It is to BR Chopra’s credit that he always attempted to make socially relevant films, yet made sure his films have always catered to popular sentiment so that the message reached effectively far and wide.
Baldev Raj Chopra was born on April 22nd, 1914, and came to Mumbai from Lahore after the partition of India, a victim of communal riots of 1947, his house having been burnt down. Chopra initially edited a film journal Cine Herald before turning to filmmaking. His first film Afsana (1951), a thriller based on mistaken identity with Ashok Kumar in a double role, Veena and Kuldip Kaur, was a commercial success and BR Chopra was on his way.
Following Shole (1953) and Chandni Chowk (1954), Chopra launched his production company BR Films with Ek Hi Raasta (1956), a moving tale about widow re-marriage. In the 1950s and 60s, BR films came 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 Humraaz (1967).
Perhaps Chopra’s finest film is Naya Daur, in which a traditional rural community is threatened with 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 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 also done several films that were regarded as bold and ahead of their time. He dared to try a songless film with a hard-hitting suspense courtroom drama, Kanoon; showed a woman resuming her affair with her lover after she is married in Gumrah; produced a film,Ittefaq (1969), in which the heroine is an adulteress and murders her husband with the help of her lover 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 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. At the time, she was involved with Dilip Kumar but had to go along with the marriage. The film is a tale of marital infidelity, showing a woman resuming her romance with her lover after marriage, as did Kaushal till her brother, a military man, threatened Dilip Kumar with a pistol and put an end to the affair. Gumrah equates the ‘Lakshmanrekha’ with the sacred threshold of the home inside which lies the safety of a happily married woman, the true homemaker, and 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, the ending of all these films are in keeping with the more popular norms of the day. The sanctity and purity of marriage had to be preserved. Duty and sacrifice had to take preference to matters of the heart. So in Gumrah the woman finally chooses to live with her husband, while in Ittefaq, the woman kills herself as repentance.
Chopra continued to make films in the 1970s and 80s and tasted big success with Insaf ka Tarazu (1980), and 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 stars, Baabul (2006), advocating widow re-marriage with Rani Mukherji in the central role, was not as successful, though.
Today BR Films has diversified into Television 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.