The Yash ‘Raj’
Possibly the most powerful person in the contemporary Hindi commercial film industry, Yash Chopra was a leading figure in the movie business as a director and producer, an “icon of Indian cinema,” as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it, who “established the popularity of Indian cinema internationally and was honoured by many governments.” Chopra owned one of the industry’s biggest production houses and studios, Yash Raj Films, which recently ventured into Hollywood movie production as well. His career spanned over five decades and over 50 films. He won several film awards, including six National Film Awards, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2001, the Padma Bhushan in 2005 for his contribution to Indian cinema and the BAFTA lifetime membership for his contribution to the films, the first Indian to receive this honour.
More tellingly, his name is irretrievably linked in our consciousness with a certain style of romance, glamour and beauty. A ‘Yash Chopra wedding’ or a ‘Yash Chopra outfit’, for instance, needs not another word of definition, as does a ‘Yash Chopra film’!
While the Chopra family wanted him to become an engineer, Yash knew the calling of his heart – he simply wanted to make films. Starting off as assistant director to I.S. Johar and his elder brother, B.R. Chopra, he made his directorial debut with DHOOL KA PHOOL in 1959. This saga of illegitimacy was followed by the social drama DHARMPUTRA in 1961. The Chopra brothers made several more movies together in these decades, with Yash garnering considerable attention for WAQT (1965), which achieved both commercial and critical success.
After 20 eventful years, the Chopra brothers parted ways in 1971, leaving “a void in the house,” as BR put it. “Now he is too busy… I don’t want to interfere. If he wants me, I’m there; if he doesn’t, I don’t. Yash and I are brothers,” he had recalled.
Yash himself was known to get very emotional at a movie in which two brothers quarrel. “I respect BR very much,” he said. “I feel my existence is because of him. He brought me up. I behaved badly.” Despite the separation of the two movie banners, the brothers have never spoken against each other. BR and his wife attended the premiere of Yash’s first production in 1973 and they would come together at family weddings. Separating was a step Yash probably had to take to be his own person, run his own concern and follow his own destiny…Especially since he was still on a salary, never becoming a partner in his brother’s company. Incidentally, Yash’s own children are said to have equal rights in Yash Raj Films.
While being fortunate enough to escape relatively unscathed from the horrors of Partition, Chopra never quite forgot its gruesomeness… “I remember riots breaking out in Jalandhar in 1946. I remember everything. I remember seeing killings, looting, burning – so much killing, the whole of a train being butchered. During the riots, there were bodies everywhere. There was a strange fever against the other community. If there had been no Partition, no politics, the industry would have been much richer in music, writers.” Food for thought, there…
Rajah Of Romance
Chopra, who thrilled fans with actioners such as TRISHUL and DEEWAR, which stamped Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ image, was a romantic at heart. He changed the face of romance in Hindi cinema to become a brand in the Hindi film industry, with romantic hits such as KABHIE KABHIE, SILSILA, CHANDNI and DIL TO PAGAL HAI in his five-decade long illustrious career. However, if he is credited with ending the wave of violent films with CHANDNI (1989), he swung to the other extreme, directing the ‘anti-hero’ trend-setter, DARR (1993) starring Shah Rukh Khan.
Chopra’s films showed a belief in the force of destiny or fate, in particular, in love, where the couple is made for one another. Most of the films are set around the key moments of love and romance. Throughout the films, the clear message is that love and fun are located in family and in relationships.
‘Family, films and food’ was his motto. Chopra’s absolute priority was his nuclear family, his wife Pamela and his two sons, Aditya and Uday. He was not a demonstrative person and his relations with them could appear formal to an outsider, yet it is clear that there was a great deal of communication between them all. Yash rarely spoke about Pam in public, as is traditional, but said she had always been the ideal wife… She apparently organised the whole of Yash’s life from what he wore to what he ate. “I have a maximum of half a dozen friends after all this time in this field. I feel happy if my friends come home. I also like poetry. When I’m alone, I like to write, then tear it up. Then I feel on top of the world,” he averred.
