NO man is a hero to his mirror. Or, perhaps, no hero is heroic enough for his own mirror. On my memory calendar, I can date the moment when the mid-life syndrome began to hit Dev Anand: after the release of Guide, one of the great films of Indian cinema, a phenomenon of 1965, and a turning point of a star’s trajectory. Dev Anand was 43, or about half the age he would live to, and at the cusp of turning into a legend.
When his next film Jewel Thief was released in 1967, the wardrobe had changed. The collar had widened to cover the neck. The mass idol had introduced a new style, of course; but he was also hinting at the onset of a familiar human trauma. Dev Anand knew where the body began to age, in the jowls, which begin to go soft before they eventually start to sag. Dev Anand did not want his image to cross that threshold of a firm 40.
He hid behind the fashion he created. No one knew this of course, least of all the millions in big towns and small, who began to wear the Dev collar on their shirts even if they were not audacious enough to place the jaunty, slightly slanted Dev cap on their heads.
Dev Anand had the exquisite ability to look welldressed even when wearing slipshod trousers that stopped above the ankle because they had run out of cloth in the street-smart films he made in the 1950s, like Baazi, Jaal and Taxi Driver. Everything became immaculate on him. And so when Desmond Doig of The Statesman began designing his couture, it was modern flair weaning age away from a handsome man with a disarming grin. Dev Anand added a scarf to his ensemble, both on and off the screen.
Guide was the high point of his career, the apex of his Diamond Decade from 1961 to 1971, from Hum Dono, Asli-Naqli and Tere Ghar Ke Samne to Jewel Thief, Johny Mera Naam and Haré Rama Haré Krishna. His bejeweled career took off in 1948 with Ziddi, hit an early peak in 1951 with Baazi, and climbed to a crescendo with Kala Pani, Bombai Ka Babu and Hum Dono. That was the Golden Decade. Fortune, always fair to the bold, gave him a Filmfare Award for best actor in both periods, for Kala Pani and Guide.
The interesting bit is that the diamond phase might have turned into paste if Guide had flopped, as it threatened to do in its first week. The theme of women’s empowerment, of a wife abandoning an indifferent husband for a creative career managed by a lover, of economic independence which led to a second estrangement; and the transition of Dev Anand from Raju, the smooth-talking guidecum-entrepreneur to the accidental godman and saviour was simply too revolutionary for 1965.
Dev Anand could hardly hide the wonder from his voice as he recounted the premiere of Guide in the opulent Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai. There was absolute silence when the film ended, he told me during one of our many conversations; there was not even perfunctory applause. The glitterati of cinema were there, as well as political dignitaries and business magnates. Dev Anand, standing at the door along with director Vijay Anand to say goodbye to celebrities, whispered to his younger brother that they were sunk. All their money had disappeared into the making of Guide.
But instead of deserted box-office counters, audiences began to grow. Dev Anand attributed this to the remarkable music composed by Sachin Dev Burman, a string of melodies rarely heard in such fabulous succession: as the music caught on, so did the film. But surely, it was also a case of a historic film beginning to change consciousness in its own quiet, immeasurable way. Music might be the food of love and an abacus of the cash register, but if it was also the engine of success, then the biggest hit of 1966, Phool Aur Patthar, would never have made a rupee. This extraordinary film, starring Meena Kumari, unhappy, alcoholic, and close to an early death at 38, and the young Dharmendra, did not have a single song worth a hum.