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Dev saga: When Navketan went noir
By the time Baazi hit the screen in 1951, Dev Anand was a rising star but his venture with his brother Chetan Anand, Navketan, wasn't in the pink of health. Baazi resuscitated Navketan and turned Dev Anand into a flamboyant anti-hero, with not a care in the world, flirting with beautiful women and with life itself, taking each day as it came. TOI-Crest presents excerpts from Sidharth Bhatia's The Navketan Story: Modern Cinema, on the actor's pathbreaking film.
Baazi was a milestone in the short-lived genre that can be loosely called Bombay Noir. Indeed, Guru Dutt, who is better remembered today for his 'serious' films, was an early pioneer of that genre, with films like Jaal, CID (which was produced by him but directed by Raj Khosla) and Aar Paar. The cinematography is dark, but while much of the style is borrowed from Hollywood's caper and crime films, Bombay Noir as practised in India also had songs, a comedy track and 'Indian' emotions. From the very first scene, Baazi establishes the mood for the rest of the film. We see Pedro (Rashid Khan), a dapper gent dressed in a sharp suit of the kind favoured by gangsters in American cinema, with a cigarette holder and a cane, walking into a modest slum-like structure and asking a man sitting on his haunches (Guru Dutt in a Hitchcockian cameo) if Madan is around. The mood is darkish, the lighting full of shadows, the kind that Dutt would use in his later films. The influence of Hollywood is immediately apparent. Pedro goes in and surveys the scene - a group of small-time gamblers rolling the dice. Their social standing is also clear - they are leagues below him, at least where money is concerned, though it becomes obvious later that he is no toff, merely a flunkey. Madan (Dev Anand) is at the centre of the group and comes up with a six each time he throws the two dice. Pedro wants him for Star Hotel, his boss's better-appointed gambling club. Madan is clearly poor, but there is a hint later that he may be from a middle-class family fallen on bad times. He refuses to talk about it despite being asked if that is so;this refusal to indulge in self-pity is the hallmark of all of Dev Anand and certainly Navketan films. Innate optimism about life was what always characterized the man and his roles.
Rajani, a socially minded lady doctor (Kalpana Kartik), opens a free clinic in the lower-class neighbourhood where Madan lives with his sister. After his initial - somewhat boorish - flirtation with her, Madan warms up to her when she saves his ill sister. Rajani comes from a well-off background;she lives in a big house;her father is a businessman and her suitor is a local police officer. Not that Madan is interested. He is more mesmerized by the glamorous lifestyle of the club where Pedro takes him. It has well-dressed patrons who play cards and are entertained by Leena (Geeta Bali), who sings and dances seductively. Leena takes an interest in Madan who seems flattered but makes it clear that he wouldn't mix with women like her. Meanwhile, Rajani too begins to like Madan.
Boldness, even in matters sexual, was a hallmark of Navketan heroines, which must have been refreshing in an environment where women flirted but quickly reverted to the archetypal 'Indian woman' template once they had declared their love. In contrast, the women in Navketan films were not embarrassed to demonstrate boldness and initiative, and were rarely boxed into traditional roles. They were mature and even aggressive, sexually, and got more so as India became a more modern society. Leena in Baazi and Sylvie (Taxi Driver) in the 1950s were the precursors to Panna (Heera Panna) in the 1970s, who had no qualms about using her charms to seduce the hero.
When Rajani's father takes Madan on a long drive, he warns him not to meet his daughter again. In his anger, the father throws Madan out of his car in the middle of nowhere. Here again the film deviates from the normal Hindi film formula. Instead of breaking down or feeling sorry for himself, Madan sings a jokey song to a passing donkey: Tere labon pe aaj pyar ke tarane hain. He is not in the least bit flustered, just somewhat bemused at the turn of events.
It is interesting to speculate how the other two big stars of the time - Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor - or rather the personas they had created for themselves, would have reacted in this situation. While the tragedian Dilip Kumar would have internalised the humiliation and turned melancholic, Raj Kapoor would have been sad within but would have struggled to keep a happy face. Dev Anand's screen persona, in contrast, exuded a resolute optimism and a refusal to let circumstances weigh him down. Not that he has not dealt with grief or sadness on screen, but rarely has he turned maudlin while doing so. It is a quality that has been loved and admired by his fans over the decades.
Baazi is a good indicator of how both Guru Dutt and Navketan would develop, both in form and content of their films, over the next few years. For instance, the story's echoes - the femme fatale, the crime boss who is outwardly respectable but is involved in all kinds of rackets, and the song by the dancer warning the hero of danger to his life - can be found in other urban crime thrillers by Guru Dutt, like Aar Paar and CID.
The one who got the biggest boost from Baazi was Dev Anand. Till then a moderately successful hero, and one of the many trying to carve out their place in the film business, the film gave Dev Anand an image the audiences could immediately identify him with - the jaunty, flamboyant and carefree man who goes through life with relentless good cheer. The film bestowed upon Dev the loose-limbed grace, the cigarette in the mouth, and the cap that can now be identified from afar. For most of the 1950s, Dev Anand played similar roles - that of the underdog usually on the wrong side of the law, the petty gambler or the black marketer and the subaltern hero with no real future but who still manages to attract the girls.
The Navketan Story: Modern Cinema by Sidharth Bhatia has been published by Collins.
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