Yash Chopra pushed the boundaries of socially acceptable romance to incite riveting debates on love.
Legendary filmmaker Yash Chopra is touted as the pioneer of contemporary romance dramas in Hindi cinema, a template later adopted most significantly by his son Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Imtiaz Ali. Chopra, along with brother BR Chopra, is credited to helming some of the most commercially successful Hindi romance films, that include Chandi, Lamhe and Veer Zaara, among others. He was also the ‘star-maker’. From Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, Chopra’s heroes were not just celebrated on the celluloid, they acquired a demi-god status among fans.
Here’s looking at the cinematic legacy that the man has left behind.
The late 70s- early 80s saw Chopra delivering one hit after another, led by Amitabh Bachchan. Both Deewaar and Trishul were predominantly family action movies — Deewaar (1975) and Trishul (1978) and were instrumental in the creation of Bachchan’s angry young man image. Chopra’s films were predominantly multi-starrers and the director is often credited to steer the first-ever true multi-starrer as early as 1965, with Waqt.
The turn of the decade saw Chopra shifting his focus to romance musical sagas. He continued with casting multiple A-listers together in one film. In 1976, he helmed Kabhie Kabhie, starring Bachchan, Raakhee, Shashi Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Kapoor. Spanning over two decades, the film explored the complexities of love within the familiar turf of familial objection. It starred Bachchan and Rakhee as star-crossed lovers whose paths keep crossing through the years, until one day their children fall in love.
This was the first of many radical romantic themes that he was to tackle in his later movies, including adultery in Silsila(1981), incest in Lamhe (1991), and obsession in Darr (1993). However, Chopra ensured that his films were packaged as palatable nuggets with stunning locations, pretty protagonists and a soundtrack with immense recall value to guarantee footfalls in theatres.
Chopra nuanced understanding of romance found a bolder expression five years after Kabhie Kabhie, when he directed Silsila. The film, starring Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan and Rekha, spoke of clandestine romances and adultery at a time the family unit was increasingly becoming a norm in Bollywood films. Further, there was almost a voyeuristic pleasure the audience felt to watch the three A-listers come together even as gossip columns overflowed with speculations around their interpersonal equation. Despite the audacious premise, Silsila failed to toe the line between the make-belief narrative and the parallel real-life one, making audiences too queasy for comfort. The film failed to make a fortune at the ticketing booths.
What remained in public memory was the lilting music composed by music director duo Shivkumar Sharma, a Santoor player, and Hariprasad Chaurasia, a flautist, who were fondly known as Shiv-Hari. The sprawling tulip gardens of Holland and the streams of Kashmir were visually decadent. The film’s heroines were presented as desirable women who could sing the most mellifluous tunes in the Switzerland countryside while being clad in chiffon sarees. But beyond their physical appearance, Chandni (played by Rekha) was shown as a woman who did not shy away from voicing her desires. She was a woman with agency and choice, characteristic features not exhibited by other mainstream Hindi cinema female characters at the time.
Although Silsila was a box office failure, this love triangle plot was again used in Chandni (1990), which went on to become a blockbuster. It is interesting to note that the first Indian movie shot in Switzerland was Sangam (1964), and few years later, An Evening in Paris darted in and out of the Swiss Alps for its song sequences. But it was Chandni (1990) that simultaneously globalised Indian cinema by situating the protagonists in an aspirational overseas landscape for a significant duration in the movie, as well as localised Switzerland as the paradise of lovers, a location that is generously used in subsequent films of similar tenor.
"Many of Chopra's films featured Switzerland as a backdrop and he is credited with boosting the popularity of the Alpine nation among Indian tourists,” Switzerland authorities had said in 2018. Indeed, the filmmaker was so influential in glocalising Switzerland that the Swiss government erected a bronze statue of the filmmaker in Interlaken in 2016 and also officially named him the ambassador of the place.
Although the decade had had in occasional bursts romantic movies, it was the release and the reception of Chandni that effectively shifted the audience’s focus from high-octane action flicks to reinstate the romantic musicals. Moreover, Sridevi as the titular Chandni came to be known as one of Chopra’s most iconic creations. Adorned in chiffon sarees with hair let loose against sweeping gusts of wind, Chandni was the epitome of glamour and insurmountable beauty. The same year, she also starred in Chalbaaz in double roles. Both the films were instrumental in establishing Sridevi not just as a bankable actor, but a megastar who could bring in the audience and shoulder the weight of a mainstream movie.
Sridevi’s association with Chopra continued with Lamhe (1992), another film that pushed the envelope in terms of conventional romantic relationships. Sridevi played a woman who falls in love with a man (Anil Kapoor) who was her mother’s (also played by Sridevi) paramour. Unfortunately, neither the Anil Kapoor- Sridevi pairing, nor the film’s unflinching stance on unconventional love could draw audiences to the theatres in India. Critically though, the film was hailed for its bold stance about love surpassing all socially acceptable bindings. It is also one of the few films that claimed a Filmfare award after being a passable commercial venture.
By the time Dil Toh Paagal Hai (1997) released in theatres, the audience was well aware of what to expect out of it. This was, again, a love triangle, and starred three of the most recognisable faces in Bollywood films at the time — Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Karisma Kapoor with a special appearance from Akshay Kumar. The film ushered in a new age of Hindi film heroines — like Kajol in Gupt and Juhi Chawla in Ishq — those that were not relegated to the sidelines but were as much a part of the central conflict as the heroes. In Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Madhuri Dixit’s Pooja leaves her suitor to follow her heart, and her passion for dance.
Chopra returned to the director’s seat years later with Veer Zaara, another blockbuster romantic drama with music and poetry at the forefront. Although released in 2004, the cross-border romance was a cinematic throwback to Chopra’s larger-than-life, all-consuming dramas of the preceding decades. Reports suggest that Chopra instructed his cinematographer Anil Mehta to capture the frames in a sepia tone, in order to make them appear dated visually.
Besides Madan Mohan’s music and the epic scale of the drama, scholars noted Chopra’s sensitive handling of Indo-Pak relations, especially since Gadar, which was also released during the same time, had come under the scanner for vilifying Pakistan and pushing a nationalistic agenda forward. The film was so impactful that a trail bus was started in 2005, which was to ply between Amritsar and Lahore.
His final film — Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) — is perhaps cinematically Chopra’s least radical work. Instead of focusing on interpersonal relations, the film tried to incite a conversation around the similarities between blind faith and love, but the film slipped into cheesiness instead. The clichés that Chopra’s illustrious career boasts of aplenty, are all in the film in heavy doses without the anchor of realistic characters. Indeed, while Chopra was vehement in making his films glossy and commercially viable, which earned him the moniker of the Dream Merchant, they were rooted in reality.
Chopra’s swansong was not his best film by any stretch of the imagination. But his love for the lush, breathtaking locations and big-budget extravaganza has institutionalised a form of aspiration cinema that defines how Bollywood is consumed in the country and globally.