Chandni: Oh Mere Chandni! How Yash Chopra Made a Heroine the Hero

No one asked for this post in particular, but I just want to write about it!  When I watched Darr and Lamhe, it got me thinking about all the past Yash Chopra classics, including Chandni, and why they are so wonderful.

When we did the tweet along to K3G, I noticed for the first time how many Chandni references were in there.  Chandni isn’t exactly the first rich boy-poor girl love story, that would be, like, A Throw of the Dice from 1933, or Shakuntala from a thousand years ago, but it is more iconic than I give it credit for.  It’s more everything than I give it credit for, really.  More influential, more groundbreaking, more feminist, just plain more!

(A Throw of the Dice, of course, also based on Shakuntala.)

It’s also remarkable for the time in which it was released, the late 80s.  Yash Chopra had been plugging along making the kind of relationship dramas he liked, for years.  But they weren’t real big hits lately, even Silsila did poorly at the box office.  Right before Chandni, Yashji tried a return to the kind of action-y films that had given him big hits in the 70s with Vijay, a rehashing of Trishul.  But that failed too, so he swung in the other direction, a big swoony romance, no action scenes at all, lots of songs, no sadness in sight.  And it was a HUGE hit!  Surprised everyone that way.

1989 and 1988 were the years when romance returned.  Everyone remembers Maine Pyar Kiya and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, of course, because they launched Salman and Aamir.  But Chandni was in there too, as big a hit as the other two, and without a fresh young hero to use as a hook.  You could argue that Chandni proved that Rishi and Vinod still had the star power to carry a romance, but come on, look who’s character is in the title!  It was all about Sridevi.  Chandni was proof that a woman could carry a romance just as well as a man.

And it didn’t do this by radically changing the rules of romance or character types or anything.  Ohm Shanti Oshaana, which I LOVE, makes a woman into the “hero”, takes the standard hero-heroine dynamic and reverses it.  She is the active one, she is the pursuer, she is the one with career goals and challenges and other friends and a supportive family and all of that.  He is the one who gets the 2-dimensional “I’m just here to support you” kind of treatment.  I’m not going to say that is easier than what Yash Chopra did with Chandni, but it is certainly less complicated.

In Chandni, Yashji kept our traditional hero-heroine dynamic.  She is the sweet one, the passive one, the one who is pursued and reacts to pursuit.  All she wants is to fall in love and be with her lover.  There are no career goals or big dreams or plans.  But she is the character we follow for the whole film, she is the one who carries our sympathies with her, and she is the one who ultimately gets to decide what she wants in the end.

By structuring it this way, and yet not significantly changing the narrative as a whole, Yashji is forcing us to reconsider all the other “traditional” romances we have watched, in which we follow the hero while the heroine is forgotten for long stretches, and to think about what the heroine must have been doing and feeling and thinking during those times.  Even Yashji’s own Silsila, we follow strictly Amitabh’s perspective.  Rekha is forgotten until she re-appears in his life, Jaya is only relevant in the ways her actions and knowledge effect him.  Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya were radical because they gave equal weight to the hero and heroine’s stories, especially dramatic coming out of the era of Amitabh, but Chandni was in some ways even more radical by making us forget about the hero entirely and just look at our heroine.

(Notice how it is the traditional dynamic, with the active hero calling out to the heroine, but how we get equal screen time given to the hero’s actions and the heroines passive resistance.  That’s what is remarkable about most of the late-80s, early-90s romances)

I wonder which came first, Sridevi or Chandni?  I suspect Chandni, that Yashji conceived of the idea of a romance entirely from the side of the woman, and then sought out an actress strong enough to carry it, not that he found Sridevi and then wrote a script for her.  Actually, I suspect Amitabh came first.  That is, the way Amitabh had gutted the industry in the preceding years, preventing any other major hero from developing.  Yashji knew he couldn’t get a big hero for his film, because there weren’t any, so he structured it around a big heroine instead.

I love Rishi, don’t get me wrong.  And I can occasionally see the appeal of Vinod Khanna.  But by 1989, they were past their peak.  And Sridevi was just hitting hers.  She just lights up the screen in this, while they fade into the background, only there to support her journey.  Her tiny tiny journey, her simple and innocent and sweet desires, which for once are foregrounded in a film, instead of relegated to the “romance track” behind the hero’s antics and the villains schemes.

