Monday, March 31, 2008

Dev Anand

Matinee Idol. 'Evergreen Romantic Hero'. 'The 'Gregory Peck' of Indian cinema'.

These are tags attributed to the 85-year old actor-director who wears them all with aplomb - Dev Anand. With a film career spanning over five decades and a formidable 110 films in which he has acted, there are countless stories about his career - his initial days of struggle in Bombay (now Mumbai), his first movie Hum Ek Hain (1946) that didn't do well and how he finally got his big break in Ziddi (1948) at the behest of Ashok Kumar, the established star of that era. The actor-director Guru Dutt was Dev Anand's ally in those early days of struggle. Dutt also cast him in his directorial debut, Baazi (1951). Dev Anand's brothers, Chetan Anand and Vijay Anand have been directors in their own right, with the latter also directing Dev Anand in Guide (1965). Dev Anand began his own production house, Navketan Films in 1949, under whose banner, he has written, produced, directed and acted in over 17 of their films.

Dev Anand's early films like Baazi (1951), Jaal (1952), Taxi Driver (1954) and Kala Bazar (1960) depicted a new kind of hero, neither the Earnest Simpleton popularised by Raj Kapoor, nor the Brooding Sentimentalist essayed to perfection by Dilip Kumar. There is a charming lightness to Dev Anand's urban hero. Painted in shades of gray, he effortlessly combined do-gooder and trickster, with a taste for the pleasures of life. Dev Anand also created a signature style for his hero– dialogues uttered in crests and falls, the impish grin accompanied by a series of nods, the nonchalant swagger and some very unique gesticulations. Dev Anand's protagonist was almost always seen in designer threads – possibly a first in Indian cinema - and had a signature look comprising full-sleeved shirts with wide collars, scarves and hats aplenty.

Lilting music was an integral part of Dev Anand's films. Every Hindi film music buff has a favourite Dev Anand song almost always sung by Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar and mostly composed by the legendary S.D. Burman.

Some of his notable films of the 1960s were Hum Dono (1961) and Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963). Dev Anand's oeuvre is a complex mix of action, romance and social statement. Jewel Thief (1967) is considered the typical Dev Anand movie. The protagonist in this film, Vinay is often mistaken to be someone else, a legendary jewel thief called Prince Amar, and he begins to find the line between the truth and deceit blur as the plot gets murkier when a woman called Shalini, turns up, claiming to be his fiancé.

Based on R.K. Narayan's book of the same name, Guide (1965) was directed by Vijay Anand, and starred Dev Anand as the opportunistic tourist guide, Raju Guide and Waheeda Rehman as the classical dancer in a bad marriage, Rosy. The English version was co-produced by author, Pearl S. Buck. Although critics take offence to the storyline being different from that of the book, Guide is touted as Dev Anand's best performance and his brother Vijay Anand's best film.

In the 1970s, Johnny Mera Naam (1970) and Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1972) are two films with dissimilar plots, but still connected in their 'Dev Anand'-ness. While the former is a cop-and-robber story with a dash of romance, the latter is an emotional drama about a man's search for his sister in the thick of the '70s hippy culture.

Although Dev Anand's subsequent ventures like Swami Dada (1982), Awwal Number (1990), Censor (2001) and Mr. Prime Minister (2005) have not done too well at the box office, he maintains an unflagging enthusiasm for film-making. He also launched his son, Suneil Anand in Anand Aur Anand (1984) who has gone on to helm Navketan Films along with him.

Dev Anand continues to be an integral part of the Hindi film industry (or Bollywood, as it is more popularly known these days). He has introduced many actors and technicians to the Hindi film industry and commands immense respect from the film fraternity.

He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a nomination for Guide (1967) at the Oscars for the Foreign Film category and the prestigious Padma Bhushan awarded by the President of India. Late last year, Dev Anand's autobiography, 'Romancing with life' was launched.

Dev Anand is, to say the least, one of the last living legends of Indian cinema.

(An edited version was published in the April 2008 issue of 'At A Glance')

Kolkata Transport

While Kolkata (previously called Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal is renowned for communism and culture, it's also rather infamous for the congestion on its streets.

Besides the usual personal vehicles, there are many modes of public transport available for those traveling within Kolkata. These are so integral to the city that filmmakers and writers setting their stories in Kolkata have immortalized them in their creations. Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’, Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’, Mani Rathnam’s ‘Yuva’ (Hindi)/’Aydha Yezhuthu (Tamil) are only some examples.

Here’s a quick run-through on public transport options ranging from the humble rickshaw to the very modern Metro underground railway network.


There’s a disturbing scene in Bimal Roy’s classic film, ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ (1953), where an emaciated peasant-turned-rickshaw puller is forced to race with another on the streets of Kolkata. The patrons in their respective rickshaws competitively spur their ‘human horses’ to run faster and faster.

Hand-pulled rickshaws have been officially banned despite protests by the Kolkata Rickshaw Pullers Union claiming that it is not more inhuman than some forms of manual labour. These rickshaws plied short distances, sometimes being the only means of transport during the monsoons. It was a chosen mode of transport for most school-going children.

The cycle rickshaw in Kolkata is very similar to its counterpart in other cities in India. It is less physically strenuous for the rickshaw-puller owing to the fact that it is pedaled, and sometimes, even motorized.

