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A guide to Dev Anand

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

There's so much fun to be had with Dev Anand's new autobiography (assuming, of course, that you have a basic interest in the man's life and work) that it's almost pointless to read the book chronologically. Instead, you can randomly flip pages to chuckle at the elaborate prose, marvel at Anand's many blithe descriptions of being chased around by crazed fans, mainly pretty young girls ("a sensuous mouth lunged forward to rub her lipstick on my laughing but bashful face"), or the conviction with which he defends the turkeys that he's directed in the last couple of decades (Awwal Number was apparently "ahead of its time" because it alluded to LTTE terrorism a year before the Rajiv Gandhi assassination; further, its cricket theme "found some resonance years later in the Oscar-nominated Lagaan").
Or you can scan sex scenes that incongruously combine Mills-and-Boon-style soft porn with a quaint, old-world reticence ("she offered me the opening to her ecstasy") while noting how these passages are always about anonymous women (when it comes to public figures, he doesn't kiss and tell to the same degree, which makes this a disappointing book for stardust-collectors). And you can roll your eyes while reading passages such as the one where, during a shooting, his red cap flew off and landed "" wouldn't you know it "" on "the bulging breasts of a village belle".
Romancing with Life is a carelessly structured, overwritten and often meandering book, but it has one thing going for it that most other star autobiographies in India lack: this is almost without question Dev Anand's own work. It's full of the cheerful, uninhibited floridity that marks everything the man does, and that no ghostwriter would have been able to simulate. (How could anyone but Anand himself have produced a sentence like this one: "Those I am closest to, those who like and love me and I them, call me 'Dev', just 'Dev', short and sweet and possessive, godly and sexy, and intimate to the extreme, in bedrooms, in drawing rooms, in the streets and in public squares.") The reviewer's stock complaint "it should have been better edited" is completely irrelevant in this case, for Romancing with Life represents on the page in a way that a better written, better edited book never could.
Which is as it should be, for no one is going to read it for its literary merits anyway. This is a memoir meant for Anand fans or for those who have, at least sporadically, admired certain things he has stood for over his career: the flamboyant screen persona (watch his best early films to see how his mix of style and substance holds up better than the often heavy-handed work of his two great contemporaries Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, both of whom were taken more seriously by critics at the time); the determination to keep going in the face of dissuasion and mockery; the willingness to throw his arms open and embrace the world, even when the world didn't particularly want to be embraced.
And of course, the eternal optimism. A reader casually skimming through this book might get the impression that Anand has received nothing but love and adulation from everyone he's ever met, but it would be short-sighted to see it as a mere litany of the peaks that he conquered (or imagined he conquered). The fact is that he's equally candid about his failures ""but since his default mode is sanguinity, since he so insistently looks at the bright side of things, the downbeat passages are brief and it's easy to gloss over them.
Take the much-anticipated (and anti-climactic, for it tells us nothing we haven't read in film magazines before) chapter about his relationship with Suraiya, which was ended by her domineering grandmother. Anand makes it clear that this was one of the most traumatic incidents in his life, but even here he ends on a positive note, with his elder brother Chetan telling him that the episode would make him stronger for battles ahead. The recurring imagery of a "special ray" that the sun reserves for Anand (to brighten his face when things are looking down) would be unbearably trite elsewhere, but it almost (almost) works here, because you can believe that the man is being sincere; this really is the way he's lived most of his life.
Is Romancing with Life worth the Rs 695 it's priced at? Not unless you're a rabid fan (or one of the apparently millions of nubile young girls lining up to be cast in his next film). But if you get it as a gift, it's as entertaining in its kitschy way as his mid-period movies were.
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Romancing with Life
An Autobiography
Dev Anand
Rs 695; 438 pages

First Published: Thu, October 04 2007. 00:00 IST