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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A Navketan Production

The story of one of Hindi cinema’s great film companies and its leading man Dev Anand

Written by Madhulika Liddle |
December 17, 2011 3:29:20 am

Some time in the mid-1940s,a young man named Dharam Dev Pishorimal Anand,a graduate from Lahore’s elite Government College,arrived in Bombay with the ambition of becoming an actor. He soon shortened his name to a more suave Dev Anand. A name to reckon with,as it turned out.

Sidharth Bhatia’s Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story is,first and foremost,the story of Dev Anand. Perhaps fittingly so. After all,Dev Anand was,along with his older brother Chetan,the person who set up the production company,Navketan,in 1949 (“The flag was Navketan,literally a new banner,named after Chetan Anand’s newly born son,Ketan,” Bhatia says). Dev Anand was the leading man of all the Navketan films till well into the 1980s; even after that,he played central roles in all Navketan productions. Equally significantly,when Navketan split,it was Dev Anand who retained the company,and his younger brother Vijay “Goldie” Anand who moved out. All the Navketan films since Hare Rama Hare Krishna have been the brainchild —from conception to completion,encompassing script-writing production,direction and acting — of Dev Anand.

Despite being primarily the story of Dev Anand,the book manages to remain true to its aim: of telling the Navketan story. So,Dev Anand’s professional life is discussed,not his personal. And his professional life,too,mainly in the context of the films he made with Navketan. There are mentions of films that Dev Anand acted in for other production houses; but it is the Navketan films — Baazi,Taxi Driver,Nau Do Gyarah,Kala Pani,Kala Bazar,Guide,Jewel Thief and others — that predominate. How their ideas evolved; how their songs were created; how the filming happened (Taxi Driver was shot when Navketan was almost broke — which was why the sets were so minimal and the streets of Bombay were mostly used as a backdrop instead).

There are tidbits of trivia. Here’s a sample: When Dev Anand arrived in Bombay,he lived with Chetan in a house on Pali Hill. Their home was a “hub of artistic activity”,with aspiring writers,directors,singers,musicians and dancers,discussing and practising for hours. (The book includes a delightful photo of the gathering,with Guru Dutt,S.D. Burman,Madan Puri,Dev Anand and a teenaged Vijay Anand among the crowd.) When they decided to stage a play,Dev Anand was selected to play the second male lead,a part he supposedly fluffed badly enough to irk the director,who said,“Take it from me,you will never become an actor!” The director? Balraj Sahni.

Bhatia has obviously done a lot of research,watched even elusive films like the English version of Guide— and interviewed people associated with Navketan over the years. And not just the big names,but even the nameless dozens who hung about,long-haired,footloose and fancy-free in Kathmandu when Hare Rama Hare Krishna was being filmed. The result is cinema seen from behind the scenes,from the eyes of those involved (even if only perfunctorily) in the making of some of Hindi cinema’s landmark films.

This isn’t,though,a mere collection of anecdotes and facts. Bhatia derives interesting conclusions,from the Navketan timeline,of how the Anands’ background and anglicised education helped mould them as filmmakers. In an industry that focussed on a largely rural India,Chetan and Dev Anand took the opposite direction,setting their films in the rush and bustle of the city (mostly,the ultimate “big city”,Bombay). This “modern”,westernised approach was reflected too in the decidedly noir feel of a lot of their films. And in other details — the street-smart hero (often anti-hero); the lack of comic subplots; and the strong,self-willed female characters that people the films — all of which remained a major element of Navketan productions.

Not that it’s a flawless book. There is the occasional error: Sheila Ramani,for instance,is identified as Kalpana Kartik in a couple of stills from Funtoosh. There are generalisations,too. Regarding Guide being made in English,Bhatia writes: “… exotic India was just becoming well known to the West,and showing snake charmers,elephants and starving villagers with huge palaces as a backdrop would not hurt.” True,it wouldn’t hurt; but India was not “just” becoming well known to the West. In the 1930s,the West was making films set in India,like the Robert Donat-Loretta Young starrer Clive of India (1935),Gary Cooper’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935),the Errol Flynn starrer The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936),and Gunga Din (1939,starring Cary Grant). Many more were to follow in the ’40s and ’50s. By the ’60s,“exotic India” was nothing new.

A little more jarring,though,is the hint of bias that shows through at times. Navketan’s hits are dwelt upon in deep and loving detail. Its misses are dismissed relatively summarily. An equally intense study of why certain films failed might have been an interesting exercise.

All said and done,this makes for an enjoyable read. It’s entertaining,cohesive and well-organised. It is also a good (even if slightly subjective) history of one of Hindi cinema’s greatest film companies. If for nothing else,have a look through it for the sheer visual impact of the book: page upon glossy page of stunning,sometimes never-before-published posters,stills and lobby cards. 

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