Don't just call Dev Anand evergreen
Almost every tribute to Dev Anand calls him evergreen. But that does him a disservice. He was the pied piper who took us from a black and white age to colour with his amazing technicolour dreamcoat.
I saw him riding down San Francisco's Van Ness Avenue in a convertible, his scarf wrapped around his neck, shooting for Love At Times Square. As perfectly at home in 2002 San Francisco as he had been romancing Nutan on a bicycle in Paying Guest on Chitrahaar on my TV screen back in the day.
When he heard about his death, a friend commented that along with Dev Anand, his father's youth had also died. But it wasn't just his father's youth. Dev Anand managed effortlessly to be the talisman of many generations.
He was our pied piper of all ages. He led us from the black and white age into colour. And oh, what colour it was. That red checked shirt and red scarf in Prem Pujari. His rakish red cap in Heera Panna chasing Zeenat Aman's shocking pink one as it went flying down the road. That daffodil yellow shirt and white sweater in Jewel Thief, the fishing rod jauntily slung over his shoulder as he sings "Yeh dil na hota bechara." The black and white Dev Anand was suave and stylish. But in colour, Dev Anand had a different joie de vivre. That was apparent even on our black and white television sets.
He was, writes Sudha Tilak on BBC "the first hero of Indian cinema who was a happy figure." Dilip Kumar was "solemn and grave", Raj Kapoor was a "tragic underdog." But Dev Anand was a "gentleman of leisure".
Nobody could light a cigarette with quite as much élan. Nobody could emerge from a haystack with each hair so firmly in place. And nobody could carry off a bright red jacket with quite as much style. And thankfully, nobody ever will.
At some level, he didn't feel Indian at all. His outfits suggested a man meant for much cooler climates.
The clothes were a window into the wider world. He opened up India before India opened up to the world. People said he copied Gregory Peck. But given half a chance, he would have out-Pecked the man if he had a Roman Holiday with an Audrey Hepburn. He was meant for nightclubs in Paris and witty flirtations.
Dev Anand was a much-needed respite from the rather dull, self-righteous sobriety of our socialism. He seemed to live for the moment, free of the plodding earnestness of the Five Year Plan. We remember him best as a dreamer, hustler, charmer, opportunist. A fake war hero, pretend-guru, or an all-out thief, he always wanted more and would merrily break a rule or three to get it. Of course this was a different time. Even our scams were more lovable then and not 2G. It was an age of well-coutured jewel thieves not A Raja.
He was our eternal Guide. The man with the shirts buttoned up to his neck allowed us to be less uptight about romance. His form of seduction was an art form. The flirtation was not about marriage. And it was not even about sex. That was why Dev Anand got to be a hero for as long as he did. Any other guy would have just been a creepy old man ogling over a bikini-clad Zeenat Aman in a hammock in Heera Panna. But Dev Anand was just Dev Anand, too jaunty to be a real rake.
Looking back now, it's easy to make fun of Dev Anand and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat. Those scarves, those buttoned-up shirts, half an acre of cuff peeking out from under his jacket – all seem a little foppish. It's easy to read into the vanity of a man who refused to gracefully accept his true age, a sort of botoxed socialite figure, hiding his wrinkles behind flowing scarves. But that is to not recognise the essence of Dev Anand – the balancing act he managed to pull off about retaining something quintessentially Dev Anand, even as he reinvented the trappings around him.
It's now a cliché that Dev Anand was evergreen. But he is not, not really. Evergreen promises something eternally fresh, something that doesn't seem to age or change. Dev saab, debonair, dapper and dashing as he was till the end, couldn't quite trick Father Time entirely.
But even when Dev Saab started to feel a little antiquated, and long after most people stopped watching his films, he kept going: introducing new actresses, taking on issues that intrigued him – hippies and drugs (Hare Rama Hare Krishna), godmen (Swami Dada), censorship (Censor), the Indian immigrant in the USA (Love at Times Square). He brushed off flops as if they were specks of dust on those pristine pastel sweaters.
He didn't just want to retire into father and grandfather roles, or become the grand old man of Indian cinema, a beloved Dadamoni-like figure. He stayed curious. History will judge the legacy of his films, good, bad and indifferent. But the legacy of Dev Anand, the man, the hero, is different. Don't call him evergreen. That's too condescending, a sort of consolation prize for longevity. Dev Anand was brilliantly, unapologetically Eastmancolor.
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