Friday, April 9, 2010

Under Scrutiny: Yash Chopra

Yash Chopra is often known as the King of Romance; the man who single-handedly sold Switzerland to desis and Hindi movies to videsis. But one often forgets that there is a lot more to Yash Chopra’s repertoire than just great romances. In a career spanning 5 decades, he has dabbled successfully with family sagas, dramas, action films and even thrillers. He has experimented and taken chances with his movies. While some have been successful, others not so much. However, his repertoire firmly places him amongst the finest filmmakers of this country.

Yash Chopra’s career took off in a big way with his third feature, the highly successful Waqt. While this film was a very typical masala movie with dollops of action, drama and emotions, there were certain aspects of his style that were visible even then which would later form an integral part of his films. First, the music was excellent and that has been true of just about every movie of Yash Chopra. Songs like Ae Meri Zohra Jabi and Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu are immensely popular even today. Second, his movies almost always carried a distinct elegance, style and opulence and Waqt was no exception. He always seemed most comfortable in depicting the upper middle class and elite (often Punjabi) sections of the society and that has been common to nearly all his films. Also, right from his early films, like this one, he seemed to be remarkably comfortable with big, all star casts. He had the knack to extract wonderful performances from all of them and give adequate screen time to all.

Coming to the tag of the King of Romance, it is interesting to note that, of the 21 movies that Yash Chopra has directed, only 7 films could be regarded as romances. The rest of his films were mostly dramas and action films. He even experimented with a sharp, song-less thriller with Rajesh Khanna called Ittefaq in the 1960s where he was still finding his distinct voice. In fact, some of his best movies were dramas. Some were inspired by real life events like Kaala Patthar which was based on a Chasnala mining disaster. Deewaar where he took inspiration from the tale of the smuggler Haji Mastan featured Amitabh Bachchan’s most iconic performance as the angry young man. It had superb lines, unforgettable scenes and was overall, a great masala movie. However, my personal favourite drama by Yash Chopra was Trishul. The illegitimate son’s quest for destroying his father construction empire for avenging his mother’s abandonment is perhaps the greatest modern family saga ever to be portrayed on the Hindi screen. All the typical ingredients of a Yash Chopra movie mentioned above, the music, the opulence and style, were very much present here. The execution of the story was epical and the performances from the four principle actors (Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar and Rakhee) were uniformly superb making the film a classic. Hell, he even came up with an entertaining but lesser remake of the film in Vijay.

Nevertheless, he is called the King of Romance for a reason. I think only two directors in Hindi cinema really understood romance and translated that understanding successfully into their films. Both of them had very different ways of seeing love. However, romance as a genre would be little more than running around trees without them. The first is, of course, the master director Guru Dutt who explored the melancholic yet passionate side of love through movies like Pyaasa, Saahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam and Kaagaz Ke Phool. His real life was his inspiration. The other is Yash Chopra. He depicted a different side of love: the happiness, the exuberance and a different kind of passion. His cinema was more light hearted, more mainstream and yet, more deep and resonant than the conventional. I believe what distinguished him from the rest was that he never played to the galleries the way others did (like Raj Kapoor in his later films). He explored serious themes such as infidelity (Silsila), age differences (Lamhe), unfulfilled love (Kabhi Kabhie) with a certain zest. Of course, he usually opted for a traditional happy ending and consequently, these themes were always explored with a light hand. However, that is not to say that he always played it safe with his films. Movies like Silsila, Lamhe and Darr are testimony to his ability to take risks as a storyteller.

While Guru Dutt most often focussed on the male protagonist of the story, Yash Chopra’s movies, more often than not, have been about the women in the story. His movies consisted of strong female protagonists like Sridevi’s characters in Chandni and Lamhe, Rekha’s and Jaya Bahaduri’s characters in Silsila and Rakhee’s character in Kabhi Kabhie. Of course, his female characters were traditionalists to a fault and would perhaps invoke the ire of many a feminists. However, within that boundary, there were modern, bold and a lot more than mere stick figures running around trees. For the time in which these films were made, they had plenty of gumption, sensuousness, poise and charm.

