Yash Chopra was the only director of the older brigade of filmmakers who has successfully moved with the times right from his first film Dhool Ka Phool (1959) to his latest film Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012). He is even today regarded as one of the hippest and trendiest directors of Indian cinema. Though Yash Chopra has done films of various sorts, it is when he is tackling love and its various elements that he has been at his best. His picturesque, poetic images, often shot in Switzerland and accompanied with melodious music, are charged with rich feeling. Few filmmakers have presented their leading ladies as beautifully and sensuously as Chopra. They carry the heart and soul of his pictures and in spite of all the gloss on screen, his films are more about life and people rather than lifestyle. To quote him, “I’m the sentimental sort. I cry easily. I cry when I see poignant films made by other directors.”
Born in Lahore on September 27, 1932, Yash Chopra studied at Doaba College in Jalandhar. His filmic journey began as an assistant director to IS Johar. From there, he moved on to assisting big brother, BR Chopra. Under his brother’s banner of BR Films, he made his directorial debut with the socially significant Dhool Ka Phool, an epic melodrama about unwed motherhood, illegitimacy and a plea for communal harmony. In one of the strongest sequences in the film, the old Muslim man bringing up the little, illegitimate boy tells him not to adhere to any religion in the song Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega, Insaan ki Aulad Hai, Insaan Banega. The sensitive film starring Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Mala Sinha and Nanda was a major success and took Mala Sinha to dramatic star status.
Dharmputra (1961), his second film, addressed communal harmony at the time of the Partition. Sadly, in spite of winning a National Award, the film was not too successful despite having its strong, humane moments and another great central performance from Mala Sinha. Interestingly, Dharmputra sees Shashi Kapoor play a Hindu fundamentalist, who, at the time of Independence, discovers he was ‘biologically’ born to Muslim parents (Mala Sinha and Rehman).
It was the multi-starrer Waqt (1965), based on the lost-and-found genre that was Chopra’s major commercial breakthrough and even went on to win for him his first Filmfare Award for Best Director. Looking at a family of a husband, wife and three sons separated by an earthquake, Chopra uses the earthquake as an allegory for the Partition. Years later, the family gets reunited in contemporary Bombay. The film focusses on India’s elite wealthy class in Delhi and Bombay. The film’s major characters are all hip, modern and stylish. Chopra’s penchant for presenting his heroines exquisitely is seen in the way Sharmila Tagore and Sadhana are styled in the film.
Chopra followed Waqt with an unusual film – a taut, little thriller Ittefaq (1969). The film was an extremely bold film for its time. Not only was it songless, but the hero (Rajesh Khanna) and heroine (Nanda) were not even paired with one another. He just happens to be on the run and takes shelter in her house. And, she is having an adulterous affair and has killed her husband with the help of her lover! The film is mainly shot in one house with taut editing that keeps up the suspense in the film. That year he also directed Aadmi Aur Insaan starring Dharmendra, Feroz Khan, Saira Banu and Mumtaz. It is said both Dharmendra and Saira Banu were not too pleased with the final film as they felt the film concentrated more on the characters of Feroz Khan and Mumtaz and not on them. Khan won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the film.
Finally breaking away from BR Films, Yash Chopra launched his own production banner Yashraj Films with Daag (1973) starring Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore and Raakhee. The film, a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor Of Casterbridge, did well at the box-office establishing Chopra as a producer as well. He then entered one of his best phases of his career with a series of films starring Amitabh Bachchan – Deewaar (1975), Kabhi Kabhie (1976) – a love story across two generations, and Trishul (1978) among others.
