Zeenat Aman and Dev Anand in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1973). Image Courtesy: The Wire
The depiction of love and sex on the Indian screen has always been a bone of contention. In one of the most heated debates around the censorship of such scenes, veteran director Vijay Anand publicly resigned his post as the chairman of the CBFC in 2002. Reportedly, there had been a dispute regarding his suggestion that specific cinema halls be designated for the exhibition of films with sexually explicit visuals. Unsurprisingly, the government expressly forbade him and all of CBFC to discuss this proposal even internally. Years before, in 1968, following public concern over sex and violence in cinema, a special enquiry committee—later dubbed the Khosla Committee—was set up. One of its main concerns was the “protection of public taste”. Over time, however, a mandate meant to refer to sex, violence and politics increasingly concentrated on sex. While debates around censorship have focused most recently on what offends particular groups of people, few remember that mainstream Hindi cinema saw a spate of films in the 1970s that would have defied conventions of Hindi cinema’s ‘true-love’ relationship even today. Coincidentally, all of these films starred Vijay Anand’s brother, the evergreen Dev Anand.
Known for his prolific career as Hindi cinema’s best-known romantic hero, Dev Anand appeared in quite a few films that explored unexpected shades of love.
Known for his prolific career as Hindi cinema’s best-known romantic hero, Dev Anand appeared in quite a few films that explored unexpected shades of love. Even before the films he directed and produced in the 70’s, he starred in two of the earliest popular films that explored that most unspeakable taboo, incest. Sohrab Modi had already shown the way with Bharosa (1940), which examined the lives of half-siblings who fall in love. With Namoona (Hira Singh, 1949), Dev Anand dipped his toe into dark waters as well. He played the hero who sacrificed his love for Kamini Kaushal’s lead so she could be with Kishore Sahu, who in turn is revealed to be her half-brother.
As Dev Anand (Babu) masquerades as Kundan, the long-lost son of a zamindar, the film is drawn, seemingly against its will, into a rapidly swirling eddy of emotions: he falls in love with the woman he is pretending to be brother to.
Bombai Ka Babu (Raj Khosla, 1960), made nearly a decade later, is perhaps one of the only films amongst these to delve into the complex feelings opened up by such a situation. With cinematographer Jal Mistry’s skilled noir opening, the film appears to be a comment on the times and the problems plaguing a post-Nehruvian India, but the focus shifts with the introduction of a dark romance. As Dev Anand (Babu) masquerades as Kundan, the long-lost son of a zamindar, the film is drawn, seemingly against its will, into a rapidly swirling eddy of emotions: he falls in love with the woman he is pretending to be brother to. Played by Suchitra Sen, the luminously beautiful Maya becomes the object of Babu’s physically explicit desire. In a scene that twists to its ends a familiar trope—the heroine plucking flowers from a tree as the hero watches her—Babu views her body with barely disguised lust. She tries to discourage his advances, saying “Aurat aur behen mein bohut phark hota hai” (there is a huge difference between a woman and a sister), but he turns her words back on her, telling her that it is the love of the woman he desires. When she tries to tie a rakhi around his wrist, he tells her of his all-consuming passion: “Pyaar ek jazbe ka naam hai” (Love is the name of a passionate desire). With such an unusual subject, the film bombed at the box office. Its treatment of the relationship is fascinating, and a dream sequence which expresses Babu’s desire for the woman through him taking photographs of her seems to have stayed with Dev Anand, and returns in Heera Panna (Dev Anand, 1973). More interestingly, the hero is led astray by the lack of a father figure, a problem that shifts to the heroine’s shoulders in his 70’s films. Unusually, it is the male hero who is viewed with suspicion because he does not belong to the confines of the house or family.
More interestingly, the hero is led astray by the lack of a father figure, a problem that shifts to the heroine’s shoulders in his 70’s films. Unusually, it is the male hero who is viewed with suspicion because he does not belong to the confines of the house or family.
Even with its conciliatory ending—Maya is married to another man as Babu watches— Bombai Ka Babu ventured into deeply unfamiliar terrain, and one is forced to wonder how a film like this was made. It would not be remiss to say that, much like the films in the 70s, it was driven to its moderate earnings by Dev Anand’s star power. A few years later, he cemented his role as a charming womanizer with Teen Devian (1965), in which he is spoilt for choice of a partner. His onscreen persona was further popularized by his tragic romance with the actress Suraiya, which only made him more appealing to his legions of female fans.
