Chetan Anand – The Dynasty Founder
The Anands became a symbol of refinement; through their films and their conduct. Genetic intelligence, deeply rooted in spirituality, evidences a fundamental commonality in all the Anand brothers; a strong sense of self. Although, each Anand’s sapling career began under the giant shadow of the more established brother Chetan Anand, after a point, he decided to grow independently. To explore his own identity, pursue his own truths and find his own place in the sun. Yet, at the same time, despite their characteristic and professional differences, they remained closely bonded as brothers, quick to help each other out of a crisis. They were distinctly separate but not separated.
The fourth of nine siblings, Chetan’s inheritance was the best fortune lawyer Pishorimal Anand could bequeath to any son – education in the truest sense of the word. Born on 3 Jan, 1921 in Gurdaspur, Punjab, Chetan’s formative years were nourished by the teachings of the Vedanta in a Gurukul before he went to Government College, Lahore, and then onwards to Cambridge.
The subterranean entrenchment in his own culture ran so deep that Chetan Anand’s later Anglicization only added layers of various perspectives but couldn’t make a toady of him. In Lahore, he fell under the spell of the principal, G. C. Chatterji, a progressive thinker whom Chetan accepted as his mentor. As his brightest pupil, Chetan enjoyed Chatterji’s hospitality and it was only natural that their mutual admiration should encircle the principal’s alluring and highly accomplished daughter Uma.
27-year-old Chetan married 19-year-old Uma in the spring of 1943. Well after marriage, a scholarship to London University and a fellowship at Doon teaching English, History and tennis, Chetan remained a shy, violin-playing romantic. Very English, very much the armchair critic. His redemption lay in his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and self-expression.
The next phase in his evolution fortuitously fulfilled his soul quest. In 1944, he shrugged off a motionless stability and plunged into the chaotic ecstasy of motion pictures. A few disappointments were inevitable – a script for Kishore Sahu and a role opposite Nargis, which never went beyond promises. In 1946, Chetan Anand impacted with Neecha Nagar (read the post on the film here), a stark indictment on rural exploitation by the British and their landed toadies.
He directed Neecha Nagar, co-scripted with Hayatullah Ansari, based on the latter’s story. He also introduced maestro Ravi Shankar for the background score. Satyajit Ray would later pay a moving tribute when he told Chetan Anand that it was Neecha Nagar that inspired him to make Pather Panchali.
Neecha Nagar also fetched the debutante director an award at the Cannes Film Festival, sharing honors with David Lean’s classic Brief Encounter. Then, the negative got lost. A stranger discovered it in a kabadi’s shop, bought it for a hundred rupees and was conscientious enough to send it to the FTII at Pune!
In an astonishing volte-face to his burra sahib equipoise Chetan had participated in the freedom struggle. Time and again, he drew blood with his exposes on civilized cruelty. In Aandhiyaan (1952), a young girl is ‘sold’ in marriage to an old lecher. Son Ketan Anand remembered, “The human condition drew him to a subject. It was always the suffering of people and their emotional responses to conflict that interested Dad.”
In large measure, all this was due to newer influences pervading his consciousness. Now, he kept company with literary and political radicals such as Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Sahir, Kaifi Azmi and Sardar Jaffri but it bespoke Chetan Anand’s own growth. He broke bread with the best of them yet allowed none to be the last halt of his journey.
The hallmark of his work was classicism. In addition, he was peerless in imbuing a love story with dramatic depth. Ketan Anand; “Dad felt that only cinema was the complete medium of self-expression because it obviously embraced other art-forms but communicated them within the parameters of the common man’s understanding.”
However, by the mid-50s, shrinking box office returns made it clear that Chetan Anand’s communiqués were well outside those limits.
Dev Anand had launched Navketan, his own production company in 1949 in a bid to create opportunities for both brothers but they soon realized that Chetan’s kind of films simply could not keep the company afloat. In 1951, the success of Baazi directed by a mint-new Guru Dutt underlined the need for change but it was only after Aandhiyan (1952) flopped that the senior Anand agreed to attempt an entertainer, Funtoosh. Its success pointed to the beaten path, which Chetan was loath to tread. And so, although Taxi Driver (1955) was a big hit, Chetan moved away from Navketan to establish his own banner Himalay Films and make his own kind of films.
