Because the appearance was the essence

In the closing days of World War II, an uncommonly handsome young man bided his time, waiting for his big break as he earned a living at the military censor's office. The scene arranges itself vividly in the imagination. Young Dev had run off to Bombay bearing just a few rupees and the dashed dream of going to England for a master's degree to top up his education at Lahore's Government College. Sitting around a table with a dozen young women, shyly glancing at them to keep a daily chart of who looked most glamorous that day, he'd read letters from homesick British and Indian army personnel, eyes alert to any operational detail or hint of low morale.

In Dev Anand's recollection of that stint, it was a time of warm camaraderie, an interlude before he gave himself completely to going about the city so that chance could not pass him by, taking aimless bus and train rides to absorb the urban ethos. (On one such ramble he'd run into Shahid Lateef and Ismat Chughtai, and the meeting would yield Anand's big break, Ashok Kumar's Ziddi, 1948, for Bombay Talkies.)

But that stint at the censor's office must have influenced him. There would be the struggle to balance pacifism with patriotic duty that came together so well in Hum Dono (1961), but was undone by the poor editing of his first directorial venture, Prem Pujari (1970). There would also be his thumbprint on Hindi cinema of the 1950s and 1960s with his Navketan productions: perhaps distilled from that focus on how emotions are transcribed, the essential dignity and appearances his character strove for as he negotiated the messiness of the daily grind.

Line up the early Navketan films chronologically and watch them at a stretch (stopping at Guide, 1965). To watch them is to find a soundtrack for all our emotions, to document the talent and innovative camerawork they introduced to Hindi cinema (Baazi, 1951; Taxi Driver, 1954; Kala Bazaar, 1960), to feel the constant ambition of finding an edgy theme, to marvel at his aspiration to be urban and urbane, to zip headlong through the vital compromises of a life on the periphery with a song on one's lips, and always mindful of the consequences of one's actions or of letting the appearance slip.

... contd.

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