Art can be a curious thing. Within its many folds and many layers it conceals a strange paradox. While on one side it is said, for any creation to be truthful it has to transcend time and space and straddle the timeless horse on the other side nothing chronicles that same time, space and era as does the art of the time. Popular art for centuries has provided a window to the aspirations, motivations and concerns of a time. Cinema by that yardstick is the most powerful chronicler of them because live medium of expression. In this series we will trace the story of one of the most enduring cinema houses of Hindi cinema and with it the story of us.
This story begins over three quarters a century ago when two brothers from a small town in Punjab began to secretly nurture a dream. It was a dream that was almost taboo given the time, characters and social milieu it germinated in. The first one to pursue this dream was the shy younger brother. After completing his graduation from Lahore, the diffident young man announced to his astonished father that he did not wish to take the sedate bank-job that was arranged for him. Instead he wanted to become an actor. It was an audacious dream for a middle-class boy, whose lawyer father was struggling to get a good education for his nine off-springs. The father was naturally skeptical at what seemed an ill-suited career-option for his introvert son, but seeing the boy’s determination, knew it was useless stopping him. Destiny is inevitable. And thus one morning in 1943, a twenty year old Dharamdev Pishorimal Anand boarded the Frontier Mail at Lahore to head for the city of dreams.
In those days, Bombay was a haven for all those whose eyes sparkled with stardust. Its allure was magnetic and thousands flocked to it in the hope of making their destiny. The pace and sophistication of the city intoxicated this boy from a small town and it was love and first sight. But reaching the city of dreams was only the beginning. Bombay was the high-ledge from where a dreamer could reach out and grab the stars, but it also was the deep crevice where millions of hopes crashed into nothingness. The young Dharamdev realized soon enough that he had miles to go before he even spotted a high-ledge to climb on, the stars were miles away. And therein started a period of struggle, a period, in which, the young Dev found a confidante and friend in his elder brother.
The elder brother, Chetan, ten years senior in age belonged to what was the budding artistic intelligentsia of pre-partition India. Educated in England, he returned to marry the daughter of an eminent Bengali educationist and teach history at the prestigious Doon School in the Himalayan foothills. At a core level he too was inclined towards creativity like his younger brother but the middle-class upbringing and marital status made him hold on to the cushy security that his job offered. He would nevertheless find his release by writing plays and dabbling with IPTA in his spare time.
IPTA or Indian People’s Theatre Association was formed during the Quit India Movement in 1942 with the goal of building awareness through art. The organization had a strong leaning towards progressive and socialist ideologies and boasted of luminaries like KA Abbas, Homi Bhabha, Ali Sardar Jafri, Ismat Chugtai, Uday Shankar, Pt Ravi Shankar, Salil Chowdhury, Balraj Sahni and many more intellectuals. Under the aegis of IPTA these artists produced many memorable plays, dramas, ballets and films all underlining their leftist ideology. IPTA was a vibrant and thriving organization in the 40s and 50s and enticed many a progressive artist to its fold. IPTA also was a landmark organization because it was instrumental in helping performing arts break from the shackles of disrepute that was traditionally associated them and transform into a respected art form.
In the early days both the brothers dabbled with IPTA, the older one full time and the younger one part time. Even though the veterans there liked his affable presence they never did take him seriously as an actor. It is said that after he had miffed his lines multiple times Balraj Sahni is said to have slapped his forehead and said to Dev– ‘Yaar tu actor kabhi nahin ban sakta’ (I don’t think you can become an actor). But perseverance in the face of criticism was in his genes. Dev did persist.
The big break finally came with Prabhat’s ‘Hum Ek Hain’ in 1945. Around the same time big brother too chucked his teaching job to direct a highly acclaimed ‘Neecha Nagar’. ‘Neecha Nagar’, made with a team primarily culled from his IPTA associations, was a commercial disaster but went onto win accolades at the Cannes film festival.
After this film there followed a period of lull. The younger brother got bit roles and acting offers but nothing significant. The handsome, good-looking elder brother who wanted to direct got more offers as an actor than as a director. In spite of ‘Neecha Nagar’ no one was ready to hand him the directorial reins. Things were not going the way they had wanted them to go. Both the brothers realized that the only way for them to create the kind of cinema that was close to their hearts was do to it themselves.
And thus germinated the idea of Navketan…
In 1949 Chetan and Dev Anand got together and established a new film company. It was called ‘Nav’ because it was new and ‘Ketan’ stands for banner. It also was the name of Chetan Anand’s newborn son.
With Navketan a new branch of cinema came to life. The cinema that was meaningful, progressive, urbane and in retrospect, timeless.