Okay, Chopra time! This isn’t a very flashy family. Or a very scandalous one. But it is an uber-talented one, with a huge impact on the development of Hindi film. (for all of my Hindi Film 101 posts, go here)
Usual Disclaimer: The following may or may not be true. I don’t know these people in real life. However, this is the general background that is known by most Hindi film fans. If you are new to the films and trying to find your way, or a long time fan but have somehow missed this particular area, read on!
BR Chopra is the founder of the family. Technically the same generation as Yash Chopra, his older brother, but they were more like father and son. BR was born in 1914 in colonial India. His father was a municipal employee in Ludhiana in North India. There were multiple children, I can’t find a clear source as to how many. But what you need to know is that BR was 18 years older than Yash, and his relationship to Yash was much closer to father/son than brother/brother.
Those 18 years were important not just for the two of them, but for India as a whole. BR came of age in Colonial India. He got a good education (an M.A.) and a job on a magazine, slowly rising through the ranks until he owned the magazine. He was a writer, but his interest was in film (like me!). His articles were about the film world, and eventually his magazine focused on that as well. Finally, he made the jump from writing about film to making films, beginning to plan for the production of his first film as a producer/director/writer when he was 30.
All of this was regulated and steady and reliable. Education, job, working your way up, finally starting an independent venture. This is what you can do when your world is set and reliable. And through out the Quit India movement and WWII, BR’s world stayed fairly regulated. Until he was 33, when he lost everything.
BR’s magazine, and the film studio he was trying to found, were in Lahore. Which had a vibrant film and artistic scene in the 1930s, a wonderful place to build a life and a career. BR not only had business endeavors there, he also had a wife and a child. And then in 1947, just like millions of others, he lost everything in Partition when Lahore landed on the Pakistani side of the border.
Well, not “everything”. He still had the wife and the child, which was better than most of the victims of Partition. But the magazine, the beginnings of a film career, all his professional contacts and artistic collaborators, those were all lost in one stroke and he had to start over from scratch in Bombay.
And joining him in Bombay were 3 of his brothers, Dharam Raj, Raj, and Yash. Yash was the youngest, the youngest of all the children of the family. Yash had spent much of his childhood shuttling between households, spending the majority of his time living in Lahore with BR. He already had a bit of a transitory existence, thanks to being the youngest of multiple children all of whom took a hand in raising him. And then, when he was 15, Partition happened. Yash experienced it not from the side of maturity and consideration and responsibility, like BR, but as a gaping wound from which he never quite recovered. In later interviews, he remembered both the good Muslim friends who he grew up with and never saw again, and at the same time, excitement of roaming with the mob as part of a teenage gang.
(There are consistent reports that Hiroo Johar, Karan’s mother in green here, was one of Yash and BR’s sisters. It’s even in wikipedia! But having just read Karan’s autobiography, I can tell you that is NOT true. It was a big part of his childhood that both of his parents were only children, he grew up with no cousins or family around. Although he always called Yash and Pam “uncle” and “aunty”, and Adi and Uday did the same with his parents, that was just an honorific because the families were close friends)
While BR had an excellent education flowing seamlessly from school to college to Masters, Yash’s education was choppy and interrupted. He landed in Bombay with his brother in his early 20s. His other two brothers had already found work in film there, as a cameraman and in film distribution. And BR was doing spectacularly well. It’s understandable that Yash would be attracted to following in their footsteps.
Before moving on with Yash, let me take a step back and talk about BR’s successes. BR Chopra is so much more than just “Yash Chopra’s older brother”. In fact, I didn’t even realize they were related the first few times I heard about them as directors. Both of them are just towering talents in India film history. But very different talents.
BR was known for his cutting edge social dramas. He was a very post-Independence kind of filmmaker, with a socialist edge to him. Focused on the common man, the struggle, the ills of an old society. Nothing was taboo for his films, whether it was widow remarriage, prostitution, or extra-marital affairs. BR’s characters are supremely human, forgivable. His filming style is laudable, clear and interesting camerawork, narratives that move easily point to point. But the message is above all else in his work.
His messages are powerful enough to last through to today. Naya Daur, his second film and first big hit, has some striking similarities to Lagaan. His very first film, the more modest hit Ek Hi Raasta, has certain key themes in common with Dabangg. For 46 years, from 1956 to 1992, BR kept directing and producing, always with his finger on the pulse of society.
(A still from Gumrah, in which our married heroine is having an affair with Sunil Dutt at the piano, while married to Ashok Kumar with the pipe.)
Backing up to that first hit for a moment. BR had arrived in Bombay years earlier, in 1948. His first movie as a director came out in 1951 (Afsana, an early entry in both the lost-and-found genre, and the trading-places genre). The film industry of the early Independence era India was both harder and easier to break into than the industry of today. To get those first few hits, those first few chances as a director, that was much much harder. Now, you just need to be hired on at Dharma or Yash Raj and as an assistant director and work your way up. But back then, you would struggle and take chances and try to meet people and beg for work and all of that for years. And then be thrown in as director to sink or swim with no formal training. On the other hand, once you had a hit film, it was just accepted that you would start working towards starting your own “banner”. Now, most directors except to work their entire careers for other people. Dharma and Yash Raj and UTV and Excel and everyone else, they just bring in “directors for hire” as needed. Directing is not seen as a stepping stone to studio ownership any more.
