By Rauf Ahmed
TOWARDS THE end of the 1990 Filmfare Awards ceremony, whose jury I was part of, Yash Chopra called me aside and said, “Let’s meet one of these days, I need to talk to you.” A few days later, I dropped by his Juhu office. He asked me candidly, “Do you really think Sridevi’s performance in Chaalbaaz was superior to the one in Chandni? I want to know your personal view.” I told him that the jury thought so, and I was in agreement with them. But he looked at it differently, “I accept your jury’s verdict,” he said, “but personally I felt her performance in Chaalbaaz was very gimmicky, whereas in Chandni, she lived the role. She emoted and expressed herself from the heart, which defined her character.” He had his perspective. I didn’t disagree.
Yash always maintained that to be a successful filmmaker in the Indian milieu, “you’ve got to have the ability to feel and the sensitivity to communicate that feeling to your audience”. What validated this conviction was his consistent record of striking a chord with pan-Indian audiences. Today, there are very few Indian filmmakers who have crossed the 10-hit mark. Most have been driven by a tendency to hang on to the formula that gave them the initial hit and create versions of it. But Yash Chopra was never scared of switching genres.
Love and emotions were the bedrock of the cinema Yash believed in. But by harping on his fascination for love, romance and chiffon, we have often undermined his ability to explore new vistas. Yes, he loved to project love. He believed that woman was God’s most beautiful creation after nature. Yet, as a filmmaker, he enjoyed experimenting with diverse subjects. He took everyone by surprise in the ’60s when he made Ittefaq, a slick thriller with newcomer Rajesh Khanna and came up trumps. The film revolved around two strangers, a man and a woman, who find themselves in mysterious circumstances one night. And it had no songs!
Yash’s debut film Dhool Ka Phool (1959) was about the tribulations of an illegitimate child. It conformed to his older brother and mentor BR Chopra’s crusader’s zeal. HisDharmputra (1961) looked at the complex theme of communal divide. The film won him critical acclaim and a National Award, but its failure at the box-office shook Yash badly. To salvage his prestige, he went big with his next film, Waqt (1965), which had an ensemble cast comprising the biggest names of the time such as Balraj Sahni, Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Sharmila Tagore and Sadhana. It was Bollywood’s first multi-starrer and a huge hit.
His estrangement with BR Chopra was as dramatic as his marriage to Pamela Singh, who he’d met at his niece’s wedding a few months ago. Perhaps, Yash needed that kind of freedom to set up his own banner and move out of the rigid system followed by his brother and his team. As an individual too, Yash was very different from his conservative brother, so was his lifestyle.
When Shah Rukh learnt that Aamir was walking out of Darr, he told Yash Chopra, ‘I want to do your film, pay me only if it is a hit’
Yash Raj Films was off to a flying start with the Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore-Raakhee starrer Daag, which gave a temporary respite to Rajesh Khanna, whose career was on the skids. The ’70s saw Yash at his best when he switched genres to prove as he said, “there is nothing like a trend”. He followed up withDeewar (1975), seen as a cult film today, and a “mature love story” Kabhi Kabhie (1976). While filming the latter, many trade experts were puzzled at Yash’s move to cast Amitabh Bachchan — who had a reputation of being an action hero — as an ageing, brooding poet, whose romantic past catches up with him. But he stuck to his guns and won the battle hands down. With three thematically different films — Daag, Deewar and Kabhi Kabhie — turning blockbusters in quick succession, he proved that ‘trends’ do not matter. “A well-told story seldom goes wrong if it has the power to strike a chord with the viewers,” he said.
After being on a high for almost two decades, he hit a bad patch in the ’80s. The failure of Silsila (1981) seemed to dampen his spirits for a while, but he fought his way back with Chandni (1989).
Yash’s ability to interact with the younger generation on the same plane kept him in tune with the times. When his son Aditya assisted him during the making of Chandni, he was only 17. With him came his friends like Karan Johar. Together, they lent a youthful flavour to cinema. Darr saw the entry of a new generation actor, Shah Rukh Khan, into the Chopra fold.
It’s interesting how Shah Rukh walked into the project. When he heard that the original choice, Aamir Khan, had a problem with the script and was about to walk out, he threw his hat in. “I want to do your film, pay me only if the film is a hit,” he told Yash. Darr was a huge hit, and ever since Shah Rukh has played the lead in all the three films directed by Yash after Darr, including the swansong we’re all waiting for now, Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Though Yash couldn’t shoot the final song of his film, I’m certain Adi Chopra and Shah Rukh will do their best to recreate his magic. It’s an important film for all of us because it was important to him.
I never thought of Yash as an old man. Even when I met him last at Amitabh Bachchan’s birthday celebrations, he looked exactly like his ever-smiling, dapper self. “You are like your movies, Yash,” I had joked, “you never look dated.”
Ahmed is a senior film journalist