There was emotional turbulence at home too. Uma, his pillar of strength, left him. Affaire’s de coeur with his leading ladies were par for the course but they too evaporated when they realized that he was married to films. Vera, a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, had sent her portfolio to several filmmakers in Bombay but the only one who responded was Chetan Anand. A Sikh girl from Simla, she came back to India and became the Garboesque Priya Rajvansh, whose aesthetics and passion for cinema matched his as she winged into his orbit and became his constant companion and muse, starring in almost all his films after Haqeeqat.
Anjali (1957, in which he acted and directed) was, as close to an autobiographical confession as the stiff upper-lipped Chetan would ever get. It was a spiritual threshold.
It told of a Buddhist monk’s emotional conflict between two women – one tries to draw him back into the world whilst the other, seeped in sexuality seeks salvation through him. Ultimately, he realizes that both want to use him. The film forfeited attention because it was agonizingly slow and unidentifiable.
Chetan had acted, not only in Anjali but also in a number of other films. In fact, his Leslie Howard looks and more so, his polished performances kept him in demand right through the 50s until Aman in 1966! Nevertheless, as a director he was lost in a fog for ten bleak years after Taxi Driver.
When he emerged, it was to a standing ovation for, depicting the Chinese invasion of 1962, in one of the best war films ever made – Haqeeqat (1964). Priya Rajvansh once said, “At every trial held for army officers, they unanimously wept. At the Delhi premiere, a distributor was overheard exclaiming, ‘Picture to lajawab hai hi lekin Chetansaabki sabse badi khoobi hai ki ek ladakhi ladkise itna khubsurat kaam karvaya!”
Ketan Anand remembers, “A director is someone who assembles whereas a filmmaker conceives a film. Dad’s films were born out of him. He orchestrated all the various aspects and talents to give him what he needed.
”Kaifisaab wrote the finale, ‘Kar chale hum fida’ (Music: Madan Mohan, Singer: Rafi) in the middle of the night after Dad kept rejecting whatever he and Madan Uncle came up with. They were supposed to record at 9 am. Dad leaves them fuming and comes home. Kaifisaab telephones at 1 am and begins reciting, Dad listens in complete silence, then says, “meet me at Madan’s.” A half-asleep Madan Mohan composes the tune instantly.
“Similarly, during Heer Ranjha, after a frustrating session with Dad, Madan Uncle calls at night and cries,”I can’t take your perfectionism anymore. I’m committing suicide. Chetan, yeh duniya, yeh mehfil mere kaam ki nahi!” Dad says, “that’s it! Just set it to a tune!”
In the decade between Haqeeqat and Heer Ranjha, the 50-year-old filmmaker scaled his creative peak.
The Collegian who once reeled off Shakespeare with biblical fervor spurred on Kaifi Azmi to outshine the bard in the all verse Heer Ranjha.
He made Aakhri Khat (1966) because, “I’m sure that if a 18-month-old child were to be lost in this heartless city nobody would care.”
He shamed the nation with documented proof by deliberately letting a child wander around trailed by an unobtrusive camera which captured the indifference of real passers-by.
Chetan Anand: “This film was about a 15-month-old child. As I didn’t want to lose the continuity it was to be shot quickly. You see, the child had two teeth and the third might have appeared in a month. Now you can’t expect a child of this age to act. I so arranged things so that he was reacting to suggestions and gestures from outside the camera field.”
Rajesh Khanna remembered, “I got the lead in Aakhri Khat only because Sanjay Khan was rude to the production controller. There were no stars in Chetansaab’s unit; his stars became his pupils.”
What a pity that 15 years later, the same actor chose to become a symbol of obnoxious star-power and supervised the final cut of Kudrat (1981) because he felt that the less there was of Priya on screen, the better.
Priya Rajvansh had bitterly confided in an interview, “Rajesh Khanna broke my heart and my will to work anymore in a place where semi-literates can have the audacity to debar a filmmaker of Chetan saab’s standing from completing his own film. Kudrat was my script and it would have been a beautiful film had it not been mutilated.”
Things were never the same again in Chetan Anand’s camp. There were other projects; some on film, some on television and some still on paper. His intelligence and sensitivity remained acute but he was now 83 years old, ill, frail and disillusioned by stars who were too embarrassed to refuse his films outright – they just never showed up again. Yet, he kept working towards the future. The flame of his spirit was never extinguished; let is just say that he moved on in 1997 (6th July).
Priya Rajvansh was brutally murdered over inherited property from Chetan Anand in 2000. Both his sons were convicted and are serving life imprisonment.