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Yash Chopra was a far more diverse filmmaker than he's given credit for. He wasn't just the King of Romance, even if he did end up defining that genre, says Biswadeep Ghosh.
If there was no romance on the big screen, commercial Hindi cinema wouldn't really exist. After all, can you go back and forth in time and watch Hindi films, expecting that none of them would have heroes and heroines who run around trees and lip-synch romantic numbers? In fact, can you point to a war movie that doesn't have soldiers romancing wives or girlfriends? Clearly, such romance as we know it wasn't of Yash Chopra's invention. Yet he became the torchbearer non pareil of an old cinematic tradition, and left us with variations we now mostly attribute to him.
Known for looking beyond stereotypes, with films like Dharmaputra (1969), that dealt with subjects like religious bigotry and communalism, Chopra's most path-breaking choice of subject was Lamhe, an acclaimed film on a teenager's love for a man old enough to be her father. Critics applauded Chopra's intrepid approach and Sridevi's fantastic performance, and declared the film to be way ahead of its time. But then, Indian cinema's very roots lie in artistes' decision to do away with dogmatic conventions. India's first big screen actors chose the profession in the face of great social ostracism. Among the most popular reformist films made in the 1930s was Achhut Kanya, in which the focus is firmly on the romance between an untouchable girl (played by Devika Rani) and a Brahmin boy (essayed by Ashok Kumar). Thematically speaking, this film was far ahead of its time compared to Lamhe. Which is one way of saying, that Chopra, even at his daring best, really didn't trigger any thought revolutions.
When he began directing, with Dhool Ka Phool in 1959, Hindi cinema had matured a bit. By the time he declared his directorial innings over, the medium had taken several more steps towards thematic maturity and technological sophistication. For a director, he was gifted with an enviable ability to tackle a wide variety of themes. His choice of subjects revealed a mind that looked to show something relatively unusual within the obvious. Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) is a love triangle, for instance, but what makes it a different film is that the onscreen families of the three main characters (played by Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Karisma Kapoor) hardly made a dent on the viewer's consciousness. He gave his subjects a freshness of touch;he knew how the language in dialogues had acquired a different texture with time;his choice of actors was brilliant, and his ear for music that cut across genres was tremendous. All of which helped him become a long-distance champion, one who outlasted so many other flashes in the Bollywood pan.
What he has left behind for his followers is the memory of an attitude: in other words, the lesson that every filmmaker must observe and learn consistently, and adapt one's creativity to give the audience what it wants. Labelling Chopra as the King of Romance is, therefore, highly inaccurate, although it must be said that the subject did fascinate him for a significant period in his career.
The matchless diversity in his body of work - Deewar, in which Amitabh Bachchan's 'Angry Young Man' comes across as the quintessential superstar, is the antithesis of Darr, which shows Shah Rukh Khan as an anti-hero whose obsessive love for a girl has potentially destructive consequences - offers adequate proof.
When Chopra made his films - at least the ones that have come to epitomise his signature style - he didn't compromise on visual grandeur. The rarity of a songless thriller like Ittefaq (1969) showed that he could play around with ideas;however, what he seemed to love the most was shooting many scenes and songs in interesting, often stunning, locales, and dressing up his leading ladies in gorgeous fashion.
What then, was his greatest quality? Some would say it was his ability to make sure that the viewer remained focused on the content of the narrative even when the backdrop was spectacular. In Darr, for instance, there is a scene in which Shah Rukh Khan (as Rahul) walks into an empty drawing room, carrying the photo of Kiran (Juhi Chawla) close to his chest. He kneels down, talks to the photograph, flings the table and the photograph after a bit, then walks towards a huge picture of Kiran that has been put up on the wall and once again starts talking to her.
The viewer is forced to closely observe Rahul's mental plight. That is the key to the film's conflict. Indeed, had Chopra made a version of Devdas, he wouldn't have created the sort of unadorned poetic beauty that Bimal Roy did in his legendary 1955 version. However, Chopra wouldn't have been taken the path Sanjay Leela Bhansali did either - which was to bury the story's emotional depth in visual spectacle, and lose the plot. He would have given the story that grand 'Yash Chopra touch', and made sure that many in the audience would have struggled to contain their emotions at film's end. That delicate balance is his most significant contribution, something others like, say, Karan Johar have been attempting to emulate for a while.
Yash Chopra will be best remembered as a maker of unpretentious cinema, adored by millions of fans nationwide and beyond. He may not have been the ultimate master in the craft of filmmaking;but by doing what he did so well, he has left behind a clutch of singular lessons that will guide filmmakers for generations to come.
The writer is a Pune-based commentator
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