‘You can all stand and watch, why not?’

On his 90th birth anniversary today, I republish two little pieces I wrote about Dev Anand soon after his death two years ago:

I first met Dev Anand in 1984, when he was 61, which in Dev Anand years would be early 20s.

He wore a blue gabardine shirt and black corduroy trousers. A flaming orange scarf was wrapped around his neck. He stood in the doorway to his Navketan office in Khira Estate, Santa Cruz, with hands akimbo, mouth breaking into his signature toothless smile, and said, “You are young, Mayank.” For the record I was 23. It sounded as if he was relieved that I was young.

Before that first meeting I had spoken to him a couple of times on the phone, one of which had such a refreshing Dev Anand whimsy attached to it. Sikh separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had just been killed in Operation Blue Star and I was seeking reactions from prominent figures of Bombay. Dev Anand was one of them.

I called his residence Iris Park in Juhu. The first call was answered by an aide of his who said something which could mean any number of things in the context of a Hindi movie star except what it really means. The aide said, “Sahab, abhi bathroom mein hein aur ready ho rahen hein.” (He is in the bathroom and getting ready).

Since I was on a deadline, I called again five minutes later. This time another man answered with a distinctively stretched hello that sounded like “haloooo.” Perhaps half of India would have recognized that voice instantly. It was Dev Anand and my first ever conversation with him. I could hear some water flowing in the background. I told him who I was and explained the purpose of my call.

“Mayank, can I call you back in 15 minutes? I am in my shower,” he said and actually held the receiver close to the showerhead to prove that he was telling the truth. He told me to leave my number with his aide. That is another thing with movie stars. They generally do not return your calls. That’s just their way of saying that they would never call you back.

Some 20 minutes later I received a call from Dev Anand. He gave me a brief reaction and ended the call saying, “Let’s meet sometime.”

We met several times over the next quarter century or so, the last being on my last visit to Mumbai last year. There are so many stories to tell which I would do over the course of the next few days. For today, one particular bit from my first interview with him is instructive because it speaks so eloquently to his character.

We spent nearly two hours together in his rather charmingly unkempt office, but he did not sit down even for a moment. Barely third year into my career as a journalist, I considered it very becoming of me to ask insolent questions, one of which was, “Mr. Anand, what do you have more—talent or enthusiasm?”

The impudence of the question was not lost on someone who had already been an iconic movie star for close to four decades by the time I posed it. The only sign that this otherwise remarkably classy gentleman was discomfited by my effrontery was evident in the way he took two brisk rounds of his desk and said, “I am as talented as anybody else.”

It is entirely a measure of Mr. Anand’s character that he did not let my first encounter with him stand in the way of what turned out to be a long friendship.

The first interview also tried to dwell on themes that I thought other journalists, mostly specializing in Hindi movies (I was a general hard news reporter), were not at all curious about. Flamboyance was Dev Anand’s default temperament and I saw an opening there. Since by that time it was more a conversation than an interview I said something to this effect. “It would seem that you use your flamboyance as a shield to keep most of the world out. They are so taken in by your flamboyance and charisma that they do not bother to look beyond it.”

He had a fountain pen in his mouth as he looked at me and then through me. He then drummed his desk with the pen as if harmonizing what he was about to say and then said, “That is an unusual question and unusual theory. But I am not going to discuss that.”

Another question I remember distinctly was about his views on friendship. His reply, “Everybody is a buddy but then nobody is.”

P.S.: In 2001, as the founder-owner of a now defunct California based publishing house I almost commissioned Dev Anand to write his autobiography. We had even drawn up the basic contract but it did not work out because, in his words, “It is too early look back.” He was 78 then.

***

Self-absorption is the core fuel of movie stars. Unless you believe that the world is watching you at all times, you have no business being a movie star. I think Dev Anand had mastered that truth.

Although this little post may seem as if I am being sarcastic or that I am smirking at him, nothing could be further from the truth. (Or is it farther from the truth?) Those who inhabit the make-believe world of cinema have to create agreeable realities around them and then make them believable.

Anand was shooting his movie called “Love At Times Square” in the U.S. in 2002 and some of the plot unfolded in San Francisco. He called to say that he would like me to accompany him for the shoot. “We will talk about this, that and the other,” he said on the phone from New York.

This particular clip relates to the shoot around the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I decided to carry my camcorder and record the event for my own entertainment. Although the clip is short, there is something revealing about the way the mind of a movie star works, particularly someone like Dev Anand who seemed to genuinely believe that people just stand and watch whenever and wherever he showed up. While very frequently that was indeed true, in this particular case he was merely coopting a parallel reality into his own world.

If you cue to 10 seconds, you would hear Anand say, “You can all stand and watch, why not?” For some reason this little remark has become one of my favorite expressions because it is so deeply illustrative of one man’s self-belief.

Those of you who might be familiar with the Fisherman’s Wharf would know that it is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist spots. On any given day, there are hundreds of visitors enjoying its easy picturesqueness. I can tell you as a firsthand witness that other than about a dozen members of Anand’s unit, no one was paying much attention to the shoot. People were just walking past unaware of the presence of an Indian movie icon in their midst. In any case, how would they know who he was?

However, for Anand, who was already 78 then and had lived the life of a giant movie star for over 50 years, it took no time to reflexively rearrange the reality and conclude that they were all there to watch him and the shoot. Hence the almost involuntary remark, “You can all stand and watch, why not?”

Here is a suggestion. Next time you go to a party try saying this line aloud. I guarantee you will feel good and might even make some people stand and watch. Why not?

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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