Tracing Yash Chopra's Journey, From the Sangh to Romantic Filmmaking

A large part of the journey of over 100 years of Indian cinema boasts of the footprints of B.R. Chopra and Yash Chopra.

Yash Chopra. Courtesy: Yash Raj Films

The eve of independence brought with it a fearful darkness of violence and killing for the people of Punjab and Bengal. The Chopra family in Jalandhar too was in quest of the dawn that would deliver it from the abyss of despair. Only recently, the family had lost the head of the household when an accident in Bengal claimed the life of Lala Vilayati Raj Chopra. Even as the Chopra clan struggled to come to terms with the tragedy, the dark clouds of Partition started to gather over the land.

The branches of the family, settled in Lahore, Amritsar and Jalandhar, lay scattered on the chessboard of history, politics and fate. Communal forces were taking full advantage of the circumstances to further their ends.

Like the young Arya Samaj boys in the neighbourhood, a young lad of the Chopra clan also enlisted himself in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and began actively participating in their shakhas, akharas and training routines.

While his zeal pushed him towards activities that sought to cross all limits of danger, his family remained unaware of it. It took one accident to reveal the teenager’s undesirable pursuits to everyone. One evening, as his sister-in-law lit the earthen stove, a big explosion rocked the house. The youngster had used the hearth as a hiding place for bombs to be used in riots. Fortunately, the explosion caused minimal damage.

The youngster then joined a gang of robbers and looted a watch shop. He hid his share in the house, which somehow came into the hands of his mother. Troubled by his actions, she gave him a hiding, and to keep him away from the influence of anti-social elements, she sent him away to Rohtak, close to Delhi, to stay with her sister and brother-in-law.

Around that time, circumstances forced a member of the Chopra clan to leave Lahore with his wife and children. Along with his brother, he set forth for Bombay with the hope of making his fragmented life whole again. After a few years, he also called the young lad to Bombay to work alongside him in film production and direction.

The man who left Lahore for Bombay was B.R. Chopra and the young man who made the bombs was Yash Raj Chopra. The brother, who had accompanied B.R. Chopra to Bombay, was Dharma Raj Chopra, who went on to become a renowned cinematographer. Soon, another family member, Raj Kumar, joined the film distribution business.

In two decades of working together and three decades of working separately – under their own banners – the Chopra brothers – B.R. and Yash – would become the most influential and unshakeable names in Bollywood.

In a lifetime spanning 80 years, Yash dedicated 60 years to cinema, of which the initial days were very interesting. Remembering him by turning those pages is an exciting experience.

B.R. Chopra and Yash Chopra. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

B.R. Chopra and Yash Chopra. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yash came to Bombay in 1950 after completing his graduation in Jalandhar. B.R. wanted to send him to London to pursue engineering but Yash was entranced by the ambiance of Bombay. He wanted to join the film industry. B.R. was making Sholay (1953) at that time and Yash joined the film unit.

Being of the view that his younger brother would learn more about filmmaking if he worked with someone else, B.R. placed him with I.S. Johar. Later, well-known character actor Jeevan advised him to take Yash under his own wing. At the time, B.R. was working on his next venture, Chandni Chowk (1954). Yash was employed as an assistant director with a fixed salary.

The following year, B.R. established his own banner, B.R. Films, and in all its three projects, namely Ek Hi Raasta (1956), Naya Daur (1957) and Saadhna (1958), Yash assisted his elder brother – not as the chief assistant director but as the third assistant director. The huge success of these films established B.R. Films as a popular and reliable banner in Bollywood.

With almost seven years of work as an assistant director, Yash had gained sufficient experience in filmmaking. So B.R. handed him and assistant director O.P. Bedi the directorial rein for the next film under his banner. Since Bedi left the banner before work could start on the film, the onus of directing the film fell on Yash’s shoulders. His salary was fixed at Rs 500 per month.

