For the last five decades Yash Chopra has been making Bollywood films- films that are full of romance, glamour, passion and music. Long back he had walked into his elder brother Balwant Rai alias B.R. Chopra’s office to start his film career as an apprentice. Today the same apprentice is acknowledged as a legendary film-maker par excellence. His style of film-making has become an institution in itself. Strong emotional content in a brilliantly glamorous packaging has become a trademark of a Yash Chopra-film.
As a director, if he has created his patented brand of glossy romantic musicals like Daag, Kabhie Kabhie, Chandni, Lamhe, Dil To Paagal Hai and Veer-Zaara; then on the other hand, he has also shown the versatility to make emotional roller-coasters like Dhool Ka Phool, Dharmputra and Waqt; edge-of-the- seat thrillers like Ittefaq and Darr and ‘Angry Yong Man’ classics like Deewar, Trishul and Kala Patthar. Yashraj Films- Chopra’s independent banner, which he had established in the early 70s, has gone on to become a burgeoning corporate empire – a highly professional outfit making its niche at the top in an otherwise famously unprofessional Bollywood film-making environment.
This famed Yahraj- corporatization process becomes evident right from the moment I request an interview with Yash Chopra. The chains of emails and phone calls setting up the exclusive interview are as elaborate as they get and they distinctly give me a feeling of a well-oiled corporate machinery at work. Finally and formally the interview is okayed for Thursday, March 22, 2007, 12 noon. Given my previous experience of celebrity interviews, such meticulous professionalism is quite un-Bollywood-like!
Reaching the Yashraj Films office situated on Andheri’s Veera Desai road is a task in itself- especially in Mumbai’s perpetually jammed morning traffic. But my rickshaw driver uses all his driving and fighting skills- (Yes- in between we also get bumped by a motor-bike!) and finally I manage to get there well ahead of scheduled time. A secretary guides me to a huge atrium separating the Yashraj- corporate office-section and the studio-section. I am supposed to while away my time in the atrium till the great man arrives for the interview.
I spend that time observing the atrium- an imposing impressive structure blending traditional and trendy architecture. Two large M.F. Hussain- paintings are decorating the walls- each painting is a mosaic of prominent personalities and events in Hindi cinema. There is a coffee-shop and almost predictably large posters of Shahrukh Khan, Karan Johar, Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan are in its background. Right in the middle of atrium, there is a columned seating chamber and that is where I am going to interview the legendary film-maker.
At 12-15 p.m., Yash Chopra walks into the atrium. Dressed in a light green kurta and grey jeans, he looks much younger than his 75 years. His smiling, easygoing demeanor immediately puts me at ease and we are off on a trip down memory lane. Candid and colorful and yet cautious and careful, Yash Chopra starts telling his life-story. Here is a detailed account of his life and career in his own words.
I- Yash Chopra
Me and my entry into films
In those pre-Independence days, things like watching cinema were not taken too kindly. ‘Concentrate on your studies’- was the standard advice. My first exposure to films was through the few films that I watched with my friends and also through, my elder brother (B.R. Chopra) who started as a film-journalist and then went into film-making. From the beginning I wanted to be a director.
I was studying for my M.A. and my brother had plans of making me an engineer. But I didn’t have any aptitude for that. So I came to Mumbai and requested my brother to let me join his film- studio as an apprentice. Luckily he relented.
I was the Second Assistant Director to my brother. The First Assistant was Mr. Omi Bedi. After BR Films made two huge hits- Ek Hi Raasta and Naya Daur, it was decided that Omi Bedi and I would be jointly directing the next film. But as luck would have it, Bedi got a chance to independently direct a film in an outside banner and I became the sole director! Perhaps Bedi might have felt that as producer’s brother I would have an upper hand in direction!
Me and my early films
I started my directorial career with Dhool Ka Phool in 1959. It was a very bold and controversial subject about a child of an unwed mother. We presented a theme that ‘The parents are illegitimate, not the child!’ The film celebrated Silver Jubilee in 37 places. It was a big hit and that set the pace for my career. Those days the film’s success was judged by the jubilees. Now the success is judged by the money they make! Today, even super-hit films like our own (Yashraj Films’) Dhoom 2 don’t run for more than 7-8 weeks!
