Yash Chopra: Beyond White Chiffons and Picture Postcard Romances
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“King of Romance (1932-2012)” says the Amul ad, quick to mark a milestone in Indian history yet again. The iconic Amul girl sits on the floor of a snow-laden forest, a guitar slung across her chest, her bright eyes resting on an elderly gentleman seated before her, while the copy reads: “Main har ek pal ka shayar hoon, har ek pal meri kahani hai”, a take on a song from Kabhi Kabhie, the memorable 1976 film about ill-fated lovers, directed by Yash Chopra.
No doubt there is great poignance in that visual, paying tribute as it does to one of Indian cinema’s greatest and most successful producer-directors on his demise. In a sense, it’s apt too: After all, Chopra was a master of weaving perfect frames, pretty visuals and lyrical songs into languid romances. But, in another sense, the picture is incomplete. For as much as he has been lauded in obituary after obituary as Hindi filmdom’s King of Romance, the title fails to do justice to his vastly varied filmography that frequently showcases a forward-thinking mind, whether his audiences were ready for it or not. Romance is not an easy genre, but if we insist on pinning a single label on this man, then in all fairness let it be King of Versatility.
To fully grasp this idea, rewind to 1959, the year Chopra made his directorial debut. Dhool Ka Phool—produced by his elder brother BR Chopra—revolves around a young Hindu couple. While the boy is coaxed into marriage with someone else by his father, the girl discovers that she is pregnant and gives birth to a baby who she abandons. The child is brought up by a kindly Muslim man whose good intentions can do little to protect the foundling, or himself, from social opprobrium. In an India too hypocritical even today to admit that pre-marital sexual intimacy is a reality, it takes little imagination to appreciate that Dhool Ka Phool made 53 years ago was a revolutionary film.
In the years since, Hindi cinema has very occasionally revisited the theme. Each foray has emphasised exactly how progressive a thinker Chopra was all those years ago. More than four decades after Chopra’s film, Kundan Shah released the qualitatively average-in-comparison Kya Kehna, starring Preity Zinta as a college girl who gets pregnant after an affair. In 2000, the story was still uncommon enough for the subject to be described as “an uncomfortable issue” by reviewers.
Imagine then an India just 12 years after independence, when the young and idealistic Lahore-born, Mumbai-based Chopra dwelt on pre-marital sex, the social ostracism of unwed mothers and prejudices faced by children born out of marriage, while also throwing Hindu-Muslim animosity into the blend. When the wounds of Partition had yet to heal, imagine the impact on the Indian psyche, of a Muslim gentleman singing to a Hindu infant: Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega.
But Chopra would not rest there. In 1961, he made Dharmputra—also produced by BR Chopra—in which he flung himself right into the fires of pre-Partition Hindu-Muslim tensions. Here, the child of an unmarried Muslim couple is taken in by a loving Hindu family but grows up to be a Muslim-hating bigot. Dharmputra was steeped in overt symbolism and subcontinental politics. A Hindu family and a Muslim family co-existing peacefully served as metaphors for the two nations that would subsequently be torn out of one, and the hope that India and Pakistan could look beyond their painful history.
To those tempted to dismiss these scenarios as simplistic, or as exaggerated and melodramatic, it would be appropriate to point out that the release of both films would be fraught with risks even in 2012, when religious “sentiments” are still so easily “hurt”.
As it happens, the situations in both films find echoes in real life. As recently as 2011, the press reported that a Hindu couple in Hyderabad trying to adopt an orphaned Muslim baby was being harassed by both communities. The Indian secular ideal of ‘Hindu Muslim Sikh Isaai, hum sab hain bhai bhai’ is not quite the rosy reality that we would like to believe. And Chopra chronicled this truth at a time when most Hindi films preferred to pretend otherwise.