The road to Chetan Anand’s ‘Taxi Driver’

Chetan seemed depressed. Both his directorial ventures had failed to leave any mark on the box office. As I was sitting in the recording booth of a film studio during a break in filming for one of my outside projects, a friend of mine from my struggling days suggested, ‘Why don’t you make a film on a taxi driver? His is always a very down-to-earth, rough and tough character. Should suit your image, especially after Baazi.’ It seemed to me a good box-office thought. I told my brother, who at first smiled it away casually, but immediately afterwards, seeing that there was a chance to make another film, jumped at the idea.

Goldie, my younger brother, was entrusted with the job of writing the script, his first foray into film writing. He was brilliant, studying in St. Xavier’s college, and already making a name for himself in the dramatic society of the college. He was writing and directing plays which were admired by his fellow students.

Since the finances of Navketan were drained, Taxi Driver was launched on a shoestring budget, with a very small working unit. It was mostly shot on locations in Bombay, with a very handy French Eclaire camera. We would all leave early in the morning, slog the whole day long, canning the maximum footage possible minus the soundtrack, leaving the dubbing of dialogues to be done at the postproduction stage, and come back home late in the evenings. It took us less than thirty-five days of filming to complete the project. Survival of the company was the motivating factor, and lack of funds drove us to work at breakneck speed.

The result was phenomenal. Taxi Driver turned out to be a superhit, and drove home an old truth, that big money does not necessarily make a big film. While big money can help structure a big film project, with glitter and shine, it cannot give it the spine it needs to be a hit. A good story is the soul of a good film, not the artificial glamour surrounding it. A great thought can be worth a million, but millions without a great thought are like so many pieces of diamonds hidden in rubble.

‘A cab shortage’

Taxi Driver was released with great fanfare. At its opening, outside the theatre situated at the end of a busy thoroughfare, one could see an unending line of taxis, as the city’s taxi drivers in all their strength were sitting in the hall watching the premiere, with the chairman of their association in attendance as well, as the chief guest. ‘It is our film,’ they all took pride in proclaiming, and pronounced me their hero.

One of our unit members gleefully announced that there was no taxi available for any passengers that evening, as all the taxi drivers were having a gala time in the theatre in which the movie was released, and that the only taxi driver who could be had for the most needy was Mr Dev Anand, at the cost of a million rupees for a ride to a limited destination!

It was true that my screen persona of a taxi driver had become something of an extension of my real-life personality. During the filming of Taxi Driver, I was constantly in the minds and eyes of people, who would see me in various streets of the city driving a taxi, in a taxi-driver’s uniform, with a taxi-driver’s docket hanging from my khaki jacket.

During a shot once, I was offloading a passenger outside the Taj Mahal Hotel. As soon as the take was over, a foreigner with a couple of cameras round his neck hastily entered my taxi and ordered, ‘To the red-light district, please.’

I looked at him through the rear-view mirror. ‘Red-light district!’ he repeated.

I turned and looked at him, raising my cap this time.

‘Red-light district – I’m sure you know where it is. I am in a hurry,’ he said.

The crowds watching the shooting outside started laughing boisterously. And a couple of rowdies rushed forward to tell him he was talking to a popular movie star.

‘What?’ He was amazed.

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ I addressed him now, taking off my cap. ‘I’m sorry, but you have to take another taxi. This one is not for hire.’

‘Is it not?’ he asked quizzically.

‘For a movie is being shot in it!’ I said.

‘What’s your name, sir?’ He suddenly started sirring me, getting ready to get out of the taxi, not taking his eyes off me.

‘Sir, if you get to see an Indian movie called Taxi Driver in your country, you’ll get to know the name of the guy you just met!’ I said, getting out first and holding the door open for him.

He looked wonderstruck, and seemed to have forgotten all about the red-light district.

Excerpted with permission from Romancing with Life: An Autobiography, Dev Anand, Penguin India.