Backed by his stardom, Dev Anand made his directorial debut with Prem Pujari (1970). Coming on the heels of the Indo-China war in 1962 and escalating tensions with Pakistan, this film about a pacifist who prefers chasing butterflies to following in the footsteps of his retired Army Colonel father drew the ire of many. Dev Anand was on the verge of losing his stardom, and all exhibition of the film was terminated in Calcutta after certain members of a political organization invaded a screening and stopped it at gunpoint. The film included an assertive heroine: Waheeda Rehman’s Suman wins the Miss India contest to travel to London in search of her absconding lover. Seeing him at a gathering with another woman, she drinks heavily and dances to Rangeela re. Surprisingly, none of this is met with censure, and her distress is depicted with remarkable sensitivity. Unlike the rebellious heroines played by Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (Dev Anand, 1971) and Heera Panna, she is even united with her lover at the end of the film.
Following the abysmal failure of Prem Pujari, Dev Anand played his cards more cleverly. In 1971, he launched Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna as the smoking, drinking, dancing Janice, even as he carefully presented a moralistic take on the counterculture she stood for.
Following the abysmal failure of Prem Pujari, Dev Anand played his cards more cleverly. In 1971, he launched Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna as the smoking, drinking, dancing Janice, even as he carefully presented a moralistic take on the counterculture she stood for. Since most heroines in the industry were unwilling to play his sister in the film, he went on the hunt for someone new, “Indian in looks but with a Western upbringing, someone who would not hesitate to smoke” or wear revealing outfits. He met Zeenat Aman as the newly crowned Miss Asia, a young, self-confident woman who even offered him a cigarette. Dev had found his Janice, and the immense success of the film meant that the two played the Bohemian couple in film after film, notwithstanding the 30-year age difference between them. The film was a runaway hit, helped by R.D. Burman’s music. Coming out of his father’s shadow, ‘Pancham da’ revamped Hindi film music with the introduction of funk in the title song and the memorable Dum maaro dum, coupled with a Nepali folk tune for Kaanchi re kaanchi. The seventies had arrived in Indian cinema, and how.
Perhaps anticipating the resistance the film would face, Hare Rama Hare Krishna enters into a negotiation with the counterculture that makes it immune to any reproach. Playing up to the audience’s expectations from the title, the film opens on a shot of Radha and Krishna, evoking the familiar genre of devotional films. The subtext, however, is clear—this reference to mythology is laced with a hint of adultery and incest as well. This is elaborated the minute Dev Anand’s Prashant refers to Jasbir in his voiceover as “mera apna khoon, mera apna ansh” (my own flesh and blood), with the longing in his voice reminding seasoned viewers of Babu’s desires in Bombai Ka Babu. The film’s setting helps this back and forth along: with exotic locales in Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu, the events transpire in a place both similar to and far enough away from India. The shooting of the film, in Dev’s own words, was “one big celebration”. The gaze he turns on the locals and the hippies—who star as extras in the film—is more accurately revealed in the film crew being remembered as descending upon Kathmandu like an “expeditionary force”. Sufficiently exotic, Nepal becomes a literal new world for Dev Anand’s depiction of a newly sensual world of desire. Asha Bhonsle, often the voice of the vamp, and Usha Uthup’s husky tones come together to provide a backdrop to young men and women openly enjoying drugs, alcohol and sex.
When he sought permission from the King of Nepal, he told him that he wanted to make a film examining the “new world phenomenon” of hippies, “young, reckless people” who had strayed from their paths. Whenever the film seems to be sinking into an enjoyment of their world, Dev Anand’s Prashant provides a moral compass.
This was Dev Anand’s intention from the start. When he sought permission from the King of Nepal, he told him that he wanted to make a film examining the “new world phenomenon” of hippies, “young, reckless people” who had strayed from their paths. Whenever the film seems to be sinking into an enjoyment of their world, Dev Anand’s Prashant provides a moral compass. Even as images of the counterculture abound, the film ranges itself decidedly against its politics. As Prashant is beaten up by a mob intent on lynching him in the film’s climax, his ire is reserved for the hippies, and he delivers a diatribe against them while struggling to breathe. Ultimately, the film is unable to bear the weight Janice brings to it. In the crosshairs of the film’s central contradiction, desiring a union with her brother to redeem herself, Janice dies after overdosing before she can be reunited with her family.