The Punjabification of Hindi films, a strong and still constant feature of films today, can be largely attributed to Chopra, who was a staunch proponent. “Punjabi? I’m proud of being Punjabi. I know its culture or atmosphere better than any other. Its culture is great, its music mind-blowing; romance, passion and beat are there. Punjabis have few inhibitions. Boys and girls from good families didn’t come into films; Punjabis were the first to shed barriers: Kamini Kaushal, Prithviraj Kapoor, K L Saigal. Punjabis are very enterprising. They don’t need much.”
Yash Chopra was responsible for much of the look of his heroines, although he sometimes needed persuasion to change. Sadhana remembers, “Yash knew exactly what kind of a hairstyle he wanted, what kind of dress he wanted. He made all the decisions soon after starting WAQT (1965) I said to Yash, ‘Why don’t we create a different style of dressing with churidar and kurta, not salwar?’ He said, ‘No, it’s a very Muslim concept.’ He refused. I had a costume designer for my personal use. She made me a white churidar and a sleeveless kurta with gold embroidery. I wore it and he smiled, ‘That looks stunning,’ he said, ‘Only churidars in my films!’ And thus started off a whole churidar trend with WAQT!
The poor didn’t really people Yash Chopra’s films and he was not apologetic about it. He was indeed proud of his lavish aesthetic. “It’s not a crime to be rich. For romance and complex emotions, it’s better to appear rich. We follow trends and we set them.”
Big brother BR had declared that he’d wanted Yash “to marry very early but he had some affairs which did not fructify”. Obviously, as a young, successful director Yash had been linked to many of his stars, in particular Nanda, Sadhana and Mumtaz… However, he remained an eligible bachelor into his late thirties, driving around the city in a red sports car, with a circle of male friends including Shashi Kapoor and Deven Verma, who were reputed to be ladykillers. He met Pamela Singh for the first time at the music function of his nephew Ravi Chopra’s wedding, where she sang. Her singing is said to have won him over and they married in 1970. “There are moments which change life completely. In your heart you say, ‘yaar, now too much, let me settle down.’”
Yash was very anxious about the release of DAAG, his first independent film, as he felt that if it flopped people would say he had only ridden on his brother BR’s success. With this in mind, he launched a publicity campaign of trailers and advertisements. One read: ‘Three wonderful people and three wonderful words… ‘I love you’. Yash Raj Films’ DAAG, a poem of love.’ Another proclaimed, ‘Love is not a moment… Love is a lifetime. DAAG – a poem of love’. The film, a melodrama about a polygamous man, was welcomed resoundingly at the box office.
Years later, the same canny thinking led to Yash Raj Films bringing in MBAs, financiers and marketing executives, creating joint ventures and setting up offices in New York, London, and Dubai. As Siddharth Roy Kapur, MD, DisneyUTV puts it, “He set up the true-blue studio model.”
A complete product of his times, Chopra was never afraid of showing his soft side. “Emotion is so important,” he declared. “I am emotional. I cry in movies, also in life. Films should produce an effect, cry for catharsis, to feel lighter, a relief. This new generation is not emotional, very confident. Our generation, we’re emotional fools. This is not a bad thing. Sad songs are not used now. We used to have better lyrics in a sad song – silent, slow things, about the moon. Now people have been to the moon and they know it’s not beautiful. Today it’s all about speed.”
Chopra spelt out his craft simply and effectively, saying “When I’m making films I think of story and screenplay. I close my eyes and see the whole film before me. Then I start adding colours. This scene, I’d like to do like this. I don’t know any art. I have to be the centre figure where artists converge. I don’t know where ideas come from. The subconscious?”
Clearly not the kind to rest on his laurels, Chopra always maintained that he wanted to die with his boots on. “Sometimes, I think we have relations with everyone but ourselves. We need moments of solitude, to do something for ourselves. Have I been happy? Am I capable of making good movies now? I think I should have done something more significant and memorable. I would like to write something beautiful, to sing. I should have done some better work, even in direction. I am not content. I am not satisfied…but I have no regrets. God is very kind to me.”
(Excerpted in part from Rachel Dwyer’s ‘Yash Chopra – Fifty Years In Indian Cinema’)