Often considered one of the greatest leading men in Hindi romantic films, Dev Anand continues to remain associated with the genre even half a century since the release of films that bestowed this image. It is perhaps unimaginable to think of Dev sahab in any other genre, although some of his characters in films such as Baazi (1951), Jaal (1952), CID (1956), Kala Pani (1958), Kala Bazaar (1960) and Bombai Ka Babu (1960) had more shades of drama than romance. Surprising, as it may seem today, Dev Anand nearly played the lead in a film that is universally acknowledged as the one that not only initiated the action phase of Hindi cinema in the 1970s but also gave birth to the Angry Young Man – Zanjeer (1973).
The evergreen star, who passed away on 3 December 2011, was approached by Prakash Mehra to play the lead in Zanjeer after he parted ways with his original choice, Dharmendra, due to scheduling conflicts. Dharmendra had not only shown great interest in portraying the upright inspector Vijay Khanna but, in fact, he was also instrumental in bringing the film to Mehra. Impressed by the narration that writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, popularly known as Salim-Javed, Dharmendra decided to produce the film. In an interview, Mehra had mentioned that he didn’t want to wait for Dharmendra to finish his pending projects and therefore, the both of them decided to look for someone else. It was around this time that Mehra approached Dev Anand with the idea of an image change. Mehra had liked Dev sahab’s Kala Pani and felt that Zanjeer could be a landmark film for the actor.
It’s not entirely far-fetched to think why Mehra would have offered Dev Anand Zanjeer despite the fact that, in hindsight, it seems like a poor casting choice. Dev Anand was the only other big star of the 1950s besides Dilip Kumar to feature in films where the protagonist had shades of grey and also portrayed the common man’s angst, a facet that would later go on to become the foundation for the Angry Young Man. Of course, the manner in which the two stars interpreted this nuance was completely different. Moreover, the immense popularity of Dev Anand as a romantic hero or the songs that were associated with him, ensured that his image never truly fitted the action star. The period when Mehra offered Dev Anand Zanjeer was also when he had featured in Johny Mera Naam (1970), which was not only a blockbuster but also a shifting of gears of sorts for the actor in terms of playing his standard character. The affable Johny template was nearly reprised by Dev sahab in Vijay Anand’s Chuppa Rustam (1973), Raj Khosla’s Shareef Budmash (1973) and Mohan Kumar’s Amir Garib (1974). The reason Dev Anand never really came aboard Zanjeer was the absence of songs featuring his character; something that neither the director Prakash Mehra nor the writers Salim-Javed were keen on. One shudders to think what would have become of ‘Vijay’ had Dev sahab agreed to play the character the way it was written. Later even Raaj Kumar refused the film as he wanted it to be shot in Madras instead of Bombay and ultimately destiny saw Amitabh Bachchan land up with the role that changed the course of his then-flagging career. Of course, it also the narrative of popular Hindi cinema of the 1970s and a better part of the 1980s.
A majority of Dev Anand’s characters from the 1970s – Chhupa Rustam, Shareef Budmash, Joshila (1973), Amir Garib, Warrant (1975) Bullet (1976) and Des Pardes – were in-sync with the decade’s typical action-adventure films. In these films Dev sahab played the uniformed cop (Warrant, Bullet), an undercover secret agent (Chhupa Rustam, Shareef Budmash), the one wronged by society and seeking redemption (Joshila), a Robin Hood-esque character (Amir Garib) and a man who brings together a motley crew to unearth a migration scam (Des Pardes). But these were not in the same vein as the ‘action’ films of Salim-Javed such as Zanjeer, Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978). Even when Dev Anand made Lootmaar (1980), the closest he had come until then in terms of doing an action film, he was not someone who could portray the roles undertaken by a Dharmendra or an Amitabh Bachchan.
Ironically, Dev Anand finally managed to play the action star in a film that remains forgotten and that too when he was in his mid-60s! Inspired by Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (1974), Lashkar (1989) featured Dev Anand as a middle-aged college professor who becomes a vigilante following the murder of his wife (Madhavi) and his son and the rape of his sister (Soman), who loses all memory of the assault. Professor Anand (Dev Anand) rounds up his future brother in law inspector Sumeet (Sumeet Saigal) and three more tormented souls – Johnny (Javed Jaffrey), Bhima (Hemant Birje of Tarzan fame) and Amar (Aditya Pancholi) – and the five together are known as the Lashkar (army) that takes on Sangram ‘Sanga’ Singh (Kiran Kumar), the kingpin of the cartel responsible for ruining their lives. It’s amusing that a latter-day hit for Dev Anand that portrayed the then 66-year old as a formidable action star was inspired by a film that had previously transformed a 55-year old Charles Bronson into a badass! Directed by Jagdish Kadar, who also wrote the film with Anwar Khan, Lashkar was the last commercial hit that Dev Anand ever enjoyed. The film has some campy one-liners and also features the late Sadashiv Amrapurkar as the Urdu poetry-obsessed cop on the Lashkar’s trail. Oddly enough, the year Lashkar came out was also the one where Amitabh Bachchan, the action star that Dev Anand ‘nearly’ never let happen, had one of his biggest box office flops, Toofan and even an attempt at change of image, Main Azaad Hoon (1989), didn’t yield the expected result.