In 2004, at the 50th anniversary of the Filmfare Awards, the Swiss Consulate in India presented two special awards to film personalities who had contributed to the Swiss cause. Shah Rukh Khan was the recipient of the first and Yash Chopra the other. Quite fitting because if you think of Switzerland as a Bollywood fan, you picture Shah Rukh serenading (insert heroine name here) in a YRF film. The romantic tales even earned Yash Chopra the moniker–King of Romance. But before all this, Yash Chopra was more than this. He was an astute filmmaker who made films about all emotions, some more complex than others. And if there is something that proves that, it is his 1981 hit Silsila and the 1975 milestone film Deewar. Also read: Amitabh reveals secret behind his iconic look in Deewar
For the uninitiated, they said Silsila was called a hit even before the first scene was shot (sadly it flopped in the end). It was the casting coup of the century, something that has not been emulated since as well. Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan–real life couple–were cast as a husband and wife. To make things spicier, Rekha was cast as the woman with whom Amitabh’s character was having an affair as well. Three of the biggest actors in Hindi cinema were virtually imitating their real life equations in a film about infidelity. It is impossible to repeat.
But Silsila was not just a gimmick. It is a well made film that has stood the test of time. Critics of the time were unkind to it, referring to it as a ‘polyester yarn’. But in the four decades since, many filmmakers have explored infidelity, from Karan Johar in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna to Anurag Basu in Murder. Save for Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, no film has been able to come close to it, let alone better it. The way Silsila captured the subtle nuances of passion, guilt, duty, and jealousy, few films have since or before.
And that was all Yash Chopra’s doing. His masterful direction made sure that the audience would root for two ‘adulterers’ (pardon my use of the archaic term) in a time when adultery was almost a crime, not just a taboo in India. It was only his cinematic genius through which he could picturise a song on the said couple, transforming it into one of the most romantic songs ever made in Hindi cinema. Both aesthetically and emotionally, Ye Kahaan Aa Gaye Hum is a masterpiece.
But to some, Silsila was still about romance, even if it is of the ‘forbidden’ kind. For those naysayers, there is Deewar: Salim-Javed’s tale of angst, greed, ambition, and duty that Yash Chopra translated into a masterpiece on celluloid. There is romance in Deewar but it is incidental, almost ancillary to the main plot. The biggest legacy of the film is establishing Amitabh Bachchan as virtually the numero uno star in the industry. But it was much more than that.
Deewar was a concentration of a generational frustration and angst against a system that they felt was unjust. The film was a landmark in Hindi cinema, setting formulae for heroism, family dynamics, and what an anti-hero is, that would be used for decades to come. And yet again, Yash Chopra managed to take an angry, bitter rebel and portray him as the crowd favourite.
One has to just go through Yash Chopra’s filmography to understand just how much the King of Romance thing is a misnomer. His first film Dhool Ka Phool was about religious fundamentalism, the 1965 multi-starrer Waqt focused on destiny and the insignificance of man, and the masterful 1993 release Darr was the darkest take on love and obsession Hindi cinema had seen till then. It is testament to Yash Chopra’s skill that some of the early great performances from the biggest superstars of Bollywood came from his films.
Yash Chopra would have turned 90 on Tuesday, September 27. Countless tributes would be written and stories shared. And of course, that tag would follow him still. But I hope there are those who remember him for the other things, the films he made apart from the candy floss romances, where he explored the hitherto uncharted boundaries of human emotion. And he did it all with the deftness of a master. Here’s to Yash Chopra, who was more than just about romance.