Written by Karthik Ballu
I was so dumbstruck by what I had just heard that he had to repeat it a second time. ‘You know Mr Dev Anand, right? He has asked you to see him at his office’
It was my childhood friend Dhiraj Kapoor on the phone. Dhiraj and I had lost touch since our school days in Bangalore and had reconnected only recently in Mumbai. During the call, he shared that he has been a close associate of Dev Anand. And that, on one of his routine visits to Dev Anand’s office, he told him about me – his childhood friend who is now a manager at the India office of Warner Bros. Pictures. And that is when the star asked to meet me.
Dev Anand had been working in films for 65 years – as an actor, producer, writer and director. At the age of 87, he had starred in the lead role and also wrote, produced and directed his new film, Chargesheet. The film was in its post-production stage and he was seeking a distribution partner.
Being a multinational organization, the studio works under strict guidelines and everything goes through an approval process. During our earlier collaborations, I had seen that even day-to-day decision-making can get tense when work cultures of the organizations do not match. I was also highly doubtful about Dev Anand accepting our terms of agreement.
But then, I did not know Dev Anand. Like so much else before in his life, he manifested his wish to partner with a major Hollywood studio.
We were excited about an idea that our marketing and publicity team had come up with for launching the trailer of Chargesheet. We had thought of getting a short audio-visual montage made of some of the beloved classic films made by Dev Anand’s banner, Navketan International Films, and insert the montage as a prelude to the trailer of Chargesheet. Our reasoning was that this montage had a good chance of going viral and this would drive up views for the trailer. This would also help in positioning Navketan as a studio with an enduring legacy. But Dev Saab (as he was reverentially called) rejected this idea at the very outset. He said he was not interested in trumpeting his past glory. He seemed upset for a moment and emphasized to us that our campaign has to be about ‘Chargesheet and Chargesheet alone!’.
Having led a much celebrated life, the press was always keen on talking to him about many topics from his past. While he answered those questions with his usual candour, he was also quick to bring the conversation back to the film.
‘Let me tell you about Chargesheet’, he would interject. ‘This is a story about India, but it has global appeal’, he would add with a gusto.
Once the film was ready, Dev Saab arranged for a preview screening for us. Later on when I was at his office for a meeting, he asked for my feedback on the film. I told him that I liked the theme of the film and mentioned the characters that stood out for me. When he wanted to know my take on its prospects at the box office, I hesitatingly said that such crime thrillers were not doing well those days. I reasoned that the aesthetics of cinema had undergone a drastic change since the end of the 1990s. While I was being more and more cautious about every word, he was becoming more and more curious and pushing me to engage more deeply.
At some point during this conversation, Dev Saab suddenly popped the question, ‘What about Pyaasa?’
I replied saying, ‘Pyaasa is considered one of the greatest films ever made in our country. It is usually on everyone’s list along with Guide and Mother India’.
‘But when Pyaasa was released, it was considered a failure! It was rejected by both the audience and the critics’, he countered with his insistent hand gestures.
I keep going over this exchange from time to time. His argument has made me relook at everything I viewed as great works of art. I realize that Pyaasa (1957) is ‘great cinema’ under the lens of present times and this could again change in some years.
As a film-maker, he believed that his role was to express himself by creating cinema as a response to all that was happening in the world around him. And all his energies were focused on doing just that despite encountering some box-office failures. Every cell in his body believed that even if some of the films don’t work now, they always stood a chance of getting their due recognition in another time. He never found it worthwhile to dwell on how his films were being received.
During a TV interview, when asked if Guide (1965) was his best film, he answered, ‘The world believes so! I believe that the film I am making now is going to be my best film’.
It was completely normal for our meetings to be interrupted because there was a guest in the office who had to urgently see Dev Saab for a few minutes. He would get a little uneasy before allowing them inside because it was hindering the flow of our meeting. But once they were called in, he always received them graciously. They would usually come with flowers, a box of sweets, or some prasad. They would bend down and touch his feet to take his blessings and sometimes get pictures clicked alongside him.
A few days before the release of the film, we celebrated his 88th birthday at a hotel in Juhu (Mumbai). The information about his birthday celebration got shared on the Dev Anand fan pages on social media and his well-wishers travelled from far and wide to see him.
