It is to BR Chopra’s credit that he always attempted to make sensitive, socially relevant films, yet made sure his films have always catered to popular sentiment so that the message the film propagated reached effectively far and wide.
Baldev Raj Chopra was born on April 22nd, 1914 in Rahon village in Punjab. He did his MA in English Literature from Punjab University in Lahore. Chopra turned to journalism and edited a monthly film magazine, Cine Herald, for about 3 years from 1944 to 1947. However, he was then forced to come to Bombay, now Mumbai, from Lahore soon after the partition of undivided India as a victim of the horrific communal riots, which saw his house in Lahore being burnt down. Once in India. Chopra shifted his attentions to filmmaking. His first film Afsana (1951), a thriller based on mistaken identity starring Ashok Kumar in a double role, Veena, Pran and Kuldip Kaur as an adulteress wife, was a commercial success thereby establishing Chopra as a filmmaker of merit. The film also led to a close friendship with Ashok Kumar, which resulted in the two of them working in several films together.
Following Shole (1953) with Ashok Kumar and Bina Rai, and Chandni Chowk (1954) with Meena Kumari and Shekhar, Chopra launched his own production company BR Films with Ek Hi Raasta (1956), a moving tale ahead of its times that advocated widow re-marriage. The film, starring Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari and Sunil Dutt, pretty much set the trend for Chopra’s unique brand of cinema to follow, one of combining serious issues of the day along with sensible entertainment. Following Ek Hi Raasta, the 1950s and ’60s, BR films saw come out with one successful film after another – Naya Daur (1957), Sadhna (1958), Dhool Ka Phool (1959) – his brother Yash Chopra’s directorial debut, Kanoon (1960), Gumrah (1963), Waqt (1965) – directed by Yash Chopra and Hamraaz (1967).
Naya Daur is perhaps, Chopra’s finest film. In the film, a traditional rural community is threatened out of their livelihood due to modernism and mechanization. Chopra perceives the latter as not so perfect and in the climax, has his protagonist, a horse carriage driver (Dilip Kumar), defeat an automobile in a race – with the help of a short-cut, of course! But to his credit, Chopra carries it off with flair. The film is a quintessentially Nehruvian film that fitted in nicely with the new initiatives in economic planning and rural community development in the first decade of Indian independence. Quoting a review of the film in Filmfare, “A powerful and vibrantly gripping picture, BR Films’ Naya Daur is a distinctly successful combination of pertitent social education and moral and top rate entertainment. The production values especially Malhotra’s superb photography are impeccable.” The film, with some lovely foot-tapping music by OP Nayyar and lovely performances by Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Ajit, Johnny Walker and Jeevan, was recently colourized and re-released, but failed to capture the magic of the original. It must be said here that the colourization was pretty bad and didn’t exactly help the cause of this otherwise timeless classic.
Chopra has done several films that were regarded as bold and modern in their time. And indeed, some hold up even today. He dared to try a songless film with a hard-hitting suspense courtroom drama, Kanoon; he showed a woman resuming her affair with her lover after she is married to someone else in Gumrah; he produced another songless film, Ittefaq (1969), directed by brother Yash Chopra, in which the heroine is an adulteress who murders her husband with the help of her lover at a time when it was the norm for the heroine to be self-sacrificing, virtuous and pure, and in Dhund (1973), a woman married to a paralytic takes on a lover. Of these, special mention must be made of Gumrah.
Gumrah is said to be loosely inspired by Kamini Kaushal’s life – when she had to marry her sister’s husband for the sake of the children on the sister’s sudden death. As she worked in films after marriage, she got involved with her frequent co-star, Dilip Kumar. It is said that the affair ended when Kaushal’s bother, a military man, threatened Dilip Kumar with a pistol! Gumrah equates the ‘Lakshmanrekha’ with the sacred threshold of the home inside which lies the safety of a happily married woman. It is she who is the true homemaker, and the film explores the consequences of what happens if she crosses the line and goes astray or ‘gumrah.’ As the woman caught between her husband and lover, Mala Sinha, otherwise having a tendency to work herself into hysterical, melodramatic histrionics of the highest order, responds with perhaps her career’s most effective and reined-in performance.
However, while the films mentioned were bold in the setting up of their stories, the ending of these films, more often than not, are in keeping with the more popular moral norms of the day, a status quo of sorts. So the sanctity and purity of marriage had to be preserved. And duty and sacrifice had to take preference over matters of the heart. Little wonder then that in Gumrah, the woman finally chooses to live with her husband even when he gives her permission to go with her lover, while in Ittefaq, the heroine, superbly played by Nanda against type, kills herself as a form of repentance.
Post the success of Hamraaz (1967), Chopra continued to make films in the 1970s and 80s though it has to be said these were not in the class of his earlier films. Dastan (1972), in particular, a remake of Afsana, with Dilip Kumar in the dual roles played by Ashok Kumar, was a big disappointment at the box-office as was Karm (1977) with Rajesh Khanna. Still, Chopra tasted big success with the comedy on infidelity, Pati, Patni Aur Woh (1978), the revenge saga, Insaf Ka Tarazu (1980), and the Muslim social, Nikaah (1982). His son Ravi did try to keep the BR Banner going but the films directed by him barring a stray Aaj ki Awaaz (1984) did not do particularly well at the box-office. However, Ravi and the banner made a grand comeback when Baghban (2003), looking at the travails of an elderly couple (Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini) who are let down by their children, succeeded big time at the box-office. The follow up re-uniting the senior stars, Baabul (2006), advocating widow re-marriage with Rani Mukherji in the central role, was not as successful, though.
BR Films also diversified into Television apart from cinema and among other programmes has made Mahabharat, based on the great Indian epic, which was perhaps the most popular serial ever in the history of Indian Television.
BR Chopra was for long the Hindi Film Industry’s senior spokesman and was deservedly awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian Cinema in 1999. He passed away in Mumbai on November 5, 2008.