One of the most successful producer-directors in the history of Bollywood was, in fact, asked to pursue engineering by his family! As the young-at-heart Yash Chopra turned 80 recently, he opened up to the media on his journey, films, actors and his swan song in a session peppered with smile-evoking nuggets

At Studio Number 3 recently, on a curtain screen that served as a backdrop for the stage, pictures of Yash Chopra fluttered — some known and some never seen before. The occasion was the 80th birthday of the pillar of Yash Raj Films whom Shah Rukh Khan (his protagonist for the last 20 years with eight films) described as a man who was “60 years in the film industry (with) 53 years of actively directing films (who was) 22 films old and 80 years young!”

Yash Chopra, the prolific producer-director, rarely speaks to the media, but that day the room was filled with family, friends and an eager chunk of the media. As SRK drew him into a conversation about his life, achievements and inspiration, Yashji displayed ample sense of humour.

Surprises along the way

There were many surprising aspects to his life that came up, including that the Chopra family wanted its younger son to become an engineer. This despite the fact that his elder brother B.R. Chopra was himself a well-known director and producer! “Engineering? I couldn’t so much as put a nail in the wall!” he laughed. Yash summoned all the courage and told his brother about his intention to direct. “He asked me how I had educated myself for this. I told him that to make films, you needed to study life,” says the director of films such as Dhool Ka Phool, Waqt, Deewaar, Kabhi Kabhie, Trishul, Silsila, Chandni, Lamhe, Darr, Dil To Pagal Hai, Veer Zaara and the forthcoming Jab Tak Hai Jaan.

While BR refused to let Yash assist him, directing him to I.S. Johar instead, he had to ultimately give in to his younger brother’s insistence. However, Yash was made only an apprentice on BR’s sets. “I was no good at even writing lines for the actors! My job was to hand costumes to them, call them for the shoot, ask them for tea, etc,” he confessed.

His first movie Dhool Ka Phool turned out to be a mega success. His second, Dharmputra, met with moderate success, but went on to be critically acclaimed. But it was his third, Waqt, which gave him a large canvas to showcase his skills. After that, he went on to make films such as Itefaq with no songs, no interval and a negative female protagonist, just before summoning the courage to tell his brother he wanted to start his independent production company. “He was open to the idea. But he told me one thing — ‘you have to sign artists on your own and arrange for the finances independently too’. I agreed.” The year 1971 marked the genesis of Yash Raj Films as it stands today.

His first independent film Joshila was made with a lot of help from industry friends. Since then he has always got the most illustrious cast together for his films, but his biggest achievement could arguably be putting together Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan and Rekha in Silsila. “I had my heart set on this cast but couldn’t even think of mentioning it to them. So I had Amitabh, Parveen Babi playing Rekha’s character and Smita Patil playing Jaya’s role. One day Amitabh asked me if I was happy with the cast and when I told him whom I wanted, there was the longest pause,” he revealed.

But, encouraged by Amitabh, Yash offered the film to Rekha and Jaya. “Both were very cooperative and there wasn’t any obstacle.” The only thing he regrets is that he had to inform his original cast they would no longer be part of the film just days before the shoot began. “I didn’t have the heart to face them and had to inform them through friends. While I bumped into Parveen, she told me she was fine, Smita was only hurt I hadn’t told her personally.”

With Dilip Kumar, Yash shared not just a passion for films but for food too! “We used to have endless conversations over chicken. His opening scene in Mashaal, which we shot for four days in rain, is something I can never forget,” he said.

Yash tasted failure in the 1980s but came back with a hardcore romantic film with nine songs when only action was the trump card. Chandni opened to full houses and distributors had to drastically increase the number of theatres. Asked how a traditional man like him could conceptualise subjects that have been radical for their time, Yash said, “I believe you cannot love or be loved just once. That’s because the desire to be loved is always prevalent. Human beings are a complex creation; within one person lies the hero and the villain, they are not different characters. I didn’t want to make bold or statement-making films. I was just exploring relationships,” he said.

Thereafter the fabled Yash Raj heroine also became the most-sought-after character in the film industry. Asked how he manages to make them look ethereally beautiful, Yash said, “I think a woman is the most beautiful creation of God, after Nature..”

Jab Tak Hai Jaan (November 13, Deepavali release) starring Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina and Anushka Sharma is Yashji’s swan song. “My heart has said that now is the time. Now is the time to give back, to help youngsters and to also do some other things besides making films. Let’s do it while I am still young!”