Book Review: Sidharth Bhatia’s Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story

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.

49 thoughts on “Book Review: Sidharth Bhatia’s Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story

  1. Well written Madhu! I think Dev himself may have analysed his failures to learn from his mistakes.

    Do you think, after reading the book, and getting a feel for how Navketan worked, that Dev Anand had the pulse of the audience as much as Raj Kapoor’s ?
    I ask this because with RK films music was just SJ, Shailendra, Hasrat, Mukesh and pretty stereotyped-if you can see what I mean.On the contrary, many composers and lyricists worked with NK.Several playback singers have lent voice. And importantly, is there mention of how much was Dev actually a part of the music creation process in the movies?

    • Thank you, Karthik! I’m glad you liked the review.

      From what I read, I would say that the Anand brothers probably did have the pulse of the audience – but the audience they catered to was possibly a somewhat different one than RK’s. While RK’s films tended to be socialistic and more rural-centric in nature, Navketan’s films (though not elitist, at least not till well into the 60s) were more urban-centric, and rather noir. Bhatia does show some interesting contrasts between Navketan films and the films of other major film-makers of that period, including RK.

      As far as the music of Navketan’s films goes: Bhatia acknowledges that it was excellent, and that it was thanks to Navketan that S D Burman was brought back amost from the brink of obscurity. There are a few good bits of song-related trivia now and then: for instance, the ‘lighter’ tune in Hum Dono, or how Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya came about. It’s not a very long book, you see – just abot 165 pages, and most of those are images that cover the entire page. If Navketan’s music had to be examined in detail, it would probably need a book of its own!

      P.S. Karthik, I’m so glad you’ve finally begun your own blog! About time. ;-)
      (For those of you not in the know, Karthik’s new blog focuses on Hindi film music; check it out):

  2. Madhu, good review. Having just passed over a chance to review the book myself (I read it), I’m glad to see you did!

    And @Shalini – since I made mention of the Geeta Dutt version of Tum jiyo hazaron saal on this blog – my more musically inclined husband who was forced to listen to it ad nauseum when we were ill, is of the opinion that even though it is on a Geeta Dutt compilation, the song is actually sung by Asha. (He has a very fine ear for these things, so I’ll take it to be the truth.) He says, however, that Geeta *did* record the song, since a friend of his had both versions.

    • Thanks for the report, Anu. I suspected as much but now I’m *dying* to hear the Geeta Dutt version now that your husband has confirmed that it does exist – somewhere….

      • I am sorry to butt in like this but what was that about Asha Bhonsle singing Tum Jiyo Hazaron Saal?. I do not like to insist on anything for my dad always cautioned that never argue for you could be wrong. So paying heed to his advice, I will not argue, for Asha Bhonsle may have sung a version of this song, but you see I am closely related to ‘Sujata’s father (in case my joke misfired that was a joke and at this point everybody is supposed to laugh) so I think I can speak with some degree of certainty that the song in the film and on the records(at least the one I had) had the Geeta Dutt version. Shashikala was lip synching to Geeta Dutt while Asha Bhonsle sang for Nutan.

        • I am very, very sorry – no wonder dad always cautioned me never to argue – after putting down my comment and if I may add in a rather authoritative manner I now realize I was making a huge mistake I was confusing this song with Bachpan ke Din where Asha Bhonsle sang for Nutan and Geeta Dutt for Shashikala. This one is defintely Asha Bhonsle. Sorry Anu and everbody.

        • No problem, Shilpi! Actually, this is conversation was an offshoot of a conversation Shalini, Anu and I had begun over at my post on ‘Ten of my favourite saheli songs, where I’d listed Tum jiyo hazaaron saal as one – and had mentioned that it had been sung by Geeta Dutt. I was wrong, of course, as was later pointed out – but oddly enough, my memory of that song being a Geeta Dutt one was triggered because my parents own a ‘Best of Geeta Dutt’ LP which includes it.