But in order to talk about her journey, I am entering the territory of SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

 

Chandni begins as a wedding romance, perhaps the ultimate wedding romance.  Supposedly Yashji came up with this idea partly because it is how he met Pam Aunty, his wife.  He heard her sing at a wedding and fell in love.  She also provided some of the vocals for the wedding scenes in this film.  This is also one of the first films to have the heroine as “bridesmaid” sing a long flirtatious song on behalf of the bride, starting a tradition that lasts down to today, usually with a response from the hero on behalf of the groom.

(like this. Which also mixes and matches a little by having the hero’s version be Punjabi and the heroine’s be a south Indian response)

The wedding romance serves several purposes.  Excuse for lots of songs, lots of costumes, lots of jewelry.  A nice nod towards the Chopra’s Punjabi heritage, since the wedding traditions they show are so very very Punjabi.  But more importantly, a wedding is one of the few times when there is a great mixing of people.  Young men and women from completely different walks of life are thrown together in the same household for days at a time, with minimal supervision.

That is why the first half romance is so different from the second, it is this sudden passionate removal from real life moment.  Everything is very hurried and filled with magic and adrenaline.  By the end of a week of wedding rituals, they are already in love, Sridevi is ready to leave her simple village life for the big city, and Rishi is ready to stand up to his family and declare his love.  They come together like a bomb, and are ready to build a new life in the rubble of their old one.

Well, really, Rishi is the bomb.  Just like in a normal romance, he is the faithful pursuer, the flatterer, the flirter, the one who falls first and keeps going until she gives in.  But, although Sridevi is passive, she is still the one who commands the audience sympathy and attention.  With a less interesting actress (KATRINA!) a role like this, the passive pretty girl, would be sooooooooper boring.  But with Sridevi, even while she is shy and flighty and tempted but cautious, you are still drawn into her conflict, sucked in by her eyes and her smile and her manner.

 

But then it gets really interesting.  Well, first it gets really Yash Chopra-y.  “Crippled in a tragic rose petal/helicopter accident” is perhaps the most Yash Chopra sentence ever.  But the aftermath of the crippling is what is so interesting.

Rishi has been the ultimate “active” hero, in terms of narrative.  He pursues, he charms, he manipulates, he makes decisions and drives actions.  And now he is forced to be literally inactive, unable to leave his room, waiting for life to come to him.  Rishi is the perfect actor for this part, his energy is normally so incredibly high, to watch it dissipate and leave him still and sad is shocking.  But this is also when Sridevi’s character really gets interesting.

Suddenly, she is the one acting, not reacting.  In a worse film, she would suddenly turn into some kind of avenging powerful goddess, or brilliant manipulator.  But Yashji, and Sridevi through her performance, keep her very clearly the same sweet gentle simple girl she has been all along.  Her strength is in her passivity.  She takes all the abuse Rishi’s family heaps on her, and just keeps coming to see him, insists on making him happy, on serving him, on loving him no matter what.

But while Sridevi is strong enough to handle this change of circumstances, Rishi is not.  Yashji never really underlines this, but the message of the end of the film, I think, is that Rishi needed to learn to give up control, needed to be punished for his insistence on making decisions for others.  Rishi makes his big mistake by taking back control the only way he can, by banishing Sridevi from his life, deciding for her that life with a cripple, much though they loved each other, would never be happy.

Which brings us to Bombay and the second half.  This is such a great movie for showing regional differences.  In Delhi, everything is bright and loud and sudden.  It is also strong and inflexible.  Chandni is a village girl and Rishi is a city boy, and there is a gap between them that cannot be bridged.  She is poor and he is rich, and that will always be the case.  She is simple and unsophisticated, he is westernized and modern, and that cannot be changed.

But in Bombay, everyone is from somewhere else, and anything is possible.  Sridevi doesn’t have to change herself to fit in.  She can be the same sweet modest traditionally dressed woman she has always been, and she can still navigate the city on her own, find a job, take care of herself.  The changes that she makes to herself are less about the city and more about her broken heart.  Or is that the same thing?  That everyone who comes to Bombay has something which is driving them there, something that makes them change themselves and look for a new place?  I think maybe that is part of it.

In the first half, Sridevi is constant joy, color, movement.  In the second half, her clothes become paler, smaller, her jewelry is less, her movements are quieter.  You can feel how the loss of Rishi has affected her, how she is sleep walking through life.