I directed Waqt in 1965. It was BR Film’s first color film. Akhtar Mirza had written the story. It was the first multi-starrer and it was perhaps the first ‘Lost-and-found’ formula film. During the making of Waqt, I came to know that famous director L.V. Prasad was making a film- Beti Bete on a similar subject. But so nice was that man that he showed me the original Tamil film from which he was remaking the film and he assured me that he would be making an exact replica of the original. As it is, I had already decided that I would be going ahead with my own project for I was sure that my visual treatment would be totally different!
I had earlier considered casting all the Kapoors- Prithviraj, Raj, Shammi and Shashi in the father-son roles in Waqt but Raj Kapoor told me that he himself was working on a similar project. Bimal Roy- who was a great friend of Chopras, then advised us that after all it was a film- a make-believe world where we did not have to present the real life father and sons. Then we opted for Balraj Sahni as the father and Raj Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Shashi Kapoor as the sons. The film had glamour and grandeur like never before.
I still vividly remember the car race sequence from that film. We started the race at Cadbury House on Mumbai’s Pedder Road and finished it at Khandala. With help of three actors, the race was actually shot live. It is impossible to do that kind of a thing today. Those days, there were no computers, no technical gimmickry.
I was making Aadmi Aur Insaan (in 1969) and the film’s shooting got stalled midway as our heroine Saira Banu was ill and was being treated in London. We were just waiting without doing any work. The necessity is mother of inventions and (acclaimed mystery-thriller) Ittefaq was one such invention out of our necessity to keep working to avoid financial losses.
One of those days, I saw a Gujrati play – Dhummas directed by Pravin Joshi. It had Sarita Joshi and Arvind Joshi in the lead roles. It was an interesting plot and it caught my attention. We modified it according to cinematic needs and made Ittefaq. It is a one night mystery happening in one house and I shot that film in just twenty-eight days. It proved to be a great critical and commercial success.
Me and my own Yashraj banner
I was making successful films for my brother’s banner and he was supporting me in every respect but there was always a feeling that I was working under a big tree’s shadow. When you are working with an established name, people don’t give you the full credit for your achievement. It always happens- even when my own son later made Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, people said that Yash Chopra must have helped him, even though I did not play any creative part there!
I wanted to fly on my own. So far I was working in a protected environment, now I wanted to break free. I wanted my own identity. I felt that I should make films that I wanted to do. In doing that there was always a risk of falling flat on my face but I was prepared for that. That’s why I started my own banner and Daag (1973) was my first film.
It was again a controversial, emotional subject. A man living with two wives is controversial even today! The film’s hero was Rajesh Khanna. He was then a superstar but his last eight films had flopped. The industry people were skeptical about film’s chances but somehow I always thought that it would prove to be a success. We released just 9 prints in Mumbai but the film proved so popular that the next week itself we had to double the number of prints. That success made my position strong in the industry. In commercial art, success is the only criterion by which you are judged.
Me and my directorial vision
The director is a very selfish person. He always wants the best team for his film. I have always worked with the best stars in the business because I always felt that only they would do the full justice to my vision. The story is important- a bad story cannot run and a good story cannot be mutilated. But more important to me is the realization that film is a visual medium.
I am very choosy about my film’s sets, locations and costumes. The look is as important as the content. I am myself involved in every aspect of film-making. I am not a director who leaves the things to the assistants. Leave the photography to photographer, leave costumes for costume designer, leave dances for choreographer, leave fights for fight composer- I don’t believe in this kind of film-making. I want to leave my stamp on each aspect of my film. It involves a lot of hard work but without hard work, you cannot achieve success.
I am a staunch Punjabi at heart and that always comes through in my films- especially in Veer-Zara I used all my childhood experiences of growing in Punjabi rustic environs.
Me and my music
I don’t know anything about music and I can’t sing to save my life. But when I am making a film, I am extremely clear in my mind about what kind of tunes and what kind of lyrics I want in my songs. I have the knack of picking just the right kind of songs to suit my projects.