What was new, however, was the heroine Zeenat Aman ushered in. An interview in Filmfare soon after the release of the film even claimed that her rise represented a “major change in the thinking” of Bollywood’s filmmakers. They had, according to this reporter, shifted their view from more “serious” actresses to the “jazzy, ‘in’ young woman”.
This take on a global trend was not new, and the film’s fear of a cultural takeover by the West continues in mainstream Hindi films’ incorporation of new themes while not straying too far from accepted modes of sexual, romantic behavior. What was new, however, was the heroine Zeenat Aman ushered in. An interview in Filmfare soon after the release of the film even claimed that her rise represented a “major change in the thinking" of the industry's filmmakers. They had, according to this reporter, shifted their view from more “serious” actresses to the “jazzy, ‘in’ young woman”. Zeenat Aman soon became Hindi cinema’s go-to Westernized woman. Publicity focused almost exclusively on her body, with one Filmfare article noting that if another actress had a “thick waistline or unshapely legs”, it wouldn’t matter, but “Zeenat had to be perfect.” Soon after, Zeenat was playing the svelte ‘anti-heroine’ in films like Heera Panna and Manoranjan (Shammi Kapoor, 1974). By the next decade, she had broken through the proverbial glass ceiling, playing the night club dancer who is the heroine in Qurbani (Feroz Khan, 1980). This transformation onscreen did not come without its offscreen troubles. Anxieties regarding such an open expression of her sexuality come through in Dev Anand’s own accounts of the time, as he seems barely able to keep up with the new heroine he had unleashed. He repeatedly refers to her as his “discovery”, and was immensely distressed when his “prized possession” started working with other filmmakers.
More interesting is the film’s focus on women’s desires. As it opens, Prashant talks of what Jasbir wants, and his love interest, Shanti, later asserts “Zara Shanti se bhi puchhiye ki Shanti kya chahti hai” (Ask Shanti what she wants).
Even as Jasbir/Janice engages in sexual relations with multiple men outside wedlock in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, however, she remains coy with the hero, keeping with conventions of Hindi cinema. More interesting is the film’s focus on women’s desires. As it opens, Prashant talks of what Jasbir wants, and his love interest, Shanti, later asserts “Zara Shanti se bhi puchhiye ki Shanti kya chahti hai” (Ask Shanti what she wants). Shanti is also repeatedly objectified, both by the men onscreen and the camera, and fit into the mold of the village belle who dances only to folk music, even if she bares her legs while doing so. In fact, Mumtaz’s dance sequences were so sexually charged that a police cordon had to be formed around her while shooting. Even so, Shanti and Janice provide some insight into the intent of these films when it came to the heroine and her defiance of moral codes. Like clothes—and Shanti dons Janice’s with ease—conflicting images of femininity are put on and discarded by both women.
Clothes in these films became the marker of women and their desires, particularly in Heera Panna.
Clothes in these films became the marker of women and their desires, particularly in Heera Panna. Dev Anand as Heera plays an international photographer who falls in love with an airhostess, Reema (Rakhee) and subsequently meets her sister Panna while she is attempting to steal jewelry. Dev Anand conceptualized the film as youthful and contemporary, which translates into Heera’s jetsetting life and his urge to possess women through his photographs. When he is on the lookout for a model to pose in a bikini, Zeenat Aman’s Panna agrees to, hoping to use him as a cover. While the poster of the film was deemed “too modern” by some of Dev’s fans, and the film itself made slim pickings at the box office, the narrative does not move out of the moral conventions of its predecessors. It includes a few exciting sequences, nonetheless, particularly those set amidst huge boulders with Zeenat Aman sporting a bikini and swinging in a hammock. Panna and Reema’s relationships with their lovers hold some key differences: Reema usually dresses in saris while Panna wears dresses, skirts and bikinis, and even though Reema engages in premarital sex, it is with the promise of marital commitment. Heera’s freewheeling sexuality is revealed when he sings “Main tasveer utaarta hun…phir zulfon ki saaye mein raatein guzaarta hun” (I take photographs… and I spend my nights in the shade of their tresses), but he is never punished for his roving eye. Meanwhile, Panna, again an estranged daughter, is blackmailed by her lover while pregnant into stealing a necklace to set up a home. Dev Anand’s character attempts to bring her back to the straight and narrow, a paternal protector who promises to marry her to keep her from suicide. Though Panna falls in love with Heera, her statements on her love for family are far more startling. In one scene, she tells her father that it is perfectly justifiable for her to love a man other than her father, and in another, she wistfully recalls her dead sister as “mera woh pyaar…jo mujhe na kisise kabhi mila hai, aur na milega” (the love I have never received from anyone).
