September 26 marks Dev Anand’s birth centenary. The legendary actor, director and producer starred in some of the most celebrated Hindi films between the 1950s and the 1970s. Four of Dev Anand’s best-known movies – C.I.D., Guide, Jewel Thief and Jonny Mera Naam – are being screened at PVR and Inox theatres in 30 cities to mark Anand’s centenary. The event has been organised by Film Heritage Foundation and National Film Archive of India.

Dev Anand has been typecast as the eternal romantic hero. But as filmmaker Sriram Raghavan argues in an essay for Scroll, Dev Anand also played complicated, compromised characters at the peak of his career. “Much before Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, much more than Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, it was Dev Anand’s bold film choices that shaped what is called the Bombay noir,” writes the director of Johnny Gaddaar, Badlapur, Andhadhun and the December 15 release Merry Christmas.

The apt hero for Bombay noir

Very early in Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951), the bouncy vamp Geeta Bali casts a net on Madan, the protagonist played by Dev Anand, as he steps into a shady gambling den. “Sharmaye kahe, ghabraye kahe, O mere raja, aaja aaja…” The song traps both the character and the audience into the inviting underbelly of the big city. The song ends with Dev Anand trapped completely in the net.

The success of Baazi definitely spurred Guru Dutt to make perhaps the first uncompromising noir, set in a Christian hamlet near Goa. Tony, the dubious anti-hero of Jaal (1952) played once again by Dev Anand, has zero qualms about using and dumping his women.

There’s an iconic (for me) shot in Vijay Anand’s Kala Bazar (1960): Dev Anand as a black marketeer outside Mumbai’s Metro cinema, which is showing Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. I can clearly see a gang of the Anand brothers, Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla and their cameramen watching the great Hollywood noirs and getting mesmerised by the possibilities of adapting these moods and tones for our cinema.

Dev Anand in Kala Bazar (1950). Courtesy Navketan Films.

Johny Mera Naam (1970) is the biggest hit in Dev Anand’s career. The dashing star plays an undercover cop on a mission to find a smuggling mastermind. He’s flamboyant, a flirt, a lover with the gift of the gab, and a black belt in the dishoom-dishoom school of fighting. He has a dark side too.

He willingly and knowingly sends a good man to certain death without a second thought. The chap could have helped the cop accomplish his mission, but then, the picture would have to end too. And it’s not even interval yet.

Grey and loving it

Writers often have a tough time preventing their characters from ending the picture prematurely. When Johny discovers that the villain’s major henchman plans to escape the criminal life with his newfound lover, he could have struck a sweet deal with him. Give him and the woman safe passage in exchange for information on the hideout and more. Instead he informs his boss of the deceit. Randhawa is shot dead and his girlfriend is forced to become the baddie’s moll, and later even takes the bullet meant for the cop who was responsible for her plight.

I wonder whether Vijay Anand and story writer KA Narayan contemplated on this revealing shade of Johny. Or were they confident that Padma Khanna’s sizzling striptease would ensure that the viewer is distracted enough to not judge the flamboyant hero harshly?

Much before Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, much more than Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, it was Dev Anand’s bold film choices that shaped what is called the Bombay noir.

Dev Anand and Geeta Bali in Baazi (1950). Courtesy Guru Dutt Films.

Most stars hesitate playing grey or black characters because they believe that it will affect their image and make them lose fans. There’s some dubious merit in this argument. Why else would no mother name her male child Pran, since the actor became popular through his villainous roles? Dev Anand didn’t worry about these things.

The loveable thug

Raj Khosla’s Bambai ka Babu (1960) was adapted from O Henry’s A Double-Eyed Deceiver. Why did the writers Rajinder Singh Bedi and GR Kamath introduce the incest angle? It’s a great idea because it transforms a plot-driven film into a searing emotional experience.

As a director, I love Bambai ka Babu, but wouldn’t the star object or worry about the audience’s reaction? Hats off to Dev Anand for sinking his teeth into the role. The film ends on the song Chal Ri Sajni Ab Kya Soche. Be warned. Tears will flow.

Dev Anand in Bambai ka Babu (1960). Courtesy Naya Films.

Vijay Anand’s Kala Bazar also came out in 1960. This social drama with great music and many highlights included actual footage of the Mother India premiere at Liberty in Mumbai. What struck me when I saw the film the first time at a matinee show was that the Raghuvir, the black marketer, gets so impressed by Waheeda Rehman who tears up the cinema tickets that he starts stalking her and her lover.

He spies on their sojourns and eavesdrops on their conversations. When he finds out that the boyfriend is going abroad for studies and she’ll be alone, he quits his profession and goes full-time after her. The situation bothers you as a viewer but again, Apni To Har Aah Ek Toofan Hai, the terrific song in the train that is picturised so imaginatively, makes you forget that you are watching something you don’t quite approve of.

Dev Anand plays an army deserter in his first directorial venture Prem Pujari (1970). Killing the sister in Hare Ram Hare Krishna (1971) is a brave and valid decision. Denying the happy ending can work both ways – but a bold choice for sure. And audiences embraced it.

In Heera Panna (1973), Dev Anand plays a world-class photographer who announces through a song that he’s a womaniser and has no qualms about it. This caper-plus-road movie is once again denied a happy ending by its star-director-producer. Because that’s his intention.

Waheeda Rehman and Dev Anand in Guide (1965). Courtesy Navketan Films.

Madan, Tony, Babu, Raju, Raghuvir, Heera, Johny… These were thugs I fell in love with when I was in half pants. And why? All I know is I’m not the only one.

Dev Anand chose RK Narayan’s novel Guide because he loved the story. It’s wonderful that a leading man at his peak did not shy away from playing flawed characters and exploring themes like adultery.

I would have loved to watch Dev Anand play the Ray Milland character in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. I would have loved to watch him play the insurance salesman in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. If I could go back in time, he would have been my first choice for my forthcoming movie Merry Christmas too.

Sriram Raghavan’s films include Johnny Gaddaar, Badlapur, Andhadhun and the upcoming Merry Christmas, starring Vijay Sethupathi and Katrina Kaif.

Also read:

‘The Guide’ in English: The story of Dev Anand’s abortive attempt to storm Hollywood

‘Jewel Thief’ is a beautifully crafted gem

From Dev Anand’s back catalogue, the Indo-Filipino movie about an evil princess and opium smuggling