A rare alignment of stars in the 1950s

The trimurti was a miraculous blessing. In a narrow two years beginning 1922, destiny gave India Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand & Raj Kapoor

Dev Anand’s death at the age of 88 is more than an individual’s passing. It represents the final gasps of the first great era of Hindi cinema — the 1950s. Of the iconic names of that period, only two remain: Dilip Kumar, a year Dev Anand’s senior, and Pran, now approaching a venerable 92 but to millions of cine-buffs still and forever a compelling on-screen conspirator half that age.

Dev Anand made films till his last days. His best work and best films were long behind him. For some years now, it had become a cruel and often sad game for Dev Anand fans to ask each other which of his films was the last one they liked. Some turned to Des Pardes (1978), the first NRI film, others to the breezy Ishq Ishq Ishq (1974) and Navketan purists to Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971)
Yet Dev Anand’s place in history and the context in which he will be remembered must go back to an earlier age. In many senses, the 1950s were India’s happiest, most idealistic decade. There was effervescence and hope and though some it was to be belied by later events, the sentiment itself cannot be forgotten, much less mocked. In Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then called, it triggered a burst of creativity and gave free India its first generation of cult movie stars, directors and song makers.
The Hindi film industry saw a richness of experiment in the 1950s that has perhaps never been bettered. To be fair, it has been approximated by a similar phenomenon only in the past decade. The difference is we live in an era of transient images, ephemeral fame and a relentless 24x7 news cycle that invents and kills off celebrity about every week.
The 1950s were a universe apart. They defined a languid, easy-paced India and, as such, the superstars of that period had an extended run. They are still with us, and will always be. With less technology and resources at their command, they produced work that was remarkable and displayed a work ethic that was astonishing even as it was occasionally eccentric.
Fittingly, the decade began with Baazi (1951), India’s first attempt at film noir. A rare constellation of talent made Baazi a blockbuster. Sixty years on, its songs — can anything outdo Geeta Dutt and Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer banale? — are just so contemporary. Dutt was only 20 when she sang in Baazi, the same age as the heroine, Geeta Bali. Dev Anand was not even 30, and the director Guru Dutt just about 25. Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics, S.D. Burman’s score and the taut script of Balraj Sahni — a fastidious writer who kept Guru Dutt waiting several months because he wanted to give him a proper, bound screenplay — Baazi leaves you edgy and oddly nervous even if you watch a fraying print, now reproduced on a VCD or DVD, in 2011.
As the lead actor, it was the handsome and rakish Dev Anand who walked away with the applause. It was the same year (1951) that Raj Kapoor made Awara. The following year arrived Dilip Kumar’s fantasy film Aan and Dev Anand’s haunting Jaal. Soon came Shree 420 and Jagte Raaho (Raj Kapoor), Devdas and Mughal-e-Azam (Dilip Kumar) and CID and Nau do Gyarah (Dev Anand), and so many others.
It is difficult to neatly bookend a phase into 10 years. The 1950s were, to borrow from Eric Hobsbawm, a long decade, ending in 1965 when Dev Anand and his brilliant younger brother, Vijay, produced the remarkable Guide. This was a highly unusual film in that each song was extraordinary and yet not one song was really needed to take the narrative forward. A film that is remembered for its songs could have been as raved about even without a single song!
The burst of energy from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s established Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar as Hindi filmdom’s trimurti. The aura they acquired was never to leave them. How dazzling was this phenomenon? An analogy may help. It was some cosmic magic that caused, in the short two years between July 1972 and November 1974, four babies to be born in four unrelated parts of the country. A quarter-century later, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman combined to give Indian cricket its greatest middle-order and its most glorious epoch.
The Mumbai trimurti was a similarly miraculous blessing. In a narrow two years beginning in the winter of 1922, destiny gave India Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, and Raj Kapoor. Astonishingly, the three of them hardly worked with each other. Dilip Kumar appeared with Raj Kapoor in one film and with Dev Anand in one. Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand had not one release together. A movie with all three was planned but never made.
Though the passage of life gave the three titans fulfilling marriages, each had a tragic romance to his name — the shining light, unreachable and unattainable, that makes love such a Sisyphean quest, and gives our legends the melancholy we desire of them. Raj Kapoor can never be mentioned without Nargis. Dilip Kumar would have married Madhubala had her father not played difficult. As for Dev Anand, he even gave a ring to Suraiya, but her grandmother objected to a Hindu groom. Suraiya, heartbroken but stoic as only the greatest artistes can be, never married and died, still single, a few years ago. It is said she loved Dev Anand till her last breath.
Were Dev, Dilip and Raj superior actors and better human beings than Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir? Not really. What makes a difference is the perception of access. The movie stars of the 1950s had a Garbo-esque mystique to them that today’s actors simply cannot have and cannot afford to have. Dilip Kumar was not on chat shows every evening. Dev Anand didn’t urge you to drink cola as a tonic for life. His life was its own tonic. May he intoxicate the angels.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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