Circa 1998. The Indian film industry was battered, bleeding and blundering into the future. That is when I first met Yash Chopra, or Yashji as everyone called him.
This was for a story on the NRI or non-resident Indian consumer, who was emerging as the harbinger of hope for Indian cinema. Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) was a hit in the overseas market. Then Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) drove the ritual-loving NRI crazy. It broke several records in the UK. But its producer, Yashraj Films (YRF), got only a fraction of the money the film collected. That is when, in 1997, Chopra decided to set up his own distribution office in the US and UK for his next release. His logic — the exchange rate made the same ticket bring ten times more returns. By distributing on its own, YRF could capture all the revenues its films made. There would be no commission and no leakages. “The A-class (Indian) and overseas sensibilities are the same. If a film does well in these two markets, you are home safe and dry,” he’d said.
It was a surreal conversation; not because it did not make sense. But because here was this poetry-loving, music-oriented chap, acknowledged as a wonderful filmmaker, discussing the best way to monetise his creative product in a bad market. Was he a smart businessman or a romantic filmmaker?
Over the years, as we met either for interviews or at industry dos, it hit me that he was simply a guy who thought ahead of his time. He was as much of a visionary as, say, Zee’s Subhash Chandra. The only difference is the time and environment in which either did their envelope-pushing. Mr Chandra did it when India’s star was on the ascendant. He took risky bets on the future of television and packaging among other businesses.
Mr Chopra’s punts, mostly creative till the late 1990s, were on the changing nature of society and relationships. More importantly, these punts were in a market that was absolutely closed to anything new — psychologically and demographically. He did a Deewar, Kabhie-Kabhie or a Trishul at a time when 1,000-seater theatres dominated the economics of the business. You simply had to make a film that appealed across the country. If you could not do that, no matter how much critics praised it, the film would not work. Remember, there was no context to our cinema-viewing then. There were very few newspapers, one TV station and very patchy exposure to overseas cinema. So, audiences weren’t evolved. Mr Chopra’s genius lay in the fact that he pushed the boundaries within the constraints of the system that existed then and succeeded.
Amitabh Bachchan’s unusual fight with the way things were in Deewar (1975) was not something any filmmaker would have dared to attempt when soppy romances were the norm. The songs and dances were there. But so was a hard-hitting comment on the state of the country. Kaala Patthar, one of Chopra’s failures, is a personal favourite. The movie glamorises coal-mining in a way that only Yash Chopra can. But this story of an educated man who condemns himself to the life of a coal-miner after an act of cowardice is well told.
His scripts were strong. His women usually had backbone. In Kaala Patthar, Parveen Babi is a reporter who pushes the government to nationalise coal mines to save workers from greedy owners. In Trishul, Waheeda Rehman plays an unashamed, unwed mother who brings up her son without lying to him about what he is. The son, played by Mr Bachchan, goes on to wreak financial havoc on his ‘illegitimate’ father.
When corporatisation took off in the last decade Chopra quickly handed over the running of YRF to his son, Aditya Chopra. Soon, it had a team of top notch professionals and is now among the top five studios in India. He was actively involved in lobbying for the industry as part of Ficci, where he headed the entertainment committee. So, on the business side, he kept working for all the things that his generation of filmmakers did not have — better finances, lower taxes, a robust retail environment.
As a filmmaker Mr Chopra seemed more tentative in recent years. He made only one film in the last decade, Veer-Zaara. Clearly, he was trying to figure out this new India where there were no creative limits and boundaries. Just before he hit 80, he directed his last film, the somewhat apocalyptically named Jab Tak Hai Jaan (‘Till there is life’). He died last week, just a few days before its release.