LITERARY REVIEW

Memories of romance

THE 1970s: what a decade for Indian cinema! Moviegoers thought they had died and gone to Bollywood heaven. As a child pulled along to see every new Amitabh picture by a movie-crazy family, I was bound to fall in love with films myself. We were children, and the movies seemed terribly grown-up; nevertheless, we got goosebumps just watching Amitabh grow up in "Deewar".

After seeing "Sholay" at the new drive-in, everyone was asking, throatily, "Kitne aadmi the?" If, with its Sippy-meets-Sergio Leone thrills and spaghetti-western cadences, "Sholay" was a life event, so was Yash Chopra's "Deewar", showing the seamy underbelly of Bombay, with the Law and the lawless confronting each other within one family. And with Shashi Kapoor (has there ever been a handsomer man in the movies?) confronting Amitabh Bachchan and replying, tersely: "Mere paas Ma hai." We grew up watching Amitabh grow up.

We watched him fight for justice, and we saw him break the law. We watched him polish shoes, fall in love, write poems, watch his love get married to someone else — and still go on loving her, and get drunk on bhang, and sing about it.

We hummed along sadly with songs that were songs, when the camera moved unhurriedly, not only among trees and mountains but also across Rakhee's face as she sang Amitabh's poem "Kabhi Kabhie" to Shashi Kapoor on their wedding night.

That was how the camera moved in those days, when songs were Sahir Ludhianvi poems set to music — and not merely the inelegant grunts and thrusts of a hundred extras doing P.T. on the screen. And that is why, to an unabashed nostalgia-tripper like me, Rachel Dwyer's book on Yash Chopra is a welcome treat. It brings back memories of romance, of Shashi Kapoor gently touching Rakhee's face on the wedding night in "Kabhi Kabhie", of a bhang-inebriated Amitabh playing Holi in "Silsila", of Sridevi dancing and whirling in "Lamhe". Never mind the windmills and the tulips: the dil, as Dwyer says, is totally Hindustani. Dwyer has been a long-time fan of Indian cinema. Diligently and with enthusiasm, she traces the career of the filmmaker across five decades, from his middle-class Punjabi Hindu Khatri roots, all the way to his decision, in "Dil To Pagal Hai" (1997), at the end of the 20th Century, to modernise the "look".

"No saris", designer Manish Malhotra is told when he is given a budget of up to Rs. 25,000 per dress for Madhuri's clothes.

Dwyer has built the book loosely around a series of interviews with the filmmaker, calling him neither Chopra nor "Yashji", as the rest of the industry worships him, but just Yash. Her tone is affectionate and unironic, rather than dryly academic, and the grammar, wherever she quotes him, is untouched. She quotes the filmmaker speaking straight from the heart: "It's not a crime to be rich. The upper classes behave better. For romance and complex emotions, it's better to appear rich."

But the lifestyles of the rich and beautiful — the Manish Malhotra designs, Karisma's gym leotards, and Jaya's transformation from cotton-sari wearing middle-class heroine to chiffon-swathed Bombay wife are less interesting than the emotional roller-coaster rides of Chopra's films. From Chopra's Amitabh period to his Anil Kapoor period, and finally to his Shahrukh Khan phase (while he has cast other actors, these have been the biggest names), Dwyer describes how he has always been able to get powerful emotional performances from his actors. Of course, each film always stops short of being great — the plot is often illogical or contrived, revolving around the romantic entanglements of the very rich, and, most importantly, shying off from exploring what Javed Akhtar has called the "new morality".

But as sheer visual celebration, as song and dance and sheer entertainment — in short, as quintessential Bollywood, a Yash Chopra film is almost always paisa-vasool. Reading about him and the films he has made is like reading a part-history of Bollywood cinema itself, from the triangular family melodramas to the NRI-targeted teenybopper romances of today and of how the Yash Chopra film has managed the transition smoothly. From the early days, with "Dhool Ka Phool" and "Daag", through the 1970s melodramas, "Deewar" and "Kabhi Kabhie", to the 1990s mega-hits, "Darr" and "Dil To Pagal Hai", it has been a long and eventful journey. Chopra has, after all, left a huge stamp on Hindi movies, so much so that even a Karan Johar extravaganza, from "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" to "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham", is visually more Yash Chopra than Chopra himself! Dwyer's book contributes to charting this journey.

Does the world need a book about Yash Chopra? Why ever not, especially when it can take us back to our childhood memories of film-going, and of falling in love — with the movies.

Yash Chopra: Fifty Years in Indian Cinema, Rachel Dwyer, Lotus/ Roli Books, 2002, p.256, Rs. 450.

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