A middle-aged man had travelled all the way from Chennai to see him. Apparently, the man’s father was a huge fan of Dev Saab and had always wished to meet him. Since his father passed away, the son had made the trip to fulfil his father’s wish. He held Dev Saab’s hands and began to weep while talking about his father. Dev Saab whispered words to comfort him and continued holding his hand until the man composed himself.
Chargesheet was not the only movie Dev Saab released in 2011. Earlier that year, he had released Hum Dono (Rangeen), the coloured version of his classic Hum Dono (1961), to a warm reception by cinema enthusiasts. He was also working on releasing the digitized version of Guide. He kept himself updated on the current affairs and regularly posted on his social media accounts. He used to hold a pair of glasses in one hand and a pen in another – always prepared to read, write and engage with the world. A few weeks before the release of Chargesheet, I found him navigating through the features of his brand new i-phone.
‘The body gets tired but the mind of a creative person never tires’, he replied when asked about the secret of his longevity during another TV interview.
When I had walked in to his office for our first meeting, Dev Saab stretched his arm towards me for a handshake. Since then, this was how we always greeted each other. Although, it would get awkward for me at times when the others in the room would show their respect by bending down and touching his feet. But I was not sure if such a gesture from me would seem professional. And I sensed that he preferred our task-oriented relationship.
That did not stop him from asking me about my family. I had recently got married at that time and he regularly asked about my partner’s wellbeing. I told him about how much she was looking forward to meet him someday. I had hoped to ask him for a suitable time for this personal visit after we had concluded this project.
Dev Saab did everything that movie stars did back then for promoting their films. He gave innumerable interviews for TV, radio and web portals. He even travelled during peak hour traffic to a TV news studio in Lower Parel so that he could appear on a top-rated primetime show. He held a press conference along with his co-stars which was well attended by the media.
Late in the night after the frenzied premiere show, we did a small debrief while sitting inside his car. Dev Saab and his son Suneil Anand were sitting on the backseat. I was sitting on the front passenger seat while their driver was standing outside. With the film releasing the following day, it was the end of the road for our campaign and he was visibly exhausted that night. His astute mind and eloquent speech never gave away of how fragile his body was. After we finished talking, I touched his feet and thanked him for taking me along on this joyride. He took hold of my hand between both his palms. ‘God bless you, son’, he said before letting go.
A few weeks later, Suneil Anand called me to inform that they were both going to London for some time. That is when I last spoke with Dev Saab. He first enquired about those territories where Chargesheet was yet to be released. He then shared that he was already developing an idea for his next film. And that he planned to use the time in London to do some writing.
On his return, he wished to visit the Warner Bros. India office which was then in Churchgate (Mumbai) to explore newer opportunities.
‘We will make more films together’, he had assured me.
There are over a hundred films and hundreds of songs that will always keep him with us. And for those of us who were fortunate to interact with him, no matter how briefly, there was that rare gift he gave us all. It did not matter if the person was a cub reporter or the chief editor, if the person was a new actor or an established star, if the person was an executive or the managing director – he gave each one of us his absolute, undivided attention.
Tell me a greater act of love.
In the movie Guide, Dev Saab plays Raju, an ex-convict who seeks refuge in a derelict temple in the middle of nowhere. People from the neighbouring village mistake him to be a holy man and start taking care of him with food and clothes. Raju assumes this role for the sake of convenience. He uses his worldly knowledge to improve the lives of the villagers. Later on, when the village faces a severe drought, people start to look towards him for a miracle. That is when he comes clean about his murky past. He reveals that he is just an ordinary man with a criminal past. Incredibly, the villagers’ belief in him is further strengthened because they feel that having been through the tests of life, he is now capable of turning a new leaf.
In this moment of moral dilemma, his conscience answers: ‘Just like a stone idol becomes God because people believe so, a person can also turn into a Mahatma because of people’s faith in him. Like the idol, you are only a medium for people to turn towards the light.’
After working for over ten years in the entertainment industry, Karthik is now an educator based in Bengaluru.
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Written by Karthik Ballu