. The camera could have moved away quicker.”
“But Dev Saab, that’s the whole point of the movie. Zeenat Aman’s breasts are the real stars of the picture.”
“Yes, yes. But very wrong. I did not like it.”
Apart from that, I never once got anything out of him. He genuinely had no bitterness or rancour. It was, I guess, a function of the way in which he lived his life. If you are determined to deny your past, then how can you feel bitter about it?
My last formal interview with Dev was several years ago for a show I used to do on the old Star News, called Star Talk. You could tell that the unit treated him like a demi-god. Everyone wanted to shake his hand and Dev in turn seemed genuinely pleased to meet his fans. The only time he lost his good humour was during the first break in shooting when the make-up man rushed up to powder his nose and push his hair above his eyebrows. “DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR,” Dev shouted with such ferocity that the studio fell silent for several minutes.
But we forgave him his vanity as we forgave him those absurdly high collars and carefully draped scarves. I never believed that he was trying to hide plastic surgery scars. I thought that he was just self-conscious about the wrinkles on his neck, which contrasted sharply with the tautness of his facial skin.
By the end, as he made one third-rate movie after another, I finally asked him why he bothered to sweet-talk rich hicks from Kanpur and Jabalpur into financing movies that everyone knew were going to be massive flops. He didn’t need the money (he had invested wisely during his peak years and his needs were simple). Wasn’t it time to sit back and finally relax?
“I can’t do it Vir,” he said flatly. “If I don’t make motion pictures, I will die.”
And on Sunday, when the end finally came, all I could think of was that he was still acting, still scripting, and still planning new movies right till the moment when the great director in the sky finally called ‘Cut’.