A few days back, an editor from The Indian Express phoned to ask me if I’d like to review a book for them. Which book? Sidharth Bhatia’s Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story. Too mouthwatering an opportunity to miss, I decided, even though I already had a lot of work to get done. But here it is. You can read the final version (more concise, shorter, perhaps a bit less irreverent) here. And here, right after this sentence, is my first draft: longer, more full of trivia, a little more loony, and (of course!) with some screenshots.
Sometime in the mid-1940s, a young man named Dharam Dev Pishorimal Anand, an anglicised graduate from the elite Government College in Lahore, arrived in Bombay with the ambition of becoming an actor. The name Dharam Dev Pishorimal Anand was soon shortened by its owner to a smarter, shorter Dev Anand. A name to reckon with, as it turned out.
Sidharth Bhatia’s very readable 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 film production company, Navketan, in 1949 (“The flag was Navketan, literally a new banner, named after Chetan Anand’s newly born son, Ketan,” as Bhatia explains). Dev Anand was the leading man of all the Navketan films till well into the 1980s. 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 the pioneering Hare Rama Hare Krishna have been the brainchild – from conception to completion, encompassing everything from script-writing to production to direction and acting – of Dev Anand.
Despite being primarily the story of Dev Anand himself, the book manages to remain true to its aim: of telling the Navketan story. So, Dev Anand’s life remains his professional life, not his personal. And his professional life, too, is mainly in the context of the films he made as part of Navketan. There are mentions of films that Dev Anand acted in for other film production houses; but it is the Navketan films – Baazi, Taxi Driver, Nau Do Gyarah, Kala Pani, Kala Bazar, Guide, Jewel Thief, and others – that are discussed in deep detail. How their stories came about; how their songs were created; how the filming happened (Taxi Driver was shot in thirty days and on a shoestring budget – which was why the sets were so minimal and most of the story actually plays out against Bombay itself).
There are delightful little titbits of trivia embedded throughout the book: did you know, for instance, that the Anglo-Indian family playing the musical instruments in Dil se milake dil pyar kijiye (from Taxi Driver) were the Corkes, the landlords of the Pali Hill flat where the Anand brothers lived?
Or that Vijay Anand directed Nau Do Gyarah when he was just twenty-two? Or that when Dev Anand had first arrived in Bombay and used to live with elder brother Chetan in Pali Hill, their house had become a “hub of artistic activity”, with everybody from aspiring writers and directors to singers, musicians and dancers, gathering to discuss, debate, and talk for hours altogether. When the members of this club decided to stage a play named Zubeida, the young 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. (Incidentally, the book includes a wonderful ‘group photo’ of this club at Pali Hill; among those in the photo, smiling happily into the camera, are Dev Anand, Guru Dutt, Madan Puri, Krishan Dhawan, S D Burman, and a teenaged Vijay Anand).
Cinema Modern is: The Navketan Story, is however, not a mere storehouse of trivia. Bhatia has obviously done a lot of work on this book, researching, watching elusive films like the English version of Guide – and interviewing people associated with Navketan and its productions over the years. And not just the big names: Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, the other big stars and directors, playback singers, choreographers and music directors who’ve worked with Navketan over the years, but even down to people who hung about, long-haired, footloose and fancy-free in Kathmandu when Hare Rama Hare Krishna was being filmed. The result is an entertaining yet informative one: cinema seen from behind the scenes, from the eyes of those involved (even if only briefly) in the making of some of Hindi cinema’s landmark films.
The book isn’t, either, a mere retelling of anecdotes, stories and facts. Bhatia derives from the Navketan timeline interesting conclusions of what the Anands stood for, and how their background and education helped mould them as film-makers. In a film 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 (often, 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 urbane hero (often anti-hero); the lack of comic subplots; and the strong, self-willed female characters that people Navketan’s films – all of which remained a major element of Navketan’s films over the years.
Not that it’s a flawless book. There is the occasional goof-up: Sheila Ramani, for instance, being labelled ‘Kalpana Kartik’ in a couple of stills from Funtoosh. There are generalisations, too, sweeping statements that are definitely arguable. 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 it also wasn’t anything new. Exotic India was not ‘just’ becoming well known to the West. By the 1930s, Hollywood was making films set in India, like the Errol Flynn-starrer The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), the Gary Cooper-starrer The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Gunga Din (1939, starring Cary Grant) and the Robert Donat-Loretta Young starrer, Clive of India (1935). The 40s and 50s were a flurry of set-in-India films, including Kim, The Black Narcissus, Bhowani Junction, King of the Khyber Rifles, Harry Black and the Tiger, North-West Frontier (the latter two films both featuring Indian actor I S Johar), and Fritz Lang’s famous German duo, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.
There are other sweeping statements that can make an old film buff wince. Demonstrating how Navketan’s films were often darker and more grittily real than their contemporaries, Bhatia mentions some of the “frothy” films made in 1960-61, and includes Kanoon and Chaudhvin ka Chand in the list. Chaudhvin ka Chand, despite its very romantic (and hugely popular) title song, can hardly be termed frothy – it’s more a melodramatic tragedy than anything else, and the no-songs courtroom drama/psychological study of Kanoon is actually far darker than many of Navketan’s own films.
What is a little more jarring, though, is the hint of bias that seems to show through at times. Navketan’s hits – like Taxi Driver or Guide – are dwelt upon in deep and loving detail. Its misses (and these are a dime a dozen in the later years) are dismissed summarily. An equally intense study of why certain films failed might have been an interesting exercise. What comes across from the book is general applause for Navketan: these were good guys, and they made good films. Well, with the occasional slip-up, yes; but we won’t talk about that for now. Instead, we’ll talk about what great films they made, how progressive they were, what consummate entertainers they were.
But it all boils down to one thing. Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story is an enjoyable book. It’s written in a readable, lucid style; 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. You’ll learn a lot, think a bit, and have an enjoyable time reading this. And the visual impact – page upon glossy page of stunning, sometimes never-before-published posters, stills, advertisements and lobby cards – is reason enough in itself to look through the book.