Sidharth Bhatia’s book on movie production house Navketan Films begins with a short passage on the writer accompanying his subject, actor Dev Anand, to a screening of Hum Dono at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium. It is 2009, Bhatia expresses his initial scepticism about new India’s interest in this film from 1961 about mistaken identity, where Anand plays a “haw-hawing” English sahib for one of the double roles he essayed in it. Bhatia then goes on to describe how young and old people mobbed the ageing star after the screening.
In The Navketan Story: Cinema Modern, this passage is one of the few episodes in which Bhatia narrates his experiences of personally interacting with the star. Another is a very brief paragraph on watching Taxi Driver with Anand. Tears fill Anand’s eyes as he recalls that great year in his life: 1954.
From 1955: Anand and Kalpana Kartik in House No 44, a thriller. Photo: The Navketan Story - Cinema Modern/ Collins
Anand is not known to be the easiest interviewee—like many, but not all, stars his narcissism often colours his stories about himself and even others he worked with. His autobiography, Romancing with Life, is a glowing testament to that. Bhatia chooses not to break through this barrier, and that is his book’s weakness. Anand’s voice is almost absent (in his own words are observations on close friend Guru Dutt, who, he said, would “shoot and shoot and shoot”, who was “indecisive and unsure”), which is good, and can be a conscious choice for authors who chronicle a life or an era, and in this case, an institution. But there are no insights through narration and interpretation, mostly a linear retelling of history.
But just because of the nature of the subject, this is an immensely fulfilling film history text. Navketan changed Indian cinema at a time when movies began to seem like mouthpieces for morality. The Anand brothers, Dev, Chetan and Vijay, were uninterested in upright heroes saddled with correcting society and heroines who were proud of their chastity. Navketan, named after Chetan Anand’s then newborn son Ketan, was formed in the first flush of the Nehruvian years, in 1949. Through the 1950s and much of the 1960s, the films of this banner (Baazi, Taxi Driver, Funtoosh, Kala Pani, Hum Dono, Jewel Thief, Tere Ghar ke Saamne and its smash hit Guide, among many others) introduced the modern city in its entirety—not just as a greedy, evil entity depicted in many films of that time. Dev Anand, who nurtured Navketan and became its singularly recognizable face, was the optimistic, fun-loving hero. Bhatia emphasizes the Navketan hero’s (Dev Anand’s) complete lack of ideological fervour and political ideas; it is a refrain, almost a pivot around which Bhatia fashions his narrative: “Their hero, especially throughout the 1950s, may have come from the underclass, but took it in his stride and had no time to hear or give ideological lectures. There was no overt sentimentality about the poor. The hero was an individual, not a member of a class. He was a flâneur, a stroller on the urban landscape...” There are some rare photographs in the book, one of which is a group portrait of writers and film-makers, including Guru Dutt, in the drawing room of 41, Pali Hill, Dev Anand’s bungalow. Although his circle of friends had strong socialist views, Dev Anand deliberately stayed away. Like his screen persona, politics and society did not interest him, but as Bhatia writes, he paid all the bills of his “leftist-oriented, anti-imperialist” friends.
The Navketan Story - Cinema Modern: Collins, 165 pages, Rs 999
Although largely absent in his own voice, Dev Anand understandably is the real subject of the book. After all, he was its creative force, and it was he who took all the decisions to set its agenda.
At the cost of telling his story through Navketan’s flamboyant face, Bhatia does not explore the other two Anands. He writes that Vijay, or Goldie, was a prize-winning theatre director in college who wrote dialogues for Taxi Driver when he was just 19 and wrote and directed Guide when he was 30. Under Navketan, and the genius of Vijay Anand, was the birth of the Hindi crime caper—his racy, song-and-dance thrillers that set new precedents. Chetan Anand’s sombre idiom inspired by European masters gets a brief mention. Now that book would be the perfect sequel.