Nothing can quite prepare you for Romancing with Life, Dev Anand’s autobiography. All the reviews, the excerpts, the interviews, the soundbytes – all of it, including this post, becomes ultimately comparable to describing a rainbow for a blind man.
Consider this: At the very outset of this rather blog-style narrative, he tells you that his ultimate aim in writing his memoirs is to reduce the reader to a state of complete adoration for him, The Star. Anything else, he informs us, wouldn’t be worth his time and effort or befit his status as the beloved of millions. He then proceeds to dole out (sometimes graphic) anecdotes about his sexual exploits with married women, his own adulterous affairs, his jealousies, his despondencies, his vague spiritual flights of fancy (if you’ve seen Guide, you know what it is), and a laundry list of people he’s met in all the places he’s been. All of which make it increasingly difficult for you to feel anything even resembling the blatant adoration that he feels is his due.
Occasionally he writes of little incidents that have could possibly have been heartwarming in the right hands like the time his daughter cut her hand and he took her to the doctor in tears – once the trauma is over and the screaming little baby is all stitched up and soothed, she automatically sticks her thumb in her mouth. But after informing us in great detail about his suffering over her pain, he ends the little tale with the information that he later made Zeenat Aman (or rather the child who played the younger Zeenie) suck her thumb in Hare Rama Hare Krishna. The audience quite liked it, he assures us.
There are quite a few anecdotes like this one – the one in which he begins Navketan Films for the sake of his brother Chetan Anand is another one that sticks in my mind – but they all wind up making you grateful that you weren’t the recipient of his magnanimity. For instance, by the time we learn, rather early on, that Chetan repaid his younger brother’s magnanimity by eventually looking at him as the problem not the solution, you can’t help but feel there must have been something to it for Dev is already beginning to sound like a man you would rather not be indebted to – not because he’s a monster but because he wouldn’t understand that his idea of a kindness and yours might be considerably different.
But these are secondary things, as are his memories of his various colleagues and the films he made. The main theme of this book is Dev Anand’s love life, forever chased by a horde of panty-flinging women everywhere he goes.
It starts early on, as we meet a young, shy, and beautiful Dev, much cosseted by his family, a bit of a Peeping Tom and tortured by his unrequited love for the prettiest and smartest girl in his class who doesn’t even know he’s alive. Instead, he’s relentlessly pursued by another girl for whom he has no use – she’s “dark-skinned” and “smell[ed] of sex” and likes to chase him into secluded corners where she can plant one on his unwilling lips. I might have felt bad for him if he hadn’t all but drawn a diagram of a boner on the page with a neon arrow pointing to it.
The older Dev, according to his autobiography, is still shy and beautiful. However, we don’t see any of that shyness once he starts fooling around with (mostly married) women. The more successful he becomes, the greater the frenzy amongst women for a little taste of him. They throng around him, demand to act opposite him, kiss him, giggle at his jokes, exchange a great deal of tedious (and tediously recorded) banter and occasionally sleep with him until pesky things like husbands and children interfere.
I felt uncomfortable precisely twice – once when he described his first extended sexual encounter up to and including oral sex (my eyes!! my eyes!!) and secondly when he described his “courtship” of his wife Kalpana Karthik a.k.a. Mona. The way he describes the latter leaves the impression that Mona, dazzled by all the shiny toys he owned, pretty much begged him to marry her while he used her to get out a deep funk that was interfering with his work and life, getting stuck in the relationship before he could figure out a graceful way to end things in the absence of a waiting husband and pitiful children wailing for mommy at home.
The payoff for it, as far as I’m concerned, comes in an incredibly funny sequence towards the end of the book when Mona finds an injured Dev lying in bed studying some “sexy” blow ups of Richa Sharma, the future Mrs. Sanjay Dutt (although none of them knew it at the time) whom he first meets as a winsome 13 year old wannabe actress whom he invites into his hotel room in New York. Glaring at him without a word, Mona gathers up the photos and spitefully puts them where he can’t reach them with his broken ribs in a cast. Which makes him mutter to himself, “Why you gotta do me like this woman? Didn’t I always come home at the end of the day and sleep in my own bed?” I paraphrase. And then he painfully drags himself out of his bed, gets the pictures, triumphantly pores over them and hides them away in his bedside drawer where no one else could get at them.
