King of romance, master of the emotion-laden weepie and lover of beautiful people and beautiful locations are some of the terms being showered on Yash Chopra, who died on Sunday. He was all that and more. In his own way, while confecting all those fragrant and chocolatey films set in lovely hill stations and eventually in Switzerland, he also chronicled the lives of the Punjabi refugees who came to India after Partition virtually penniless and became hugely successful contractors, professionals and then, eventually, NRIs.
Chopra’s oeuvre tracks that arc, beginning with the aftermath of Partition and the effect it had on ordinary people to the lifestyles of the rich and famous who live as easily in London and Ludhiana, Jalandhar and New Jersey. At all times, however, they remain Punjabi and that too a certain kind of Punjabi — living life king size, wearing their heart on their sleeves, hosting huge weddings and, sticking to “Indian Traditions” in which the women, pretty and gorgeously dressed, carried designer bags and let the men be men. Though the new generation will identify him with films like Chandni, Dil to Pagal Hai and Veer Zara — all directed by him — and blockbusters like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), directed by his talented son Aditya but with the father’s unmistakable stamp on it, one must look way back into history to really understand the Yash Chopra journey.
Dharamputra (1961), his second film, which was not a box office success, is a good point to start. In it, the protagonist Dilip (Shashi Kapoor) is a fiery young boy fully immersed in RSS culture and determined to send every Muslim to Pakistan. Until the one day he is faced with a terrifying revelation — he may be a Muslim after all. It was a bold film to make, and despite excellent performances and superb songs, it failed to excite the audiences. Perhaps the wounds were too fresh then. In Waqt (1965), Chopra told us the story of Lala Kedarnath, who is proud of his success as a businessman and his three growing sons, is in love with his wife of many years and is a pillar of the community. He loses everything in an earthquake and the family is separated, till everyone unites in the end. It is implicit that the Lala — probably a Peshori (of Peshawar) — was a refugee who created a new life for himself in India. One of the sons becomes a thief, another a driver and a third a lawyer, but all of them are honourable with hearts of gold. This film is an important marker in the emergence of the “modern” Indian of the 1960s, living the good life in the city, going to parties, driving flashy cars and wearing the latest fashions but with his moral compass intact.
The Lala made his appearance again in Aadmi Aur Insaan and Trishul but by then, the next generation had also grown up and turned into rich businessmen or professionals living in large Delhi homes (Kabhie Kabhie).
Inevitably, in the post-1991 reforms, they slipped into an international lifestyle and moved on from Kashmir to Switzerland. That is when Chopra handed over the reins to Aditya, who had the pulse of the younger jet set crowd but understood what the Chopra brand stood for. DDLJ is the quintessential post-liberalisation film, slickly balancing the impulses of consumerism, globalisation and tradition among Punjabi NRIs.
While Chandni, Dil to Pagal Hai and Veer Zara will be cited as examples of Chopra’s grasp of love and romantic angst among the very affluent, his portfolio was much more versatile. He also made remarkable films like Ittefaq and Deewar, the latter being one of the milestone films of Indian cinema. In Deewar, helped by Salim-Javed’s powerful script and an outstanding performance by Amitabh Bachchan, Chopra showed he could also make a spare and taut film with little or no fripperies (to say nothing of foreign locations.)
It is a pity that after Deewar, barring the occasional Trishul and Kaala Pathar, both of which were relatively lacklustre, he plunged full time into the glitzy world of chiffons and pearls. His films were huge hits, but the Yash Chopra who could hold his audience by the scruff of the neck and make them hold their breath was lost.
A whole new Yash Chopra school of filmmaking has now emerged. Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and many more young aspirants are blind followers of that style. They tell well-mounted stories of love and romance on the streets of Manhattan and the peaks of the Alps. But Yash Chopra will always remain the master, because he and his cinema were much more textured and complex.
(Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story.)