Yash’s directorial debut Dhool ka Phool (1959) dealt with the  subject of an ‘illegitimate’ child, which was considered taboo. The film refrains from a judgemental stand on the nature of pre-marital sexual relations, portraying it as a natural act instead. Its fundamental argument centres on the question of the guardianship of a child born out of such a relationship, with the mother (not the father who shirks responsibility) getting the right.

Credit: Yashraj films

Dhool ka Phool treats the character of an ‘illegitimate’ child with respect – a sentiment portrayed beautifully in the song Sahir Ludhianvi penned for the film: ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, Insan ki aulaad hai, insaan banega‘ (you will be neither a Hindu nor a Muslim; a child of human beings, you shall be human). The film did extremely well and its songs find a rapt audience of listeners even today.

The story (screenplay and dialogue) of the film was written by prominent writer Pandit Mukhram Sharma and its title had been suggested by poet Pradeep. Interestingly, for the film’s promotion, B.R. designed posters that boldly announced ‘P. Mukhram Sharma’s Dhool ke Phool‘. It was an unusual step – the film could have gained more from being associated with B.R. or Yash because they were highly popular figures in cinema. Besides, writers were not given much recognition in the industry at that time.

Dhool ka Phool heralded Yash’s arrival in the field of direction. Although major decisions on the film’s story and production were taken by B.R., not once did he appear on the set during the shooting. Yash, 26 years old at that time, was given a free rein as the director. It was during the making of this film that the elder Chopra decided that only one of the two brothers would be on the set at any given point of time and they would take turns to direct films.

The second film made under Yash’s direction was Dharmputra (1961). Based on a novel by Acharya Chatursen Shastri, with substantial changes, the film marked the debut of Shashi Kapoor, son of legendary actor Prithviraj Kapoor, in an adult role. Although the film, which dwelt on the theme of communal harmony in the backdrop of Partition and was supported by several melodious songs, failed to do well commercially, it received critical acclaim and won a national award.

Next, B.R. asked Yash to direct the banner’s first coloured film on a big budget, Waqt (1965). The film, which achieved fame as an evergreen entertainer, proved to be a milestone on several counts in Bollywood history. The first ever multi-starrer, it left its predecessors far behind with its elaborate sets and glamour quotient. It was a time when films were venturing beyond the confines of film studios to explore outdoor locations and tourist spots for shooting. Portraying the tragedy of Partition through the metaphor of a family torn apart by a devastating earthquake, the film exemplifies Yash’s natural grasp of melodrama.

Credit: Yashraj films

Waqt established the classic ‘Yash Chopra touch,’ which continued till his last film. The Chopra banner continued making films on all-pervasive, socially relevant issues. Yash’s next directorial venture, Aadmi aur Insan (1969), dealt with corruption affecting the construction of a dam.

With his next movie, Yash made departed from what had become the norm in his films. The 1969 film Ittefaq was completed within a month while the banner waited for Saira Bano to recover from an illness and complete shooting for Aadmi aur Insan. Both the films turned out to be huge successes. In 1960, B.R. had directed a film, Kanoon, sans song and superficial glamour. Made on similar lines, Ittefaq did not contain any songs, nor did Yash attempt to introduce unnecessary glamour in the story.

By this time, the three-brother team had gained a strong foothold in the film industry. But the fact that 38-year-old Yash was still unmarried bothered the elder brother. On August 20, 1970, he tied the knot with Pamela Singh from Delhi. By then, the desire to step out from his elder brother’s shadow and spread his wings had taken root in his mind. The stage was set for the emergence of a big banner, Yash Raj Films.

Then and now, there has been much speculation about the reason for the two parting ways, but the brothers themselves never commented on it nor spoke against each other. Despite going their own ways, they kept in touch and took part in each other’s functions. The DVDs of the films they made together contain their conversations and discussions during the making of those films, which are crucial to understanding their relationship. And it is vital to gain this understanding because a large part of the journey of Indian cinema boasts the footprints of B.R. and Yash Chopra.

Prakash K. Ray is a senior journalist and has written a book on B.R. Chopra.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the original here.