For the past month, the media has been abuzz celebrating iconic actor Dev Anand’s birth centenary. The excitement has not surprised his fans, what with over a 180 invitees to a special screening of Guide—organised by the National Museum of Indian Cinema (NMIC)—dressed as Dev Anand or his lovely co-star Waheeda Rehman. And, Waheeda was conferred the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award the same week! In the ongoing hoopla, one person was missing—Dev Anand’s wife, screen name Kalpana Kartik, all of 92, and living the life of a recluse. It was only after a small news item appeared, with a quote from the lady, that fans woke up to the realisation she was very much around, even if far from visible. As Dev Anand’s co-star in five films, Mona Singha (Kalpana’s real name), the beauty queen from Shimla, sweetly confessed she still felt her late husband’s presence and recalled how he always addressed her by her given name—Mona.
So much is known about Dev Anand. And so little about his missus. Fans know Dev saab—his spectacularly successful, six-decade-long career, with over 100 films, a Padma Bhushan and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. His last film was released the year he died in London aged 88, with a register in his hand, working on his next project. His BA degree in English literature from Lahore made him something of an oddity in Bollywood. But it also added to his sheen as a polished, refined, sophisticated actor with a distinct style and westernised mannerisms. The characteristic loping walk, his head-nodding during songs, and those oversized, high-collared bomber jackets with heavy scarves, and caps worn at a rakish angle, created the stylish Dev Anand brand, which remains intact even today.
I had met and interviewed Dev Anand, so I can safely add that he was an intensely self-absorbed man, permanently “in character” and totally submerged in the cinematic world. He referred to movies as “motion pictures”, and spoke knowledgeably about world cinema. He neither flaunted his private life, nor hid it. His conversation was easy and urbane, unlike the more rough language used by some contemporaries. He barely ate or drank, taking care to maintain a painfully lean frame. At film events, it was soup; not whiskey. And salads, not biryani. Disciplined and meticulous, he leveraged the potential of their banner—Navketan Films—and produced films he believed in. He unsuccessfully courted politics and paid a huge price for refusing to endorse Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
The triumvirate (Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand) dominated commercial cinema and established themselves as cult figures, with loyal fans imitating their every style innovation—from dialogue delivery to sartorial experiments.
Today’s movie goers are being re-introduced to these greats of Indian cinema, thanks to the efforts of archivists who have rich material on these stalwarts, which is waiting to be mined. As for me, I am far more intrigued by the elusive Mona, who gave it all up to become Mrs Dev Anand and live in the shadows, after starring in films like Guru Dutt’s Baazi, with her debonair husband. I’d give anything for a biopic on Kalpana, with a small detour that features Suraiya, who died unmarried—after a well-publicised romance with Dev Anand that went nowhere, because her conservative family disapproved. Sigh, those times were not half as savage as today. The gossip was less snarky, and the media environment spicy rather than toxic.
I am waiting for a comprehensive retrospective of Dev Anand’s films, which will provide today’s movie buffs with important insights into the making of immortal movie legends like Dev saab. Believe me, their gold standard status is no accident!