Yash Chopra made many romantic films but he made a lot else. In these films, strong screenplays met pitch-perfect filmmaking that elevated the material.
In the 80th year of his life, after 21 films in a five-decade-long unrivalled career, Yash Chopra shot his last film, Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), in a style that couldn’t have been more contemporary — real locations, intimate camera choreography and a lot more.
Play it side by side with his first film, Dhool Ka Phool (1959), and no one would be able to guess that both were made by the same man.
This evolution wasn’t accidental.
In the more than hundred-year history of Indian cinema, no other director influenced mainstream Hindi filmmaking as much Chopra did. A style he formulated 47 years before his last film, in just his third directorial venture (Waqt), became the template for directors who followed — with Imtiaz Ali and Karan Johar being today’s torchbearers.
But what was this formula? Big stars, pretty clothes (on prettier people), melodious music, evocative lyrics, and a strong theme.
This is the point where everyone writing about him started saying the same thing — that he was the ‘King of Romance’, and later, that he probably lived in the Swiss Alps.
But that’s reducing him to a stereotype. Chopra did make a number of romantic films (8 out of 22), some fairly memorable. However, he made a lot else.
His first two films were social (melo)dramas. His fifth film was a songless thriller (Ittefaq). And those era-defining ‘Angry Young Man’ films? Chopra made four — Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978), Kaala Patthar (1979) and Mashaal (1984) — in nine years. The first three of these can be credited equally, if not more, to writers Salim-Javed. Mashaal, on the other hand, was written only by Javed Akhtar.
In these films, strong screenplays met pitch-perfect filmmaking that elevated the material. Think Kaala Patthar. In a story about so many characters, Chopra managed to uniquely put across all of them. Whether it was Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) raging about his own past, or Mangal Singh (Shatrughan Sinha) and his anger issues, the director didn’t miss a beat. He managed to delineate these two through filmmaking tools, most noticeably composition. The image of Bachchan walking towards the camera while a blast goes off at a coal mine behind him is as crisp today as it was four decades ago.
The idea of ‘glamorous realism’ powered Chopra’s filmmaking. Whether it was Kabhi Kabhie (1976), about a woman’s past in an unequal society, or Silsila (1981), about the complications of marriage, Chopra created living, breathing characters that had complexity. They were not realistic, per se, but they had emotional truth.
It was this truth that resulted in the unmatched commercial success of Chopra, and also the accusation that he always provided easy resolutions to his stories.
Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt once quoted Chopra to say that audiences become more conservative inside a theatre, and so the challenge to that morality must be mounted even more carefully. One could most certainly argue with this artistic principle. But not with the fact that through his entire career, Chopra tackled subjects that were seemingly too radical for mainstream audiences — incest (Lamhe), Partition (Dharmaputra), illegitimate child (Dhool Ka Phool, Trishul) and obsession (Darr).
The music in his films further set him apart from almost all his peers. From Khayyam to R.D. Burman, Ravi to Madan Mohan, Shiv-Hari to Uttam Singh, and even A.R. Rahman, Chopra worked with the best of his times. For lyrics, Chopra mostly trusted Sahir Ludhianvi, who gave him numbers as magical as Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu and Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon.
After the early demise of the stalwart, Chopra turned to Javed Akhtar and Anand Bakshi. In his last film, he even worked with that other legend, Gulzar.
Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Waheeda Rehman, Balraj Sahni, Mala Sinha, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee, Hema Malini, Sridevi, Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif — make what you will of this list, but Chopra worked with them all.
He believed in larger-than-life characters and even bigger stars to play them. He wasn’t one to cast Naseerudin Shah in a low-budget artsy film, for example. (He did, however, work with Manoj Bajpayee in a brief but powerful role in 2004’s Veer Zaara).
Largely, Chopra managed to get all of these stars to turn in memorable performances. His longest and most fruitful collaborations were definitely with Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan, all of whom offered him work they couldn’t replicate with others.
(It’s still difficult, though, to accept the casting of Kaif in his last film.)
It’s said that most of cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar’s batting records exist solely due to the longevity of his career.
Something similar could probably be said of Chopra. He was a storyteller who could tell any story, and his place among India’s great directors can still be argued. But not the fact that he was around for far too long to not impact the film industry.
Even the production house that he started in 1971 to branch out from his elder brother B.R. Chopra has now turned into one of India’s biggest entertainment conglomerates, Yash Raj Films.
In Jab Tak Hai Jaan, a deeply personal tale about faith more than love, Chopra used the trope of ‘The Man Who Cannot Die’. The title was used for an in-film documentary on an Indian Army officer who joins the bomb disposal squad only so that he can die to disprove his lover’s faith.
Chopra died on 21 October, just a month before the release of his last film. And he found some spiritual symmetry in the fact that the incompleteness of his last song, which was to be shot in Switzerland but couldn’t be, was matched by the in-film title of ‘The Man Who Cannot Die’, a picture of him as apt as any.