Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The man who built Bollywood”

Posted on October 26, 2012


That Yash Chopra left behind a legacy was never in question. But just what, exactly, is that legacy?

The most shocking aspect of Yash Chopra’s demise may be the reminder that the mightiest of titans can be felled by a mosquito. No number of PSAs about dengue could possibly drag the disease into the public spotlight like this news did, especially in a culture where celebrity is everything. Here we were, thinking that only the poorest of the poor, with unhygienic water-storage vessels harbouring unhatched mosquito eggs, were in danger, while one of the richest men in the country was quietly whittled away by the disease. The second most shocking aspect of Yash Chopra’s demise is how uninformed television anchors were about the career of one of our most famous filmmakers. One of them announced that waiting on the phone was the actor Tanuja, who’s “worked with Yash Chopra in a number of films,” and who will now share some of those memories. An embarrassing moment turned more so when a bewildered Tanuja, stifling tears, said that she’d never worked with Chopra, but they’d been friends for a long time.

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Then, of course, there were the clichés about what great music his films had. Yash Chopra’s cinema is certainly filled with popular and pleasant music. There is, for instance, the infectious Ladki hai ya shola, from Silsila, which is electrified by the chemistry between Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha. Then there’s the lovely Aao manayein jashn-e-mohabbat from Doosara Aadmi, a film that Chopra produced but did not direct, though its themes of reincarnated love he would pursue in Lamhe, more than a decade later. But for my money, the only truly great album he got was Joshila, though this may be more due to star Dev Anand’s luck with music and RD Burman’s unimpeachable form in the early 1970s. What a fantastic soundtrack this is, ranging from the deeply affecting Kiska rasta dekhein to the impish Kuch bhi kar lo to the seductive Sharmana yoon to the stunning jazz-cabaret stylings of Kaanp rahi main, which, somehow, never gets mentioned in the same breath as Burman’s other cabaret classics like Aaj ki raat and Mera naam hai Shabnam.

The rest of the time, Chopra got the occasional great song – Mere dil mein aaj kya hai (Daag) or Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon (Kabhi Kabhie) – but never a consistently great music album. This is a little puzzling, considering his reputation as the “king of romance.” Do you remember any of the numbers from Chandni or Lamhe or Veer-Zaara? Well, of course you remember them, in the sense that you can recall them, but are they memorable today? Seen a different way, the albums that Chopra got were similar to the films he made, where we recall many of them, and find standout moments once in a while, filled with stunning poetry and superbly crafted dialogue, but very few of these films are memorable from start to finish. The films that are, strangely, are the ones that, from today’s vantage, seem least Chopra-like: Deewar, Trishul, Kaala Paththar, and to a lesser extent, Mashaal. All of these are what have come to be known as Angry Young Man movies, and all were written by Salim-Javed (except Mashaal, which was written by Javed Akhtar, but which still carried the scent of the earlier collaboration).

These screenplays are so taut, so stunningly loaded with high points, that the director’s work, essentially, is reduced to that of a sincere craftsman, who knows when not to impose his own vision on top of something that is working so well. It would be fascinating to find out what, other than traffic management, was Chopra’s contribution to these films, where he comes off as a gun for hire, a journeyman director. And the films where we do see Chopra’s vision – the romantic films, broadly, with the exception of early social melodramas like Dhool ka Phool – are the ones where he took incendiary themes, all based on various facets of love, and went about resolving them in the safest possible manner, thus giving the audience the frisson of watching something subversive when there was nothing beyond the theme that really upset the status quo. Once we process the shock of a young girl pining for the man who loved her mother (in Lamhe) or the couple who flaunt their adultery in the faces of their faithful spouses (in Silsila), we are left with deeply conventional stories, deeply conventional storytelling.

This is not to knock Yash Chopra. No one whose career lasted this long can be dismissed, and certainly not someone whose legacy is so widely felt. I’m simply wondering what, exactly, this legacy is – and in my view, it’s that Yash Chopra was the man who transformed mainstream Hindi cinema, that equivalent of a lovable but slovenly uncle who scratched his armpits in front of your friends, into super-slick Bollywood, which you could claim, without embarrassment and across the world, as your own. The pretty people in prettier clothes. The lavish lifestyles in foreign countries (or, at least, mimicking those fashions while staying here). The shaping of complex conflicts in a manner that doesn’t make audiences squirm. The fashioning of “Indian values” into a primordial voice that rang across oceans and wrung tears from expatriates. It’s a style that still survives – you only have to look at Karan Johar’s Student of the Year. Meanwhile, the fingerprints of Chopra’s peers – Hrishikesh Mukherjee, for instance – have been wiped clean from our screens. To envision this template in only one’s third film, Waqt, made in 1965, is no small achievement. Five decades on, Yash Chopra’s brand of cinema shows no signs of dying.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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