While Janice and Panna both remain confined in their desire for love within the bounds of the family, with Prem Shastra (B.R. Ishara, 1974), Zeenat Aman’s Barkha moves into Hindi cinema’s ‘true love’ relationship, but with a twist: the man she is in love with could be her father.
While Janice and Panna both remain confined in their desire for love within the bounds of the family, with Prem Shastra (B.R. Ishara, 1974), Zeenat Aman’s Barkha moves into Hindi cinema's ‘true love’ relationship, but with a twist: the man she is in love with could be her father. Dev Anand’s Sagar Sharma is a confident, magnetic writer of pulp fiction—his book Tan ki Jwaala is censored for depicting an incestuous relationship—with legions of female fans. Dressed in frocks and dresses, Barkha seems painfully young when she starts pursuing Sagar, and he asks her how old she is before they start their relationship. All is progressing as usual when it is revealed that not only is Sagar married, but his wife Neelima claims to be Barkha’s mother. The rest of the film moves from one reveal to another as Sagar and Barkha embark on a quest to justify their adulterous, seemingly incestuous relationship.
Of crucial importance to their search is Bindu’s Neelima. Used to playing vamps in films, Bindu was recognized for her outlandish attire, her exaggerated gestures, and her provocative dances, one of the ‘bad women’ of Hindi cinema. The film’s attempts to show Sagar as a grey character fail, particularly with the focus on Bindu’s excesses. It is almost as if the audience, confronted with Bindu cramped into the role of a wife, expects her infidelity. Unsurprisingly, Sagar and Neelima’s marriage is one of convenience. Dance sequences aplenty linger on her days as a model falling easily into bed with men to advance her career, while the present expounds on her efforts to hide her ageing body. Barkha, meanwhile, is cleansed of the stigma the film initially bestows upon her: she is still able to have children (unlike Neelima), and with Sagar, she starts wearing saris. Effortlessly young and beautiful, Barkha is the only one of the three characters in this trilogy of sorts to survive to the ‘happy ending’ she is rewarded with.
With Prem Shastra, the hero Dev Anand is playing seems to be completing a journey: he gains a more powerful position with each film as Zeenat Aman’s characters grow younger and more naïve.
Like its predecessors, Prem Shastra tries to start a difficult conversation about love. It delves into the transactional nature of love, and condemns the hypocrisy of affluent, powerful men who enjoy Neelima’s attentions without dealing with its consequences. However, the hero’s moralizing again brings the film to its lowest point. With Prem Shastra, the hero Dev Anand is playing seems to be completing a journey: he gains a more powerful position with each film as Zeenat Aman’s characters grow younger and more naïve. This later film does not carry the radical implications bubbling just under the surface in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, and it is questionable whether the trilogy signals any progressive change at all. A few years later, a “breeze of liberality” flows in and benefits Dev Anand’s Swami Dada (1982), a controversial film about an Indian godman seduced by an American disciple. What is strange, however, is that these themes seem to have disappeared from the multiplex screen, with Lamhe (Yash Chopra, 1991) perhaps the last popular film to hint at an incestuous romance. Increasingly, the discussion about love and sex has moved into smaller screens, with platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime bearing the majority of its burdens. From stars of Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman’s magnitude, the baton seems to have passed, perhaps for the best, to relatively unknown actors making their mark with a newly birthed global audience.
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Filmfare, May 3, 1974
Filmfare, April 1-15, 1980
Filmfare, March 1-15, 1983
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