It was as if Peter Pan had died. Dev Anand, that stubbornly optimistic thief of time, took away a large chunk of our belief in immortality with him. Here was a man who had willed time to stop, tearing out the hands of the universal clock to silence its ticking, at least in his own ears. When I first heard of his death, the final scene from an old American film, the name of which I can no longer remember, flashed through my mind. An ageing blonde movie star, who sits in a darkened room all day watching her old black-and-white films, gets up from the sofa, walks up to the screen showing flickering images of her younger self, and walks right into it, passing through to the celluloid heaven on the other side, where she will forever be young and beautiful and eternally wooed by her screen lovers who, too, would never age.
When I dropped by one evening some months ago to see Dev Anand in his temporary office in Khar, he was barely visible behind the mountain of files and papers and film posters on his desk. He was getting ready to release two films—the ‘colourised’ version of his classic Hum Dono (his last black-and-white film) and his latest film, Chargesheet. Not one to let time—with a capital T—get the better of him, he was doing two things simultaneously: yanking the nearly fifty-two-year-old film into the present, as well as making a new one that’s spun out of the headlines of the moment.
But it wasn’t just all that voluminous publicity material and papers piled high on his desk that made him barely visible. Debonair Dev Sahib appeared ancient, shrivelled, almost like a living mummy. His clothes appeared too large for his frail frame. But when he suddenly stood up and started talking animatedly about his new film, the years just fell away: the image of the twinkle-eyed romantic hero with his sloping walk and his trademark quiff that many young men growing up in the fifties and sixties tried to emulate superimposed itself on the octogenarian. I was convinced that he was convinced that he was not an old man, that he would always be the leading man. That he would always exist in an eternal now.
In a voice that had also as suddenly found its groove, he told me: “A star should never show himself as old in a film. He should not use a stick, have white hair. It is not fair to those who come to see him on screen. He should always remain a star.”
Dev Anand’s films flopped with unfailing regularity. He was almost forgotten. But the news of his death triggered a torrent of collective outpouring of grief across generations, especially on social networking sites. Perhaps, it was his incurable optimism and belief in the self that made him such an enduring national icon.
This has been an annus horribilis as far as our living legends go. Dev Anand is the latest of many the Grim Reaper has claimed this year: M.F. Husain, Shammi Kapoor, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Bhimsen Joshi, Jagjit Singh, Bhupen Hazarika, amongst others. You could say it was the passing of an era—the final snapping of the umbilical cord with the 20th century. A break of sorts with continuity.
The death of an icon is like a minor temblor: it shakes us out of our formulaic getting-on-with-life. It stirs and brings to the surface emotions that lie buried deep within us. Possibly even some we never realised we possessed. Emotions can slow us down; trip us as we rush towards the goals we have set for ourselves in an increasingly competitive, anger-fuelled society. I have always been puzzled by the fact that the sense of loss experienced when an icon one has never even met dies can be far more intense and deeply felt than the death of a relation, a friend or a colleague.
Perhaps the loss of an icon creates a void within us because a part of us also dies with them. They contributed significantly to our memory banks, and we shared an intimacy with them. Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand helped shape us. They helped us grow up. After all, we often project our dreams onto movie stars, they incarnate our aspirations. Icons are the repositories of our secret longings. Millions of young men took their cues on how to romance a woman from Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor. While the former was the romantic, urbane gentleman lover, the latter was more aggressive. Shammi Kapoor represented the changing India of the ’60s: he was the first to bring a bristling adolescent sexuality to the screen. That famous ‘yahoo’ yell in Junglee said it all.
The mellifluous, melancholy-tinged voice of Jagjit Singh, the transcendent quality of Bhimsen Joshi’s songs and the memorably robust music of Bhupen Hazarika touched us, became part of us. Those notes and voices fed our romantic or spiritual longings, just as the songs that Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor lip-synched remained forever etched in our minds, becoming as they did anthems of romance and playfulness.
How do you mourn the death of such icons? You remember the small details, the stories that accrued round them, what they meant to you at certain stages of your life, what they meant to others round you. As I write, memories of my encounters with a few of them surface.
I am not a sportsperson. I don’t know a thing about cricket. But Tiger Pataudi will always have a special place in my reservoir of memories. It was in the early eighties, when I worked with Sunday magazine. Tiger was the editor of a sister publication—Sportsworld. Initially, before he got his own cabin, his desk was next to mine. He used to type his copy, ever so slowly, using the index finger of each hand. One morning, a girl who used to work in the circulation department of the magazines had an accident while stepping off a bus in front of our office building on Parliament Street. She was rushed to Willingdon Hospital. I was about to follow, when Tiger said that he also wanted to come. I could hardly imagine the elegant nawab going to the general ward of a hospital to see somebody he did not know. Not only did he come along, he stayed there for over an hour, trying and succeeding in persuading the rather hysterical young colleague to allow the nurse to give her an injection. This sure was one prince charming with a caring heart.
Husain Sahib occupies a fairly high perch in the reservoir of memories. It was just about a year or so before he went abroad, never to return. We met on the lawns of Mumbai’s CCI on a lovely winter afternoon. He ordered what to us Delhiwalas is a bit of a gastronomical oxymoron: jalebi with some sort of namkeen, along with pakodas and chai. After a while, he said he had something for me. He pulled out a little black book from his jhola. The book that opened like an accordion had his version of the Kamasutra painted on both sides of the pages. The paintings were exquisite, delicately drawn. The piece de resistance was Husain’s nom de plume for his mini-Kamasutra: ‘Bhoothalingham’! He chuckled when I asked him to sign a copy of the book. How could he—the saffron brigade was already after him. I never saw him again.
While I was working on my biography of the Kapoors, I had to try several times before Shammi Kapoor agreed to see me. Like Dev Anand, he wanted to tell his own story, despite the umpteen requests from writers. He was a busy man, straddling two time zones: the present racing down the highways of the internet and the past jotting down reminiscences and anecdotes of his life. Fortunately, the ice was broken when I asked him about a non-filmi girlfriend whom he had once apparently wanted to marry. His exuberant love life didn’t interest me: some of it was on his website and I heard countless anecdotes about his affairs. I wanted to know what made him tick. What made him dance the way he did, with such energy and abandon. He told me that when he was still in his teens, Nargis had given him a gramophone and then taken him to a record shop. In the pile he took there was a lot of Latin American music—rumba, samba, jazz. This had Shammi hooked; he internalised the music and later in his films danced to his own beat. Nobody could choreograph him. No director knew where to put the camera. He would go all over the place. He said he broke his knees several times over.