Until Vinod wakes her up.  While Rishi burst into her life and sparked her into flame, Vinod takes longer, and he sparks not so much flame and ice.  It is her anger and resentment when he miss-judges her which causes her to feel something again. But, again, she doesn’t change into an entirely different person, so her anger disappears quickly and is replaced by the same sweet care and comfort that is the natural feature of the Indian film heroine.  But muted and softened, the joy and fire she had with Rishi is still missing.

In my Lamhe review, I talked about how Yash Chopra is always playing with the idea of the love triangle between passionate first love and calm reasoned later love.  In Lamhe, he shows how the passionate love can turn into a dedicated devotion and lifelong passion (as it does for both Sridevi I and Sridevi II in Lamhe), or it can blow away and disappear as time moves on, never really leaving that first crazed moment of infatuation (as it does for Anil’s feelings for Sridevi I in Lamhe, without him even realizing it).  In other Yashji films, like Kabhi Kabhi or Silsila, he shows the opposite process, how what starts as a calm and reasoned love can blossom into something passionate and warm and giving.  Both elements are necessary, the passion and the reason, but they don’t always arrive at the same time.

What Chandni shows is how sometimes the reason and the passion come together.  Rishi and Sridevi in the first half may have come together suddenly and passionately, but they also made a lifetime commitment.  Sridevi was ready to spend her life with him, waiting on him, making him happy.  Their few interactions post accident were not moments of passionate magic and infatuation, they were her bringing him food, being there everyday, showing the kind of devotion you get from a wife, not a lover.

And then in the second half, Yashji shows how sometimes all the gentle love and devotion and reasonable decision making in the world isn’t enough, and that spark of passion will never blossom.  Both Vinod and Sridevi have been burned before, both of them are heartbroken, both of them are slow and cautious.  But while Vinod finally feels that spark, that moment of passion when he looks at her, Sridevi never really does.  She is ready to marry him, but it is because she has given up on happiness, on ever feeling anything again.  It’s not the same as Raakhee in Kabhi Kabhi, for instance, who is ready to put aside her first love and fall in love again.

(Or Jaya in Silsila. Remember, it wasn’t just Amitabh who was in love with someone else at their wedding)

Sridevi is making the kind of decision here that you almost never see in movies, and which happens a lot in real life.  She is marrying for security and practicality, with no love coming into the equation.  A more “untraditional” heroine would choose to have a career, to live her life unmarried.  A more traditional film would never bother to show this kind of decision, for instance we never learn why Rekha decided to marry Sanjeev Kumar in Silsila.  But in this film, we get to actually see the process by which a woman makes her peace with marrying for security and companionship, but not love.

And, for once, we get to see the hero show up out of the blue and have to deal with the results of the heroine’s decisions, not the other way around.  Instead of Rekha having a broken heart because Amitabh is marrying Jaya (in Silsila!  Not the real world!), we have Rishi, all confident that he controls the universe and will get everything he wants just because he is the hero, only to learn that the world didn’t wait for him, it has moved on.

And, because of the typically brilliant Yash Chopra structure, Vinod gets to learn the same thing at the same time.  While Rishi is learning that Sridevi has made a commitment to someone else while he was working through all his manly pride issues and trying to be “worthy” of her, Vinod is learning that Sridevi is still in love with someone else despite all his good intentions and plans for the future.  The big manly active guys can’t really force or change the sweet passive heroine, no matter how much they try.  Sridevi is still in control of her own emotions and choices.

And Sridevi is the only one who gets exactly what she wants in the end.  Rishi has to give up his fantasies of being the big heroic rescuer and confident lover, and Vinod has to give up his fantasy of a marriage.  But all Sridevi wanted all along was to be married to the man she loves, whether he is crippled or healthy, powerful and in control or grateful to someone else for uniting them, whisking her away from a quiet life in a village or taking her from a job and a life she built on her own in Bombay, she just wants him.  And she gets it in the end, not be changing herself or moving beyond the normal “heroine” actions, but by just being the same steadfast and sweet person she was to begin with.

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37 thoughts on “Chandni: Oh Mere Chandni! How Yash Chopra Made a Heroine the Hero

    • I’m so glad you enjoy the blog! Let me know if there is anything else you would like me to write about, and please check out my To-Do list post to see what I have already covered.

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      • I, like you, am located in Chicago, and would love to learn whether there are theatres in the Chicago area to see Hindi cinema (English subtitles a bonus). I heard, too late, that Fan was screening in Chicago, but doesn’t seem like it was here long.