There are also auto-rickshaws (or autos as they are also called) that are motorized and completely hooded. They mostly follow a fixed route, but can make exceptions.


The yellow Kolkata taxi of the nostalgic variety is of the roomy Ambassador model of Hindustan Motors. The yellow taxi is permitted to travel anywhere within the state. There are also black taxis with yellow tops of the same Ambassador model allowed to ply only within Kolkata. While most taxis here run on petrol or diesel, some of the newer taxis run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). For those who would like to navigate the city in cool comfort, there are air-conditioned taxis called 'Blue Arrow's easily available.

While the taxis and auto-rickshaws run efficiently, the same can't be said about the fare meters that are invariably tampered.


Kolkata is the last of the Indian cities with a tram system intact. It is quaint, slow, charming and environment friendly. The city has seen the tram transform from the horse-drawn variety to the electric variety. While the trams and their tracks have changed little, the din of traffic along the tracks has become louder. The speed of the tram, however has thankfully remained unchanged in these frenzied times. The joke used to be that at any time during the tram ride, a commuter could step off the tram, head to a nearby shop, buy a cigarette, light it, take a few puffs and hoist himself back into the tram that would have moved a mere metre or two.


Taking a ferry is a smoother alternative to riding across the Howrah Bridge that is almost always crowded. Local ferries ply from the ghats (river banks) along the Hooghly river every 10 or15 minutes between Kolkata and Howrah.


Kolkata was the first city in India to have an underground rail system. It began operating in 1984, connecting the North and South of the city and continues to be clean and efficient. Like underground train networks the world over, some Kolkata Metro stations have artwork on their walls relating to Kolkata.

Other than these, there are the usual buses and an electrical suburban train network. As far as recreation is considered, one can hire horse-driven carriages and some boats on the river.

When it comes to public transport in Kolkata, nostalgia rubs shoulders with efficiency.

(An edited version was published in the April 2008 issue of 'At A Glance')

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Tamil Cinema

The term, 'larger than life' somehow falls short of describing Tamil Cinema. The industry has been around from the silent era and seen the transition from the days of black and white visuals through Eastman Colour to Colour cinema. It has produced stalwarts like M.G.Ramachandran, Shivaji Ganeshan, Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth among the heroes, Music Composers like Viswanathan-Ramamurthy, Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman and the skilled directors like C.V. Sridhar, Bhimsingh, K.Balachander, Bharathi Rajaa, Mani Rathnam & Shankar. Members of the industry have gone on to make forays into politics, banking on the vast support that they enjoy from the masses. Yet, that's only part of what Tamil Cinema is about.

Cinema holds an integral place in peoples' lives in Chennai. It's never a simple case of watching a movie - It is regarded as an outing for the family or among friends, with a meal at a favourite eatery added to the program.

Depending on the genre of the film, a typical theatre in Chennai will attract a variety of watchers - families, groups of friends, couples and in smaller theatres, even the occasional drunk.

When it's a new release, however, things take a dramatic turn. 

On the day the movie releases, a festive atmosphere prevails outside the theatre. Fans of the lead actor throng the city's theatres and profess their loyalty in ways unimaginable to audiences elsewhere in India or even outside it. The fans perform pooja (worship) of a cut-out image ten times the size of their hero. There are garlanded posters of the actor everywhere and fans also wear T-shirts with the actor's pictures printed on them. The shows are normally sold out for the first weekend of the release. People vie with each other and use their best contacts to procure a precious ticket. Die hard fans don't let details like attendance at college or work, come in the way of taking active participant in the First Day frenzy. 

For fans, the dividing line between real and reel life gets blurred once the film begins. There are cat-calls when the haughty heroine is cleverly fobbed off by the son-of-the-soil hero. Silver foil and coins are thrown at the screen during the song sequences. There are certain key dialogues in every movie, which are greeted with much encouragement from the masses. A fight sequence is accompanied by raucous applause every time the hero gets the upper hand. In short, the actor's signature style takes precedence over the intricacies of the film.
Tamil film actors have adopted signature styles, having learnt fairly early, that fans and fan clubs are the true indicators of a Tamil film hero's popularity. The same goes for directors who have their own trademark elements in each of their movies.

However, the most intriguing element of Tamil Cinema is the economics of movie-making. The budgets are lavish and so are the promotional expenses. The amounts that actors charge are the stuff of urban legends. Simultaneous releases across the world are now the norm for films made on big budgets. With the coming of the multiplexes, the audiences are now experiencing the same cinematic elements in greater luxury at a ticket cost they would have baulked at paying even two years ago. 

There are certainly films made, that break away from popular cinema's song-and-dance routine. There have been many films that have gone on to win critical acclaim and awards at the national and international level. The success of these films depends on the same factors, ironically, as the formula-centric ones – the team and the theme. 

No mention of Tamil Cinema and the audiences is complete without getting into some seemingly strange phenomena. For instance, the actor, Rajinikanth's films enjoy great success in Japan. Chennai's movie-watching frenzy is not restricted to Tamil cinema alone - Jackie Chan and Jet Li attract quite the crowd. And what could be more surreal than watching Captain Jack Sparrow with his customary flourish intact, spout Tamil dialogues in the dubbed version of the Pirates of the Caribbean? 

(An edited version was published in the March 2008 issue of 'At A Glance'. Picture by author.)