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B.R. Chopra — the man who shaped our Sunday mornings with Mahabharat

B.R. Chopra had the rare quality of making movies with socially relevant issues while still catering to popular tastes.

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New Delhi: For many Indian millenials, Sunday mornings were synonymous with the entire family sitting in front of the television to watch Mahabharat.

During its broadcast, all streets and markets would wear a deserted look. Mahabharat, with its detailed and rich storytelling, went on to become one of the most successful adaptations of an epic in Indian television history.

But, not many know the story of B.R. Chopra, the man behind the iconic show.

ThePrint recounts B.R. Chopra’s life, career and films.

Early life

Born in undivided Punjab in 1914, Baldev Raj Chopra took the road less travelled and pursued a career as a film critic, writing for Lahore’s Cine Herald. After Partition, he moved to Mumbai and made his foray into films as a director. His family put all their savings into his first film Karwat (1949), which unfortunately bombed at the box office, rendering Chopra family bankrupt and forcing B.R. Chopra to return to journalism.

He, however, kept his dreams of filmmaking alive, and managed to collect funds for his next film Afsana in 1951, which was a huge hit.

Chopra delivered yet another hit movie Chandni Chowk in 1954 and this led him to set up his own production house. He would then go on to make films that would define Hindi cinema in the 1960’s and 70’s.

The most striking factor about Chopra’s films was that most of them dealt with socially relevant issues — from widow remarriage to sex workers to inter-faith love — he showed it all.

Chopra, by and large, shied away from casting big stars in his movies, and instead went with unknown faces such as Amol Palekar (when he had just started out) and even preferred singer Mahendra Kapoor to Mohammed Rafi. This going-against-the-grain formula magically worked for Chopra as the audiences flocked to the theatres to watch his films.

Although Chopra took a step back from directing movies in the 1990’s, he continued producing films from then to 2000s — Baghban (2003), Baabul (2006), and Bhoothnath (2008).

He also helped his brother, Yash Chopra, by giving him the opportunity to work as an assistant director and encouraged him to set up his own production company, which is now an immensely successful Bollywood empire.

B.R. Chopra passed away at the age of 94 in 2008, leaving behind a huge legacy.

ThePrint takes a look at some of the films that defined Chopra much like his Mahabharat.

1.   Naya Daur (1957)

One of his most memorable films, Naya Daur, made Chopra a household name.

A man versus machine tale, the story was simple but resonated with the audience — a tongawala (horse-cart driver) played by Dilip Kumar takes on the big, bad ‘corporate’ who wants to bring in bus services to the town and render tongawalas jobless.

Vyjayanthimala plays Dilip Kumar’s love interest in the movie. The movie catapulted both the lead actors to instant fame. Filmfare’s review puts it best: “A powerful and vibrantly gripping picture, B.R. Films’ Naya Daur is a distinctly successful combination of pertinent social education and moral and top-rate entertainment.”

2. Sadhna (1958)

A film way ahead of its time, Sadhna dealt with the perception of sex workers in India. The story followed a young Guru Dutt, who falls in love with Vyjayanthimala not knowing that she was a prostitute. The film shows the stigma attached to sex workers and how women are exploited by the society. It won accolades, including the Filmfare’s Best Film of the Year. The film also enthralled the audience with its songs like Aaj Kyon Humse Parda sung by Mohammed Rafi.

3. Kanoon (1960)

A legal drama, Kanoon dealt with the debate around capital punishment. It threw light on the immense power the judiciary holds over people’s lives with the death sentence, especially, as the film’s plot shows, when the sentencing depends on people’s testimonials, which can easily be influenced and changed. It was also one of the first few Hindi films that did not have any songs, and yet was a huge hit. Starring Rajendra Kumar and Ashok Kumar, the film firmly established Chopra’s position as an eminent filmmaker in the 1960s, and even won him a Filmfare Best Director award.

4. Gumrah (1963)

Another bold film for its time, Gumrah explored the theme of extramarital affairs through the eyes of a woman. Mala Sinha played the role of a woman who was forced into a marriage, and decided to rekindle her affair with her former lover, played by Sunil Dutt. The film became a huge talking point at that time, as it revealed the grey areas of love, marriage, and the roles men and women hold in them. Mahendra Kapoor became a household name with songs from the film like Aa Bhi Ja and Chalo Ek Baar Phir Se.

5. Waqt (1965)

Chopra created one of the Bollywood’s first multi-starrers. Casting big faces like Raaj Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Sharmila Tagore, Shashi Kapoor, Sunil Dutt, and Sadhna, Chopra delivered a blockbuster. The story was the classic Bollywood formula of an estranged family reuniting after many trials and tribulations. It captured the imagination of Indian audiences so well that even the British Film Institute considered making it one of its top 10 Indian films. The music, too, contributed to the film’s success with songs like Aye Meri Zohra Jabeen and Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu, which are popular even today.

6. Ittefaq (1969)

A suspense thriller with no songs, this film was a pure entertainer. It didn’t do as well at the box office as Chopra’s other films, but it showed his versatility as a filmmaker. The film was remade in 2017, with the same plot, and still managed to enthrall audiences.

7. Chhoti Si Baat (1976)

Chopra made his foray into romantic comedies with this film, which became a box office hit. It starred Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha, and proved to be the launch pad for Palekar as a comic actor. It was also one of the first Bollywood films to have celebrity cameos with bigwigs such as Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan featuring in it. Its songs Jaaneman Jaaneman Tere Do Nayan and Yeh Din Kyaa Aaye were also huge hits.

8. Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978)

This film dealt with the subject of extramarital affairs through the lens of comedy. It follows a happily married man (Sanjeev Kumar), who upon becoming successful gets into an affair with his secretary (Ranjeeta Kaur). One of the songs from the movie Thande Thande Paani Se Nahana became so famous that it went on to inspire many parodies and TV advertisements, and is popular even today.

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  1. Well written article, however I wish to point out that Gumrah released in 1963 had Sunil Dutt as the lead along with Ashok Kumar. In the article above the writer has mentioned Guru Dutt . You may like to correct the same.

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