Deewaar is probably one of the most memorable Hindi films of all time. The film is a perfect amalgamation of two older classics – Gunga Jumna (1961) that looks at the good brother v/s the bad brother and Mother India (1957) in which the mother undergoes all sorts of hardships to bring up her sons on her own only to see one go against the law. The film contains all the stock-in-trade elements of the Indian melodrama – The good and bad brother, the long suffering mother as the central moral force, divine intervention and religious symbols but what sets it apart is the taut script (perhaps the best ever Salim – Javed Script), the powerful dialogues and above all a powerhouse performance by Amitabh Bachchan as the son driven to crime – perhaps his best ever! The film is one of a series in which he plays the ‘angry young man’- the lone rebel, the man seeking personal vengeance and social justice, operating outside and more efficiently than the law, a far cry from the sensitive poet of Kabhie Kabhie.
Trishul had as its main ingredient a father – son conflict with an illegitimate son destroying his father for abandoning him and his mother. Once again the mother is the crucial emotional force of the film.
The 1980s saw Yash Chopra go through a rough patch as one film after another – Silsila (1981) (trying to capitalize on the real life Amitabh-Jaya Bhaduri-Rekha triangle), Mashaal (1984), Faasle (1985), and Vijay (1988) all flopped. However, Chandni (1989), a fine love triangle with memorable music and a great central performance by Sridevi, brought him back in the reckoning.
Lamhe (1991), a follow up to Chandni and a beautiful and sensitive film of cross-generational love, however did not go down with audiences who found it incestuous though there are many who regard it to be Yash Chopra’s best film. It is certainly one of his best and most sensitive works and is aided greatly with Sridevi’s duo performances of a mother and daughter. Parampara (1993), a multi-starrerdone for an outside producer was a misfire, but Darr (1993), a sympathetic look at obsessive love and an emotion often overlooked in love – fear, was a trendsetter. It led to several other films of the same type (Anjaam (1994), Daraar (1996) etc) having an obsessive lover at the centre of the story! The film also led to a long time association with Shah Rukh Khan, who played the grey role superbly after Aamir Khan declined to do the film.
Dil To Paagal Hai (1997), a love triangle with the musical theatre as the backdrop, is refreshingly young and hip in parts as it plays off against the traditional beliefs of an ordinary girl (Madhuri Dixit) that she would find true love someday. Of course she does and of course he’s Shah Rukh Khan! Though a huge success at the box office, it met with lukewarm critical response. It did win Shah Rukh and Madhuri the Filmfare Awards for Best Actor and Actress respectively while Karisma Kapoor won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress for her fine work in the film.
Yash Chopra’s next film after a huge gap was the Indo-Pak love story Veer Zaara (2004) starring Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Rani Mukerji. As a Yash Chopra film releasing after seven years, one cannot help but appreciate the fine ageing of his filmic art as he returns to the legacy of the Partition. The film looks at the romance of an Indian Air Force rescue pilot with a Pakistani girl and the sacrifices they make for each other. The film shows us just how much the Partition meant to Chopra. It continues to be a highly relevant film of our times and reiterates the fact that deep inside, the people of India and Pakistan come from one land and are similar to each other in so many ways. The film is a heartfelt plea to put the hatred of the Partition behind us and to move ahead with love and brotherhood.
After another long break of 8 years, Chopra returned to filmmaking amidst sky-high expectations with the Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma starrer Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012). The film, teaming him with AR Rahman for the first time, however, released posthumously after Chopra was diagnosed with dengue and admitted to hospital just after his 80th birthday. He passed away from multiple organ failure on October 21, 2012.
Chopra’s elder son, Aditya, too has become a filmmaker beginning with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (DDLJ, 1995), the Yash Raj banner’s biggest ever success. As a director, he followed DDLJ up with the comparatively disappointing Mohabbatein (2000), Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008) and Befikre (2016). As a producer, he has ensured that Yash Raj Films one of the most prestigious banners in Bollywood today. Younger son, Uday, did not have a very successful career as an actor though he did leave a mark in the Dhoom series.
Among several other awards, Yash Chopra has been deservedly honoured by the Government of India for his sensitive and poetic contribution to Indian Cinema with the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award.