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        • Oh, if you are in Chicago, I can give you the full rundown of options! The all Indian theater is Moviemax, it’s way west on Golf road, past Milwaukee. It’s technically accessible by public transit, you take the red line to the purple line, and then get off at Davis, switch to the 208 PACE bus going west, and then get off at the theater. But it takes like 2 hours each way, and the busses stop running pretty early, so you really should only go there if you have a car available. It’s basically the main reason I got a car. It is also the only place in the entire region that will play some of the rarer regional films, the Malayalams and Kannada stuff.

          Here’s the website: http://www.moviemaxcinemas.com/index1.php

          AMC River East 21, right off the Magnificent Mile by the Tribune Tower,, they usually get the really big Hindi releases, and occasionally the regional as well. Sometimes the 600 North Michigan theater will play them too (that’s where I saw Dons 1 and 2, and Ra. One), but that’s less common now. Which is too bad, because I like that theater better.

          The Pipers Alley theater, and the theater way out at Lincoln and Devon used to play Indian films too, but they have both been closed for almost a decade, so that’s not really going to help you 🙂

          In the West suburbs, where there is that huge diaspora concentration, there are three really reliable theaters that get everything big, Hindi and regional. AMC South Barrington, Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville (right off the expressway near Naperville), and Regal Cantera in Rosemount (near the Rosemount blue line stop).

          Here’s the Regal website (the whole chain is based in New Jersey, so they really get the Indian-American audience):

          http://www.regmovies.com/theatres/theatre-folder/regal-cantera-stadium-17-rpx-5788

          Oh, and the Old Orchard Mall theater used to show them too, that’s where I saw Fan one of my 6 times, but they are closed for renovations now, and I don’t know when they will open up again.

          If you are interested in buying or renting DVDs (or music or film magazines or anything else like that0, India Bookhouse/Atlantic Video is my favorite store on Devon Avenue (I imagine you’ve already been to Devon? But just in case you need directions, all you have to do is take the Red Line to Loyola, then take the 155 bus until you see hundreds of desis, and you know you are there. It’s loosely concentrated around Devon and Western, but it really spreads out for a good mile around there). Atlantic is my favorite because they are so nice to me and I’ve been going there for over a decade, but Al-Mansoor actually has a slightly better collection, if you are looking for something slightly hard to find. But they are slightly less nice to me, maybe because I only started going there after the other 3 movie stores closed, so like 4 years ago. Also, if you want to make a day of it, Punjabi Dhaba has the best buffet, Tahoora has the cheapest samosas, and Royal Sweets used to be my favorite sweets place, but then the health department shut them down, so now I don’t have one. Taj Sari Palace is my favorite clothing store, India Bookhouse is the best for books (duh), and Annupurma always has Indian music video channels playing on their TVs.

          Phew! I think that’s it, I have dumped my entire Chicago knowledge base on you. It really doesn’t seem that impressive written out like that.

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          • Wow! Thank you for all the info — so generous of you! I’ve never tried Punjabi Dhaba, and ever since I’ve become insanely addicted to hindi (and regional films, when youtube posts ones with English subtitles — which is rare) I’ve been wanting to go to Atlantic and see whether I can buy copies of all my favorite SRK films, and I’m also a Rekha junkie : ) .

            Just watched Fan last night. I wasn’t expecting it to be so good — and it left me thinking about how SRK truly feels about his fans. He always says that the persona he projects in interviews isn’t the real him. The subtleties of his portrayals of Gaurav v. Aryan — I can see why you saw it 6 times. Don, too, was great for a similar reason — I never expected the final twist.

            Well, I’m slowly (or not so slowly) working through all of your posts. Thank you for this incredible blog and resource ❤

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        • I’m glad you are liking the blog! First, for regionals, have you checked out the website einthusan.com? They have a ton of regional stuff, legally (so far as I can tell), and mostly with subtitles. You just have to sit through some ads first.

          For the movie in theaters, the Hindi ones always have subtitles, and I think the regional ones usually do.
          From what I learned from my thesis research, as recently as 10 years ago they would never have subtitles, because the only people coming to see them would be fluent in Hindi. But now there are more and more ABCD type kids who can’t understand Hindi, plus people like us who never knew it, so they always have subtitles. The regional films seem to be just making that transition now, if they are a bigger release playing in a regular multiplex, they will have subtitles, but if it is a smaller release playing at a smaller ethnic theater, maybe not.

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