Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memento Mori

Dev Anand died last week. He was 88.

I feel a distinct sense of loss. For a figure I had almost forgotten and for a life I had tucked away.

Dev Anand was no ordinary 88 year old. He was what the film magazines called the "evergreen hero"; one who had been acting since 1946 and hadn't delivered a hit or any movie of notice in the last two decades. This is the man credited with having "discovered" various actresses who then, in his own narrative, went onto become highly successful stars. Zeenat Aman is only among a long list. And for those who have forgotten Zeenat Aman (shame on you!), here's a reminder.

In various places, he is described as "The man who provided glimpse of different foreign countries through his cinematic oeuvre", India's "Gregory Peck", and "the longest serving matinee idol of Bollywood cinema."

What do I know or remember about Dev Anand? That he featured in these heartbreakingly beautiful songs. Of joy, and life, and love, and loss, and mischief, and coy flirting. That the black and white films of his that I consider part of my childhood were filled with content. And they were all undeniably urbane. They were about people caught in circumstances that allowed them to attain a notion of who they wanted to become. They were films about jaunty men, mysterious disappearances, recovery of love, the discovery of self, and magnificent women. They were scripts adapted from Ismat Chughtai and R.K.Narayan and froze for us the story of urban India and it's urbane men and women, be they working class taxi drivers, and bar dancers, or paying guests, con men, and middle-class women in unhappy marriages.

And I am trying to isolate the reasons why I feel desolate. And mulling the folly of mourning the death of a public figure who had been all but forgotten, his poor film choices over the years since the seventies decried and ridiculed. And for those who think he's managed anything interesting since "Hare Rama Hare Krishna", please go watch this; I did, in Jaipur's Raj Mandir no less.

The act of mourning, as most of us well know by now is never about anybody but ourselves and our vanishing sense of memory and temporality. We rely on friends, family, actors, films, and songs to preserve for us our childhood, our youth, our tremulous possibilities, and the many other lives we could have and have led. Every now and then we turn to them to recover the joie de vivre of an assumed immortality and vigor. And then they leave and the thought that we have left something behind with them is a difficult thought.

When I try and write about the role of film in Indian public culture, what I have most difficulty in capturing is its affective density, the sense that it permeates lives far deeper than mere symbolism. It doesn't stand in for life, it is life. I have lived with film as fantasy, as possibility, and as the material of the air I breathe.

Songs, for example, I experience as triggers of places, and smells, and food, and people. They form the background score and the very articulation of my mental picture albums. They stand in for dusky evenings and tightly bound clusters of singing voices, attempting rhythm, melody and kinship. Shooshan and I used to sing "Abhi na jao chodkar" on the footpath by the row of buildings where I set up my first apartment. "Mana Janab Ne Pukara Naheen" is one of the first songs I learnt to play on the mandolin. My ability to sing the entire "Hai apna dil tho awaara" ensured that I would always be on a winning antakshari team. "Nazar lagi raja tore bangle pe" was the song I hummed in bad tune with a professor from grad school. And on long train journeys from Bombay to Madras, strangers and I sang "Yeh Dil Na hota bechara", "Accha jee main haari", and "Dil Ka Bhanwar Kare Pukar" in temporary cohort as we headed to the place where no one spoke Hindi.

The films of Dev Anand are also a reminder that in the eighties, I was watching and listening to songs from films from the fifties and sixties on an old Panasonic recorder that my parents bought in the seventies. Bombay in the film was still recognizable to me as Bombay from my weekend trips into the city. Radio Ceylon had a designated hour to play what they called "Bhoole Bisre Geet" or forgotten songs. And these were the songs I most had the capacity to remember.

In an age when google is said to have robbed us of the capacity of memory, we feel loss more intensely even as we only feel it for a few seconds at a time. This then is the desolation and the forlornness of losing something so long forgotten that I have trouble naming it. And I do not know if I mourn Dev Anand, or the time of Dev Anand.