Writing Yash Chopra

"BOLLYWOOD", as Indian cinema is now known in the United Kingdom, for better or for worse, has been a hot topic this year. A series of events associated with Hindi cinema led to this being called an Indian summer. Several books connected with Indian cinema were published in the U.K., ranging from lavishly illustrated coffee table books, to travel accounts loosely about movie stars or the cinema industry to academic studies. The latter included my own book about Yash Chopra, which appeared in the U.K. in the British Film Institute's series "World Directors", alongside directors including Youssef Chahine, Jane Campion, and Shyam Benegal. Some people were surprised that the Hindi film should be taken so seriously but, in fact, this reflects the way that it entered the film studies curriculum in the western academy. It is around 15 years since Arjun Appadurai, currently a Professor at Yale University, began a major study of public culture focusing on the global or transnational flows of media and migration.

"Public" is used in favour of terms such as "popular", "mass" and so on as it avoids notions of hierarchy and creates a zone of cultural debate. When Christopher Pinney and I organised a conference on Indian public culture in 1995, we found a growing interest in popular or commercial film. The study of this cinema in the western academy has a short history, with the occasional book or article (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy, Rosie Thomas) until the 1990s when a new generation of Indian scholars (Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ravi Vasudevan, Madhava Prasad) produced a new corpus of writing on this topic. Their work, on the most "commercial" cinema was grounded in the discipline of film studies, and was highly theorised in its academic language, making it inaccessible to those unfamiliar with its terms.

Film studies, from its inception in the 1960s, took commercial Hollywood cinema seriously, so it was not surprising that these approaches were brought to the commercial Indian cinema in turn. It was on my first foray into the Bombay film world for my research on romance in my book All You Want is Money, All You Need is Love that I decided to meet Yash Chopra. I first wrote to him in March 1996 requesting a meeting: he did not reply. When in Bombay, I called and, since he kept an open office at that time, he agreed to meet me for an hour.

In the flesh, Yash Chopra did not fit with the image I had of him from his films or from the gossip magazines. Instead, he seemed more of a businessman, a producer, ensconced in a palatial office. He was polite, but seemed a completely different person from the persona ascribed to him in popular imagination. Correct, quiet and thoughtful, it was hard to believe that this was the "king of romance".

We met again that summer in Leicester Square, then I returned to Bombay in February 1997 with a research project in mind, but he remained entirely the businessman, always making and taking telephone calls, giving little attention to what I thought were important conversations. I was very disappointed, and began to abandon my idea of a book about him. It was only when I accompanied him to his film sets that I saw an altogether different person, a high-spirited, hard-working creative filmmaker, interacting with his stars and staff. We continued in this vein for four months, our only non-work conversations being about food and other films. Subsequently we have had many further meetings in the U.K. and in Bombay, while staying in touch via fax and phone.

In his words, we are now like family.

While some may feel this takes me too close to my subject, writing a book about someone one disliked would be a very perverse activity.

Moreover, he has declined to read my work and has made no attempt whatsoever to influence it. Another surprise, to me at least, was the total absence of Bombay "sleaze" on his sets, in his office or at film functions. When I referred to this at my recent book launch, Sharukh Khan said that he would show me Bombay sleaze the next time I hit town.

I'm still waiting. The key question my book asks is: who is Yash Chopra? I see not one, but several Yash Chopras. One is the professional and public person, the filmmaker-director, producer, storywriter, the person who has created the "Yash Chopra" film, image, story, lifestyle etc. In writing about this Yash Chopra, I need to tie together the person with the creative work — or the labour and economic activities. This is a multiple story, about the interaction of Yash Chopra the person with external forces and people. It is largely based on interviews with him and his colleagues, but also on external sources such as trade and gossip magazines. In these contexts, I consider the idea of the "auteur" in the context of Hindi filmmaking.

The second context is of the Yash Chopra in the film texts themselves, where I consider how he depicts "lives" on screen and how he draws on his own experiences to create what he calls "glamorous realism". This does not imply that I find the texts autobiographical; but they are nonetheless important as revealing much about one or more Yash Chopras.

Thirdly, there is Yash Chopra the private person, whom I have got to know in a range of situations. I intended in the book to tie these various Yash Chopras together to give some wider portrait of the person and the films, while structuring my narrative chronologically around his cinematic output. How does one connect the quiet man and the boisterous Punjabi, the devoted family man, the great romantic, the hardheaded businessman? What has driven him to take great risks and to achieve such success? I found this book unusually difficult to write. I continue to find Yash Chopra elusive and changing both in terms of his filmmaking and in the broad range of personas he adopts in his public and private life.

Compounding these problems, there is a scarcity of primary documentation and an absence of a critical discourse around figures in the Hindi film industry. I have tried to deal with these concerns in writing this book, but am aware that some of my findings remain preliminary and somewhat inconclusive.

Nevertheless, I hope that my book will lay a foundation for further discussions around the many topics that it raises, in however unpolished a form.

Rachel Dwyer teaches at the University of London. She has recently co-authored the book Cinema India. She is working on One Hundred Best Hindi Films.

Recommended for you