          It seems Geeta Dutt also sang a version of the song, though it wasn’t included in the film – it is also very hard to get hold of, it seems.

    • Yup, the price is scary, isn’t it? But then, it’s on good art paper, and the vast number of photos and images – all very good quality, some of them never published before – is worth it, I guess.

      And yes, I do get to keep the book. :-)

  3. A friend is bringing this book from India in a couple of weeks, so this review is very timely, Madhu. I’m glad you found it an enjoyable read – NavKetan deserves an entertaining book.

    • I hope you find it an enjoyable read too, Shalini. For most people who know old Hindi films well, a lot of the anecdotes might be familiar stuff, but the images are priceless. And Bhatia does a good job of telling the Navketan story, especially his conclusions of how their films differed from those of their contemporaries.

  4. Enjoyed reading your review of the book DO.

    And it has appeared in Indian Express!!!! THis is the newspaper which we subscribed to forever. My earliest memory as a child of a newspaper are of this.
    The trivia about the Corkes family is interesting. Edwina is also there in the song.

    • Ah, so you’re an old Indian Express reader, are you? ;-) Actually, I’ve had various associations with them over the past couple of years – I’ve written a travel article for them, and have been interviewed by them a couple of times. And now this review.

      That was Edwina, wasn’t it? I thought so, too, but then thought I might have been wrong, because Taxi Driver is from 1954, when Edwina must’ve been about 15 – and in her post, she’d written that she didn’t remember which film she first danced in, but that it must’ve been when she was about 16 or so. So I’m not sure. Will send her a mail and ask her!

      P.S. I loved the Corke family trivia too. I remember seeing ‘Vernon Corke’ listed in the credits for Taxi Driver and had wondered who that was – I’d always thought it was the little boy. He, of course, is Noel Corke. Vernon’s the father, the guitarist in that song.

    • BTW, pacifist: A wrote to Edwina, and got a reply from her, re: Dil se milaake dil pyaar kijiye. No, the girl in that isn’t Edwina – it’s Edwina’s elder sister, Philomena.

      • Goodness, they look so alike. At around 2.14 when she looks up, and even a little before that I would never have known the difference.

        • Yes, I would’ve been pretty certain it was Edwina, if I hadn’t remembered Edwina’s birthdate – she’s almost exactly 6 months older than my mum. Edwina and Philomena look almost identical. Philomena is 8 years older than Edwina, though.

  5. Thank you fo rintroducing this book, Madhu!
    I had a long day, it is 2:00 am here and instead of going to sleep I ended up reading your review. It was worth it.

    How much does the book cost?

  6. Nice review, Dustedoff/Madhu… I would like to be able to read a book about Navketan myself sometime… I did some reading up on Navketan close to three years ago, and I was intrigued by a comment in Corey Creekmur’s review of C.I.D. at Philip’s Fil-ums, where he said that “Naveketan [sic] was consciously translating the influential work of the radical Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) into a mass form.” So, it seems that Navketan did have some socialist origins, even if the films were not as obviously “socialistic” as RK’s. (But I do think they were, to an extent, in a subtler way. Certainly, some of the early ones tended to have a progressive message. champion the underdog, and show sympathy for the kind of guy who’s driven by poverty into a life of crime – a similarity between Baazi and Awaara or Shree 420, no? And Kala Bazar was even more like that – with some very cynical takes on the power of money, etc…. Thinking of the darkly hilarious song sequence for “Teri Dhoom Har Kahin”…) Anyway, so I was wondering, did Bhatia go into that IPTA connection much?

    • Richard, thank you for the appreciation. Actually, I did think too that Navketan’s films had a socialist message, though – as you point out too – a subtler one than in RK’s films. The early Navketan films, in particular. The hero (or anti-hero, more often than not, since he’s often fairly poor, sometimes even a petty criminal) of films like Baazi, House No, 44 and Taxi Driver may not blatantly be ill-used by the rich and powerful as happens to so many of RK’s protagonists, but it’s certainly obvious that the world isn’t kind to those who lack wealth.

