Gregory Peck was one of the biggest Hollywood stars between the 1950s and the ’70s. In India, of course, his name is curiously hyphenated with Dev Anand, who was known as the ‘Gregory Peck of India’.

But was there, in fact, any real similarity between the two?

If we compare the two stars objectively, whether in terms of physical resemblance, acting style, or mannerisms, we realise that any similarity is more in our own minds than in fact.

So how was this “Gregory Peck of India” myth born? And how did it take such a strong hold of the popular imagination, to the extent that when Anand died many years later, “Gregory Peck of India” seemed to be a theme that ran through his obituaries?

I found a clue to this puzzle in a vintage copy of Stardust magazine that I stumbled upon at a footpath stall, which carried an interview with Suraiya, the famous film heroine of the ’50s who had a well-known romance with Anand.

Jhoom Rahi Khushiyon Ki Naao, Vidya (1948).

Suraiya, at age 20, was already India’s highest paid film star. She happened to be a great fan of Peck, whom she had seen in recent films like Gentleman’s Agreement, Twelve o’ Clock High and The Gunfighter. In fact, when she met the Hollywood director Frank Capra at the first International Film Festival of India in 1952, she specially gave him an autographed photograph of herself to give to Peck.

A few years earlier, while still in her teens, Suraiya had been cast opposite a young newcomer named Dev Anand in Vidya. They went on to star in eight films together. After a dramatic incident during one of the film shoots, when their boat capsized and he saved her from drowning, Suraiya and Anand fell in love. It was a slightly unlikely match: she was at the height of her stardom, rumoured to be earning an astounding Rs 8 lakh a year (at a time when you could buy a swanky new American limousine for Rs 8,000). She was also such a public idol that crowds used to go into a frenzy when they saw her, and the police sometimes had to do a lathi charge to control them.

On the other hand, Anand, who was six years older than her, was something of a nobody, just four films old in his career.

Steve loves Nosey

Nevertheless, the two of them were very much in love: she called him Steve (after the hero of a novel he had given her); he called her Nosey (because he was enchanted by the shape of her nose); they spoke to each other in an exaggerated Italian-accented English.

One day, sitting on the sets during a film shoot, Suraiya told Anand that he looked like Gregory Peck. In one later interview she would say that she was merely teasing him; in another interview she would say that she did indeed see some resemblance. Whatever it was, the Gregory Peck tag caught on, and the rest of the crew members started calling him that too (whether teasingly or otherwise).

Anand was tickled, and rather flattered, by this comparison, and began to copy some of Peck’s mannerisms, mainly to endear himself to Suraiya. The media picked up this story and the label became public.

In 1954 the first Filmfare Awards were held in Mumbai and, coincidentally, the chief guest was to be Peck. He had been shooting a film in Sri Lanka, and was scheduled to stop off in Mumbai for the event on his way to the United States of America. But, as it happened, his flight from Colombo was delayed, and he missed the awards ceremony, but he made it to the post-awards dinner, where he was introduced to Suraiya and Anand. Later that night, after the dinner, Peck was taken by a mutual acquaintance to Suraiya’s apartment to say hello.

Suraiya was taken by surprise by this unexpected visitor, and they sat and chatted for an hour, during the course of which Peck told her that he’d received the photograph she’d sent through Capra, and that it hung on a wall in his Beverley Hills home. In a later interview, Suraiya reminisced that after Peck left she was so excited by his visit that she couldn’t sleep that night.

Dev Anand meets the real thing

A few months later, Anand went to Italy to attend the Milan Film Festival. Passing through Rome on his way back, he saw a film shoot. It turned out to be Peck’s Roman Holiday. So he got out of his car and stood among the crowd of onlookers. According to him, Peck recognised him from their meeting in Mumbai, and walked over to say hello to him.

Anand also recalled that he met Peck again a few years later in England, on the sets of Moby Dick.

When I spoke to Anand’s nephew Ketan Anand on this subject, he told me that the two of them had met again in the US when Anand was working on the international version of his magnum opus, Guide. According to Ketan, Anand mentioned to Peck that he was sometimes referred to as the Gregory Peck of India and the two of them had a chuckle over that. That was the last time they met.

But, I asked Ketan, how did Dev Anand himself feel about being called the Gregory Peck of India? And did he think it was relevant in any way?

No, said Ketan Anand. Dev Anand didn’t like the label. He had his pride and didn’t like to be compared with anyone.

Perhaps in the early days of his career he was intrigued, and flattered, to be compared with a big Hollywood star. But that soon passed. And in any case, Anand had developed his own distinctive style, very different from Peck’s, so any comparison became irrelevant.

Nor was there any resemblance in terms of their looks, Ketan Anand believes. For example Peck had his own trademark hairstyle, with his hair swept casually across his forehead; Anand, in contrast, had his trademark puff’ – which he wore right up to the time he made Guide in the mid-’60s, when his brother Goldie made him change it, because it had begun to look dated and unfashionable.

When Anand worked in Jewel Thief in the late ’60s, the rumour went around that his iconic Jewel Thief cap was an imitation of a hat that he’d seen Peck wearing. This apparently annoyed Dev greatly, because it was a cap that he had spotted in a shop in Copenhagen. So, no, the hyphenation with Gregory Peck was something that irked him.

But to go back to the triangularity of the story, what happened to Suraiya, and her romance with Anand?

Unfortunately, her domineering grandmother was dead against the idea of their getting married, and Suraiya, who was only in her mid-20s at the time, was unable to stand up to her. She quit her hugely successful film career shortly after her break-up with Anand, became a recluse, and never married.

It’s ironic. The great triumvirate of Hindi movie actors of the ’50s – Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand –all had legendary romances with the leading heroines of the time, Nargis, Madhubala and Suraiya. And all three romances ended, similarly, in heartbreak. Maybe there’s a moral in this somewhere.