Bright Lights Film Journal

A Mere Mortal After All: On the Death of Dev Anand

“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).

More than any actor in Indian film history, his Cary-Grant-doing-Pepe-the-Clown acting style was mimicked ceaselessly by pop-culture (pop harks back only to one thing: other pop), his Gregory Peck puff ended up on a thousand heads with faces far less intriguing than his, and lately (in his case, lately equals the last 40 years), his self-aggrandizing senility that resulted in one bad film after another was a subject of much mockery (he never seemed to realize what the world thought of his films). “I sit in a room, close my eyes, think, and ideas come to me; my mind is always alert to a new idea,” he would say. But 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. Delusion, too, is a trait shared by all symbols of popular taste (see Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.; see also the scene in Dev Anand’s Censor where his character, a filmmaker, wins an Academy Award).

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.

Dev Anand belonged to the present better than anyone else, because his was a method of wallowing in the culture of the moment. He was never behind the times (as his detractors claim), nor ahead of it; rather, his work was a summation of the era it was produced in. The early titles in his eventually absurd directorial career (Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Prem Pujari, Heera Panna) were awash not with mistrust of the world (Dutt), fascination with youth/physical beauty (Raj Kapoor), a discussion of personal morality (Yash Chopra), nor fantastical serendipity (Manmohan Desai); but with objects of erstwhile fashion: cannabis, flower-children, Chevy Impalas, psychedelic shirts, bell-bottoms, red-tinted glasses, and straightened hair. If Anand was more one thing than he was anything else, it was the chronicler of the time he lived in. Lately, of course, he had a distinctly anachronistic streak, but one could admire him for giving it his best shot. Like all pop-culture icons, Anand’s death was subsumed more by the weight of the myths around him than the man he was (“An Era Ends,” “The End of a Romance,” “Dev Anand Dies 88 years Young,” read the headlines) and in a generation or two, he may fade from public consciousness altogether. But then again, why is immortality a more important aim than earthly gratification? Why tread cautiously when one may just as well go out in a blaze of glory?