      Bhatia doesn’t mention the IPTA connection – not that I recall, and I’ve just had a quick look through the first few chapters of the book, and can’t see a mention, not even in the index. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were there. I guess it wasn’t a complete coincidence that someone as markedly socialist as Sahir Ludhianvi would have got his big break with Navketan (Baazi)… and, interestingly, one of Chetan Anand’s first films was Neecha Nagar – based on Gorky’s The Lower Depths.

      (Incidentally, see that anecdote about Balraj Sahni directing Dev Anand in a play? The play, Zubeida, seems to have been an IPTA favourite, if the wikipedia page is anything to go by):

  7. Sounds like an interesting book, thanks for reviewing it, I will try & find it & read it. As you mentioned in your excellent review, it would have been good if the author had also analyzed their failures. Navketan’s successes are obviously well known and well analyzed, but this book does sound like it has a few more layers to offer.

    • Thank you, Samir. Yes, this book’s thankfully not just a filmography of Navketan’s (though that’s there too, at the end of the book), but a fairly good analysis of the constants in Navketan’s films (urban settings, not-very-nice heroes, generally self-willed women, very few ‘family’ trappings or back stories)… and what changed (the hero, from the down-market tapori type of House No 44, turned into the suave and well-educated gentleman of Tere Ghar ke Saamne.

  8. Oh! I want this book so badly now! Never got a chance to read Dev’s autobiography, but I hope that I can get my hands on this. Don’t know when it’ll be out in Singapore (or even if it’ll ever come out here!) >:(

  9. Great review of a book I had no idea until just now was out. Must. Order. Book.

    Rakesh, Abebooks definitely has a copy available from a seller in India. They ship to USA and maybe to Singapore. It’ll cost you about $60 U.S., though. Anyway, good luck!

  10. Dusted off ji,
    Thanks for treating us with a very good review of the book by Bhatia ji.
    Somewhere in the middle of this year,he had indicated coming out with this book.Later,I read a prepublication review or a glimse of the book’s content on the Harper’s website.
    With your review,I must have this book now(despite its price making a big hole in the pocket.).
    Thanks,once again.
    -Arunkumar Deshmukh

    • You’re welcome, Arunkumar. I hadn’t come across any mentions of this book before the Indian Express sent me the review copy, but they just had to mention what it was about, and I was raring to go! I think it’s a good, paisa vasool book. :-)

  11. Even as I was reading this post and getting hooked to the contents of the book — you see Pali Hill was our childhood haunt, that is where my brother and his friend cruised along on their bycycles while we spent many a summer running around on those empty roads, just thinking about those days makes me go all moist eyed, today Pali Hill is a pedestrian’s night mare– ok where was I Oh yes I was hooked to the book and the thought about the price of the book crossed my mind and it was confirmed by Ava’s comment. Well thanks for sharing some of that trivia for I do not think I wound spend on something which has a price tag which is ‘scary’. Enjoyed this post.

    • Thank you for sharing your memories of Pali Hill in the good old days, Shilpi! I am pretty unfamiliar with Bombay (I’ve spent less than a month in the city, and always on work, so I’ve never had time to go exploring any area except Fort)… but it was interesting to read your reminiscences of your childhood. I can just imagine, looking at Bombay’s streets in old films (like Taxi Driver or even later ones, like Ek Musafir Ek Haseena) compared to the Bombay streets one sees now in movies: how cities change.

  12. The pictures are really great! I never knew about this book. Thanks for the review.
    I have Romancing with Life (his autobiography) and that too has some rare pictures. But I haven’t finished reading it yet. And yes, it being his biography has a lot of information about both his personal and professional life. I had first read about Zubeida episode in it. And also about Chetan’s house being a “hub of artistic activity”, Dev going for singing classes, him sharing a flat with Nasir Khan (Dilip Kuamr’s brother) at one point of time, his friendship with Guru Dutt, all the films that he was associated with etc…..
    I’ve only read it to the point where he was driving back from Goa after shooting for Jaal with Geeta Bali and her sister and they met with a very serious accident.
    It’s a big book and pretty heavy, so couldnt carry it to work everyday. (I mostly read on my way to office). I wish I could get hold of it now but am out on an assignment and away from it. So will have to wait till I can go back home to finish it.
    I would have loved to add this book too to my collection but yes, the price is really scary!

