My Father, The Jewel Thief


My Father, The Jewel Thief

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

In my childhood during the early ’80s, we had a lot of visitors at home – people who would turn up to demand charity. Every time such a bunch of people landed up at our door, my father would politely refuse, and then shut the door and say, “Maan na maan, mein tera mehmaan.” I didn’t figure it out until later in life, but my father had picked up the piercing one-liner from his screen idol, Dev Anand.

The loose-wristed, silk scarf-wearing dandy was a constant presence in my father’s life. He modelled himself after Dev sa’ab. He wore his hair in a puff for most of his youth. His mouth and slightly crooked nose were reminiscent of the hero. But most of all were his floral-patterned orange and pink shirts that Dev sa’ab showed a penchant for, especially in films like Hare Rama Hare Krishna, when he was still at the height of his popularity.

It took me a long time to process that I inherited my father’s fascination with Dev Anand. I was born during the Emergency in 1975, four years after Hare Rama Hare Krishna released. By this time, Dev sa’ab was past his prime. Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna were now at the top of the greasy pole, while Dev Anand was becoming a parody of his earlier suave, poised self. During the 1980s, when the Hindi film industry was scraping the bottom of the barrel, my film-loving parents turned back to the Dev Anand movies that had captivated them in their salad days.

On Doordarshan’s Sunday evening slots and on hired VCRs, the lanky, cocky, and “pranky” man provided the succour that the fare in cinema halls couldn’t. Chomping on cigars in Hum Dono, hanging on to a jeep for dear life in Jewel Thief, driving a bus in Nau Do Gyaraah and of course, the holy-not-so-holy Guide… To me, Dev Anand had something that the ’50s trinity of Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, and Dilip Kumar did not have.

Dad couldn’t believe that the light of his life had actually made that disaster of a cricket film called Awwal Number.

It certainly wasn’t the way he dressed. Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were pretty much even-stevens in looks; Shammi Kapoor was way ahead in the pranks department. As for acting, there was Guru Dutt. How then did I develop this thing for Dev Anand?

The answer became apparent during the ’90s, when my cousin pointed out that my father still combed his hair like Dev sa’ab – although he had retired those terrible floral shirts. I’m willing to bet that he occasionally wore them, coyly smiled at himself in the mirror, and then stashed them back into the recesses of his wardrobe. His own secret Dev-worshipping ritual.

My father had come of age in the late ’50s when Dev-mania was at its peak. He aped his sideways stroll, and spoke in his low drawl. That tilt of the head, that teasing smile, that twinkle in the eye, and that slightly supercilious expression – all of these things that Dev sa’ab displayed on screen for a few minutes, I saw in my father day in and day out. Aside from the paunch and the rustic Hindi that my corporate executive father had learnt in distant Ujjain, life was a faux-Dev Anand performance ten times a day.

For such a committed fan, my father’s choice of his favourite film was surprising. There were other Dev fans he knew; college friends, who swore by his younger avatar in CID and Hum Dono. For my father though, Dev sa’ab’s finest performance was in Jewel Thief, the mystery caper that owed a lot to Alfred Hitchcock. In the film, Dev Anand is an aimless young man until he finds “purpose”, discovering the thief and of course, finding love. Any discerning fan would fight you under the table, plumping for Guide as the man’s finest hour. But no, Jewel Thief was it, my father insisted.

I have a feeling Sean Connery might have had something to do with it. In the early ’60s, my father had begun a parallel affair with James Bond. Our Bollywood heroes from that time – even the ones my father idolised – could not hold a candle to the man from Edinburgh. But Dev Anand could and did. So even as Dev sa’ab admitted his debt to Gregory Peck, my father believed that in being something of an Indian Sean in Jewel Thief, Dev Anand was vindicating the newly independent India in front of the colonials.

But my father did not play by the conventional rules of hero worship. The one thing that never failed to get his goat was Dev sa’ab’s lazy dialogue delivery. For entertainment, he would deliver the classic Shahenshah line “Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hain” the Dev Anand way, stretching out the “meeeeeeinnnn” and adding Dev sa’ab’s nasal twang to it. Grow up, my father would mutter darkly under his breath when he saw the man opposite Zeenat Aman in Darling, Darling or Tina Munim in Des Pardes. He had overstayed his welcome, my dad would say. Maan na maan, mein tera mehmaan.

Eventually, Dev Anand did move on. He did age in his films. He even started to cast popular heroes of the day in the films he made and in doing so, he let my father down badly. Dad couldn’t believe that the light of his life had actually made that disaster of a cricket film called Awwal Number. He held that Aamir Khan made Lagaan years later to compensate for that dud.

I don’t think my father forgave Dev Anand for that terrible phase. Yet, occasionally, I’d catch him gazing fondly at the dog-eared film magazines which had photos of his hero in his prime. In losing Dev Anand, the world lost a great and sparkling personality. But what did my father lose? His other self? His wannabe self? The answer lies somewhere in the floral shirts that continue to lie in dad’s cupboard.