Dev Saab & the city
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Dev Anand's was a life given to the films — in his last days, by his own account, he was in the throes of planning his next production. The expanse of his career is breathtaking, and to take stock of it is to tread the history of Indian cinema. To hear about it in his memoirs, he arrived in Bombay in the 1940s with stars in his eyes and a self-belief that is mind-boggling. By 1946 he had made his debut, in another two years he had his first hit, and soon he had set up his own production house, Navketan. More than a hundred films later, it still amazes to see how early in his career he had set himself on a path as an actor that would differentiate him among the Big Three of Hindi cinema (Dev Saab, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar), and that would give generations of actors later a standard to hold themselves against: the man of the street heeding his contract with life by making the best he could of his life chances by venturing into the grey zone between right and wrong without taking recourse to victimhood or alibis, and all through embracing life and romance.
He was, first and foremost, an urban hero. But the city was not always hospitable, it was rough on those without connections or means. In the early films, a lingering theme would be the hypocrisy of the rich and respected elite. Dev Anand's heroes would, however, unflinchingly take them on, they would be drawn into the blurry zone between darkness and light. But these were not morality tales — it was instead the urban temper. Cities in a newly independent India were sites for re-imagining lives and the social contract, it was his hero's lot to do as best and as happily as he could and be responsible for that. Dev Anand is cinema's most emphatically urban hero — the themes, the heroines, the music, his mannerisms, they all fall into place around this central fact of his career. The city of Dev Anand's cinema may have been brutal, but it also yielded progress.