    • I have seen Romancing with Life around, but haven’t been particularly keen on buying it, because I’m not too keen on the personal lives of other people, stars or not. Which is why Cinema Modern was totally up my street, because it was all about Dev Anand’s (and his brothers’) professional lives. There are little anecdotes that span both professional and personal life, but I don’t mind those.

      Now Sidharth Bhatia (see his comment, below) has recommended Flipkart, where you can buy Cinema Modern at a discount, so the price isn’t quite scary any more! ;-) Give it a try – it’s a good book.

  13. Hello everyone,
    I was flattered when someone as perceptive a film observer as Dustedoff reviewed my book for the Indian Express. It is an excellent review, balanced and insightful and most important, fair. But I am even more delighted at the responses the review and the book and its subject matter have drawn.
    For those who find the book expensive–it is true but do consider its production values and the sheer number of photographs and images. For those in India, offers a 25 percent discount. I think Uread sends it abroad too.
    Sidharth Bhatia

    • Sidharth, thank you for stopping by and commenting. And, very specially, for saying that my review was balanced and fair. (I must admit that even when it comes to my books or stories being reviewed, I don’t mind reviewers pointing out errors – as long as they do acknowledge what I’ve done correctly).

      Thank you for a good book – I had a very enjoyable time reading it!

  14. Awesome! I can’t wait to check it out! It should be about fifty SGD, so I’ll try and beg and plead and (if need be) cry for it. Emotional black mail (I did the space on purpose, that’s a reference to Goldie’s movie!). :P It’s like a dream come true! Trivia + Navketan = Heaven. And to add on to it, PICTURES! :D Thank you for sharing. Must. Get. It. Now.

  15. i am buying the book today and after reading all this I am really excited. I am a huge Dev Anand fan and I really miss him. I must tell you all what happened yesterday. I rang up Dev Saab’s mobile no.( I used to call him on his birthday every year) and was horrified to hear that it had been found on the road by some one. I requested the guy and pleaded to him to go the the Juhu police station and give it to them with the request to please hand it over to his son Suneil. The guy promised me that he would give it today. When I called today the phone was switched off. I feel like crying. I hope it reaches Dev Saab’s residence somehow.

    • Oh my God. O_O I envy you!!!!! How do you have his handphone-

      You are so lucky… I never got the chance to talk to him! :( But do you think the guy has made off with the handphone? How did it even land up on the road? That’s terrible! Now I feel like crying too!

    • Oh, that is sad. I can imagine that in the confusion of his death etc it might have gotten misplaced and somebody made off with it. I really doubt if whoever’s got it would return it, though – if he had to, he would’ve gone and handed it over to the police or whichever authorities were around back then, when he found it.

      Sorry to sound pessimistic, but that’s just how it is. Such people aren’t the sort to be moved by other people’s distress. if they were, they wouldn’t steal in the first place.

    • I had a quick glance through Sidharth Bhatia’s book again, but can’t see any reference to the ending being truer to the book. Bhatia does, however, mention that the screenplay is rather flat and uninspired in comparison to the Hindi version. Apparently, the prints are very hard to get hold of, and are in a bad condition too.

  16. Guys i have some good news. I managed to get through to Suneil Anand and when I told him about the phone he said the phone in question actually belonged to Dev Saab’s driver who has left them and gone away. Nobody knows where. Dev Saab’s phone was actually with him. It was such a relief. Suneil sounded a bit like his father and when he told me that he would never get over Dev Saab’s demise It moved me to tears. May God give him the strength to face this massive loss.

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