Another aspect of Yash Chopra’s romances was the interesting stories that he brought to the screen. Kabhi Kabhie took several love stories over two generations between three families and provided us with an unforgettable film about the agelessness of romance. Silsila, allegedly based on the real life affair of the on-screen couple Amitabh and Rekha, quite successfully explored the theme of infidelity and successfully maneuvered through the grey areas instead of ignoring them altogether. Darr looked at the obsessive nature of love and gave us a haunting performance from Shah Rukh Khan. Veer Zaara gave us a romance about star crossed lovers spanning three decades set in the backdrop of the conflict between India and Pakistan. Lamhe told two stories: one of unrequited love and the other of an inter-generational romance. The film met outright rejection at the time of its release due to its incestuous undertones but it remains Yash Chopra’s boldest and most mature work to date.

The dialogues were terrific and scenes unforgettable. The sequence where Vijay (Shashi Kapoor) confronts Amit (Amitabh) and Pooja (Rakhee) about their incomplete romance in Kabhi Kabhie is really well written. Ditto for the scene in Lamhe where Prem (Anupam Kher) tries to knock sense into Viren (Anil Kapoor) about his love for Pooja (Sridevi), the daughter of his deceased first love. In the hands of any other director, these scenes could have easily been messed up. But thankfully, Yash Chopra and his writers brought the required maturity to the scenes making them poignant and beautiful. Poetry is integral to his characters in Silsila, Kabhi Kabhie and Veer Zaara. Shah Rukh Khan’s four words, “I love you, K-k-k-kiran,” are like the “Luke, I’m your father” of Hindi cinema. It is for these reasons that these 7 films manage to overshadow all of the remaining work of Yash Chopra.

When one looks through his work, it is interesting to note some creative collaborations that were critical to the kind of movies he made. His collaboration with Salim-Javed resulted in superb masala movies like Deewaar, Trishul and Kaala Patthar. Javed Akhtar even made his debut as a lyricist with the controversial Silsila. With writer Sagar Sarhadi, he made Kabhi Kabhie, Silsila and Chandni and with Honey Irani, he made his best romance Lamhe, the chilling Darr and the absolutely forgettable Parampara.

However, without a doubt, his most significant collaboration was with two people: Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, two of the great maestros of Hindustani Classical music, better known as Shiv-Hari. Their collaboration over six films (Silsila, Vijay, Chandni, Lamhe, Parampara and Darr) led to the creation of the music that became synonymous with Yash Chopra. The symphonic sounds of the many violins, the use of the santoor and saxophone in equal measure gave their music a distinct sound. Together, the trio set new standards for music in the 80s and the 90s. Lata Mangeshkar sang her best songs of the time in these movies. Shot in places like Switzerland and Holland (a rarity in those days), their music was integral to the film and is remembered and savoured by many even today. This same music style was emulated by Uttam Singh in Dil To Pagal Hai with remarkable success.

At the end of the day, it is easy, even cool to be dismissive of Yash Chopra’s works as mere candy-floss romance. However, his romance has more meaning, class, style and elegance than most directors can ever lay claim to. His movies have content and depth, another rarity in mainstream cinema. They bring memorable stories to the screen and feature unforgettable characters and performances. His movies are like poetry on celluloid. He has inspired an entire generation of filmmakers not only through his romances but through his dramas. Trishul and Deewaar are just as important to his repertoire as Lamhe and Kabhi Kabhie. Surely, his earlier works were better than his more recent ones. But that does not take away from the fact that he is one of the finest directors of Hindi cinema, in any genre. He is one of those few directors who makes one film in 3-4 years which is remembered for decades after its over and gone. It has been 6 years since his last work. Dear Mr. Chopra, let’s have another one soon, please?

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