Choosing the late Madan Mohan’s unused compositions for Veer- Zaara was a historic experiment. Nowhere in the world has any movie ever used an entire score by a composer who had died three decades earlier! It was not a gimmick. Not a single original note was changed. To do that in a contemporary context was a great achievement and people’s response to that experiment was phenomenal. At Yashraj, Veer- Zaara- music has remained the top seller even in comparison to other big musical successes like Dhoom and Bunty Aur Babli.
Lataji has played a major part in my music’s success. She has been singing right since my first film- Dhool Ka Phool. I feel that the other singers follow the music but in case of Lataji, the music follows her! I consider her a reincarnation of Goddess Saraswati. I have been fortunate that she has always considered me like her brother and she has been always there for me.
Me and my family
My wife Pamela has stood besides me through thick and thin. She has been the real pillar of strength for me and my family. She is also a good singer and has sung many popular songs in my films. My elder son- Adi (Aditya) is totally obsessed by films. He is literally immersed in the world of films and constantly his thoughts are only centered on new scripts and new film-projects. When he was only five, he had first given me the inkling of things to come- that time, he had narrated me a complete original film-script, scene-by-scene! My younger son Uday likes acting. He has been fortunate to have a support of a home-banner and people have appreciated his work so far. How far he goes in his chosen field would finally depend on his destiny and dedication.
You have worked with 4 generations of superstars in Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan. What according to you really sets them apart?
I think they are great because they are all very honest actors. I remember Amitabh once telling me that once he accepts a project, he tries to do full justice to it- even if it means donning the female get-ups and singing Mere Angne Mein Tumhara Kya Kaam Hai! They are all so talented and so hard-working individuals. One thing that really sets them apart is their ability to rise above the script presented to them.
Talking of Bachchan, you created the best Angry Young Man roles for him. How?
I feel that Amitabh often played an Angry Young Man where the reason for his anger was not clear but if you take my films like Deewar, Trishul or Kaala Patthar, then in each film the reason for his angst is well-etched. In Deewar, he is angry because his father has deserted his family and he is left with a tattoo- Mera Baap Chor Hai! (My father is a thief!) In Trishul, he is angry against a father who married a rich girl and left his (Amitabh’s) mother to fend for herself. In Kaala Patthar, his anger is directed towards himself, towards his own cowardice as a sinking boat’s captain. Such well-defined persona in each of my film gave an added edge to his Angry Young Man portrayals.
Then you presented him as a hopeless romantic in Kabhie Kabhie. Was this character based on your friend and poet Sahir?
Presenting Amitabh as a romantic poet in the first half and then presenting him as a middle-aged, grey haired father in the second half was a real challenge in Kabhie Kabhie. To do this at the height of his Angry Young Man- success was considered to be a professional suicide but the experiment clicked. No - the character wasn’t based on Sahir. In fact, Sahir had argued with me about this character. He told me- ‘Even if a poet loses his love, he would still remain a poet. How could he forego his poetry and become a builder or a contractor (as the hero becomes in Kabhie Kabhie)?’
Shahrukh Khan once described you as a heroine’s director. What’s your take on that?
I agree with that observation. For me, Woman is the most beautiful thing created by God. As a director, it is my duty to present my heroine as beautifully as I can. I spend days on creating the special look for my heroines. In my movies, they have to look extra special, extra beautiful. In Waqt, I used to go to shops with Sadhana and Bhanu Athaiya (the costume designer) to select Sadhana’s costumes. I did the same for Sridevi in Chandani and Lamhe. For Madhuri Dixit in Dil To Paagal Hai, I rejected 54 costumes before I okayed her get-up. In Veer- Zaara, I specifically chose Preity Zinta because I felt that till then she was being caged in western, tom-boyish roles and that she would look fantastic if I could present her as a traditional Punjabi girl next door.
Most of your heroines are named ‘Chandani’. What’s the secret?
There’s no secret. I just love that name- ‘Chandani.’ It represents beauty, purity, love and light to me. So from Rakhi in Daag, Rekha in Silsila to Sridevi in Chandani, many of my heroines are named ‘Chandani’.
How do ou look at the corporatization of Yashraj Films?
Corporatization involves the business side of film-making and given the changing times, it is the need of the hour. Now Yashraj Films is not only making its own films, it has its own music label, it produces home videos and it also distributes films. Making it a corporate just makes the whole process very professional and it ensures its smooth running.