Thus, it’s perhaps predictable that the only two times he ever actively pursues a woman (we’ll skate over his man-crush on Jawaharlal Nehru), it’s both tragic and unintentionally hilarious.
They’re falling in love right there!
The first is Suraiya, who wins his heart at the first meeting by carefully refraining from disturbing his puff (that thing on the front of his head? It’s known as the puff. So now you know). He rewards her by bestowing a fond nickname on her – “Nosey” because her only “defect” is her long nose – and soon he’s channeling Barbara Cartland. I’m not kidding. If you ever read Cartland’s description of an orgasm, then you’ll know how Dev Anand thinks of cuddling his chaste beloved. However, Suraiyya’s grandmother, whom he hilariously calls “granny” throughout the episode, wasn’t about to let her little baby marry some Hindu with a puff in his hair and Suraiyya was convinced to throw her feelings for him along with his very expensive ring into the sea. She never married and he rebounded with Mona. The (miserable) end.
Where are the rustic boobies?
The second was Zeenat Aman whom he impressed by bumming a cigarette from her so he could blow smoke in her face. Once she was dazed by it, he dragged her off to Nepal to watch Mumtaz act so she’d know what to do in front of the camera and hey presto! Hare Krishna Hare Rama was made. Once that got over, he took her to South India, stuck her in a bikini, posed her in a hammock, rescued his fly away cap from the “bulging breasts” of some village belle surprised to see what a freak dust storm had blown her way… and just when he was about to declare his love for her, went to a party and found a bloated, drunken Raj Kapoor discreetly feeling her up. “Humiliated”, he went back home and tried to think happy thoughts.
I think I’m supposed to feel bad for him but I couldn’t really concentrate with my skin crawling at the thought of that scene – the young sexy woman and the two old men jousting over her. It’s nothing I didn’t know before, but it’s still creepy as all hell.
And yet… in the middle of all this there is a note of sincerity and honesty. He has nothing but praise for his contemporaries, especially Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar, the man he calls his idol. It’s true he gives them about as much space in the book as some random pretty girl who blows him a kiss on the street but I believe him when he says he cared/cares for them, as well as Kishore Kumar and Guru Dutt, a great deal.
Generally speaking, Indian movie stars simply don’t do things of this sort (for good reason it turns out) but not only do I think Dev Anand wrote this book on his own but I think he made a conscious effort to be as frank as he could be.
The oddities of this book emanate from its author, for it becomes increasingly clear that over the past sixty years or so Dev Anand has devoted himself to his image as a movie star to such an extent that it’s managed to completely imprison him. There is always an unconscious whiff of a man who has spent a great deal of his time in front of a mirror trying to divine what it is that others see in him, and not being able to spot it himself, has arrived at his own (inaccurate) conclusions.
He wears a hat and dangles his “goggles” because he thinks of them as a sort of calling card, a part of his silhouette that announces to the world “Here Stands Dev Anand, Movie Star”; he nods his head and smiles a special smile for special people that he’s convinced is his “most charming smile”; he believes in the infallibility of his cinematic taste where every failure at the box office is the fault of the little people who lag behind his own exquisite sensibility; and lacking any real demons to fight, he gives a splendid speech highlighting his unique position in the film industry to a flummoxed set of film association people who didn’t appreciate his sticking up for the media at a time when they’d all decided to boycott what they called its yellow journalism.
As I reached the end of the book, I was about as far away from adoration as you could get. But what I did want to do, was take him by the hand and tell him it’s okay – he’ll always be Dev Anand even if he loses the scarf and the goggles and doesn’t nod his head… or chat up women young enough to be his granddaughter.