“Endless self-parody is not a ‘new idea’ — and unless conducted with the awareness of the irony inherent in the process, it is a prank a person may play for years before realizing the joke is on him.”
Indian cine-legend and super-ham Dev Anand died of cardiac arrest last December (2011) in London. The initial reaction to his death was one of collective shock (“Dev Anand is dead?”), that later transformed into national bewilderment (“Dev Anand is dead?”). Anand, much like his contemporary, actor A. K. Hangal, was thought of as eternal: a timeless object incapable of mortality.
As it turns out, he was as subject to this natural law as his fans.
One would not believe it at first suggestion, but then, immortality is the luxury of the relevant. Dev Anand was largely irrelevant — pop-culture icons mostly are. They may inspire grief or anger, hullabaloo or euphoria — their persona a gigantic black hole for the absorption of all that their avid fans may feel for them — but even at their peak, the best they are is consumable. For six and a half decades, Anand allowed himself to be steadily consumed, devoured endlessly by a hysteria-loving nation like a radio night-song playing on an infinite loop (no one made a better film on mindless celebrity-obsession than Anand; see Guide).
As a result, he influenced nothing and inspired no one — he was merely an icon, a symbol of nostalgia, but more pertinently, of aging. No actor his age was caught sartorially in a time-warp more than he was — he remained loyal to a tightly-worn orange jacket, a loose-fitting black pair of trousers, a meticulously arranged “effortless” scarf and rich-black hair. The outfit remained the same while the body decayed, reduced to a thin skeletal version that quivered under the weight of its own gravity. His consumers from 50 years ago watched in horror as the symbol of youth was reduced to the debris of his former self. Through him, however, they made peace with their own wrinkly appearance — if Dev Anand could wither and wilt, surely they could too.
His world-weary turn in Baazi may well be one of the best film performances of all time; here, Anand successfully channeled the acute cynicism of the film’s director (Guru Dutt) and moulded himself into a battery of human fatigue standing proxy for sagely wisdom. His character was a man who had lost too much in life to consider defeat abnormal anymore; every time he lost, he merely smiled at his success at failure. At 28 then, he was on the cusp of relevance. He could have used his talent in more consequential ways, but instead, he chose to be an object of instant pleasure, a stylist, an actor with a distinct stroll more than a distinct ability, a consumable. But that’s alright, because relevance is not always important. It is not essential to exist for posterity; it’s tough enough to belong to the present.