Karan Dewan – Interview
He was the superstar of his time, the first hero whose picture ran for 169 weeks in Calcutta. He was the first, and probably the last, to co-star with a wide variety and galaxy of heroines. Look at the names : Manju, Leela Desai, Nalini Jaywant, Swarnalata, Noorjehan, Suraiya, Meena Shorey, Nargis, Vyjayanthimala, Kamini Kaushal, Jayshree, Nimmi, Munawar Sultana, Sandhya, Geeta Bali, Meena Kumari, Shyama, Nirupa Roy, Usha Kiran, Shakila, Begum Para, Nigar Sultana and Madhubala.
The fleet of cars, the fan mail, the adulation, the crowds in front of his residence and telephone calls are, to Karan Dewan, now, something of a dream. Today he hops into a bus and nobody recognizes him.
What went wrong and how did it all happen, the total oblivion? At a certain stage in his career, while he was at the peak, he felt he was losing ground.
“I can’t explain why or how. May be destiny. I believe in astrology and palmistry. But I find there is no explanation.”
Today for Karan, the retreat to oblivion is total. And ironically enough, he lives in a building called The Retreat in a high class area, on Bhulabhai Desai Road. He has been living there for thirty years, but The Retreat does not look the same as it must have looked when Karan moved in.
Believe it or not, the building stands on wooden crutches and his own flat reminds one of the good old days. Wall plasters coming off and yellowing, dying for a coat of paint!
I asked him what about the telephone which he had till recently: “Oh, the children you know. I’m fed up of telling them…”
I understood. The bills. Besides, he probably felt it is a luxury he can do without.
Karan starred in more Golden and Silver Jubilee films than any other hero, so much so, his name became synonymous with jubilees. Among the best known jubilee hits are: Rattan, Bhaijan, Zeenat, Chaman, Lahore, Rakhi, Duniya, Dahej, Chhoti Bhabi, Pardes, Bahar, Teen Bati Char Rasta, Madhu and Musafirkhana. Incidentally, Karan was Vyjayanthimala’s first hero in Bahar and it was a runaway hit.
In all, Karan Dewan had starred in about a hundred films, out of which he was the hero in 75, most of which were hits. In fact, his name was never associated with flop pictures.
Believe it or not, Karan started his career as editor and publisher of a film magazine, “Jagat Lakshmi,” from Lahore, before he had even completed his studies and before that he helped his brother manage a theatre.
A family friend, who saw for Karan a brilliant academic career, asked him to go back to college and he would write off all his dues and debts, for the magazine was not faring well. So Karan wound up the mag and resumed his studies.
But it was at this time, in 1939 when he was in the final year that Destiny lured him away from the college, as he was offered the title role in Puran Bhagat in Punjabi. He grabbed the chance and when he broke the good news to his college mates and professors, they pooh poohed the idea and kept ragging him. In the end, however, they gave him a hearty send-off when he entrained for Calcutta, where the picture was made.
After the completion of the picture, he returned to college and took his degree. His first picture did make an impact on filmmakers and he got an offer from Chandulal Shah of Ranjit Movietone to star opposite Sabita Devi.
But luck was not in his favor, for he was dubbed a kid and too young to be a hero. Depressed, the young man went back to Delhi to try his luck with All India Radio. Nothing doing there either.
It was at this time that Karan thought of joining the Navy, but an offer came from a studio in Lahore to play the leading role in a Punjabi picture Mera Mahi, which was a box-office disaster.
He was in a fix, which career to choose. However, he sent an application to Bombay Talkies; the call came and he was selected out of 1500 applicants to play the hero in a film.
Karan was on the pay-roll but had no work. Apparently, Devika Rani, the boss of BT, did not consider him much of a hero, so he was assigned to tour Northern India as a talent scout. He returned, his mission a great success, for he introduced such well- known artistes like Mumtaz Shanti, Veena, Ragini and Manorama and music directors like Pandit Amainath, Husnlal and Bhagatram. In the end Bombay Talkies dropped him.
Karan must have the gift and taste for beauty, considering the heroines he picked up, he also married one, a very pretty heroine named Manju. Manju costarred in Rattan.
Karan was not in love or probably he did not know, for he just asked Manju out of the blue to marry him. He did not expect the answer —a pat “Yes.” Their romance started after that.
They worked in only two pictures together and after marriage, Manju gave up her career. “I was not in love at that time. I just asked her in jest. Of course I am not sorry. ”
Manju was in Poona in those days and she used to come to Bombay to work in Hindi films. He used to drop her home, travelling from Bombay to Poona ( Pune now ) by train.
To Karan’s discomfiture, Manju’s parents were orthodox. Apparently they did not like the idea of a Punjabi poaching in their front yard as they were Maharashtrians. They made this known to the young lovers.
They were adamant and would not give her permission to marry Karan. Manju was a minor. With the parents hostile, Babubhai Pai adding fuel to the fire, as Manju was a Prabhat Talkies artiste, the young lovers had a problem to meet.
“I used to hide myself on the Railway platform and boarded the train after it started and jumped into the compartment in which she travelled.”
However, Manju’s parents never relented and they eloped, got married in a temple at Alandi, a place of pilgrimage on the outskirts of Poona.
Karan was born in Gujranwala in the Punjab. When he was hardly three years old, his father, a leading businessman, was arrested by the British for political activity. The police locked up the house and his family had to take shelter under a tree nearby.
When he started going to school, Karan was the cynosure of all eyes, as he went there astride a camel every day.
Karan worked with famous directors like Phani Majumdar, R. S. Chowdhury, M. Sadiq, Shaukat Hussain, Roop K. Shorey the Fazli brothers, M. V. Raman, S. M. Yousuf, Ram Gabale, L. V. Prasad, Suraj Prakash, B. R. Chopra, Yash Chopra, Shantaram, Ramdsh Sippy etc.
Karan’s career, beginning with Tamanna co-starring Leela Desai, directed by Phani Majumdar, came to a stop around 1960 though he kept himself busy with character roles. Incidentally, he was the first Indian casting director for a Hollywood film company, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, for the King Brother’s TV series.
Right from the inception of the Cine Artistes Association, nineteen years ago, he has been on the Executive Committee, taking an active interest in the welfare of artistes. Last year he did not contest the elections.
Apparently he is disillusioned with the petty politics which always dominated the CAA.
For his age, he is very active, playing bit roles, otherwise attending the CAA office. Karan has taken his oblivion in stride. With three children, and Manju looking after the family, life goes on for him at a leisurely pace. (Karan Dewan interviewed by Krishna in 1977).