Some terminology clarification. In Indian film, what Yash Raj has now is what would be called a “studio”. What BR Chopra founded in 1957 with Naya Daur is a “banner”. A banner just means a production house, a name that you can put up before the title screen of your film. Most films in the 1950s were made by these kinds of “banners”. What was (and is) very very rare is a full-fledged studio. That is, a space with a backlot and trailers and offices and actual physical infrastructure. The “banners” would rent space on soundstages from studios, or take a skeleton crew with them on “outdoor shoots”. Bills and payments and everything else would be done out of some tiny office space somewhere (in his biography, Karan Johar remembers that Dharma Productions used to be run out of a converted storage space behind a factory), or even just out of your own living room.
The biggest difference between a “Banner” and a “Studio”, to me, is that a “Banner” is a family business, and a “Studio” may or may not be. For BR, after 1957, whether it was official or not, everyone in his family worked for BR Films. From his teenage son Ravi to his just-out-of-his-teens brother Yash.
But Yash wanted to make it official. He wanted to start a “real” career in films, to be a director like his brother. And for whatever reason, BR did not want that. This is where we get into the “I don’t know these people” area. I know the facts that are public record, but I can only speculate as to what brought them about.
BR would not and did not hire Yash to work with him. Instead, to pursue his career as a director, Yash had to go behind his brother/father’s back and find work with I.S. Johar, an old family friend and frequent collaborator with BR. Only after he had the job and was already working for I.S. Johar did BR find out about it. And now that it was a fiat accompli, he gave his tentative support to Yash’s career dreams, and brought him on as an assistant director, officially, in BR Films.
(I.S. Johar is an interesting guy, a character actor, a writer, and a director)
But, why? Did he want him to prove his dedication and talent by finding work outside of the family first? Did he sincerely not believe in Yash’s talent and thought the effort to be hired on by an outsider would get it out of his system? Was it a generational thing, he thought Yash shouldn’t have it all handed to him, he should struggle a little the way his older brothers had struggled?
I wouldn’t worry about this so much, except that it is not the last time that there has been an odd conflict between BR and Yash. And their families. But first there were several smooth years. Through out the 50s and 60s, Yash and BR worked together and brought hit after hit to BR Films. No one was quite sure at this point where BR ended and Yash began. They were a seamless directing/producing team.
Yash’s first official film as a director was Dhool Ka Phool in 1959, when he was 27. It may have said “Yash Chopra” in the credits, but there was a definite flavor of BR in there as well. The plot involved illegitimate children, forgiving husbands, and lots of flawed but human people. Very BR Chopra.
(Gorgeous poster, but not really the kind of excess and fantasy that we think of with Yash Chopra.)
But it also had things that we would come to know as “Yash Chopra”. A multi-starrer kind of plot, complex emotional connections between people, a woman torn between two loves. And specifics of the plot that are remarkably similar to elements in Yash’s later films Trishul and Kabhi Kabhi. Along with elements that call back to the early years of Hindi film when BR got started, a plot twist right along the lines of Awara, and Ashok Kumar in an important role.
The BR/Yash collaboration continued through Dharmputra (to this day, one of the few Hindi films to deal with the extremist Hindu movement), Waqt, Aadmi Aur Insaan, and Ittefaq (one of the first Hindi films without songs or an interval). All 4 of these films are high quality, but Waqt is the most important to Yash’s career. Waqt was the first true example of what would come to be known as the “Yash Chopra Film”, not just a “BR Chopra film directed by his baby brother Yash”.
Waqt had the lost-and-found theme which BR had experimented with before. But while BR tended to use it in a sort of Awara kind of way, to explore the artificiality of class and caste and religious divides, Yash used it purely to explore the effects of separation on these particular people. Perhaps because, for Yash, traumatic upheaval and separation was not the metaphorical thought experiment it was for BR, but rather the lived experience of his teen years?
In general, Yash discovered with Waqt the power of these emotions. Grief, anger, hatred, and most of all, Love. All coated in a fine gloss of filmi style and stars to help them shine. Waqt is a 5 star film, Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, and Shashi Kapoor as the heroes and Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore as the heroines. And that’s not even mentioning Balraj Sahni, Rehman, and Madan Puri in the character roles. Waqt is also a fashion-forward film, the movie to introduce the “Sadhana Suit”, a Salwar so tight she had to be sewn into it. Not to mention the cool cars, modern suits, and fabulous interior spaces that all came bursting off of the screen. Waqt is that kind of movie, everything is just a bit too much. Too sentimental, too tragic, too youthful, too bright, too song-filled, too star-filled. Well, “too much” if you come to it from BR Chopra. While BR did lovely little human level stories with spare black-and-white cinematography and simple melodious songs, Waqt was something else entirely.
(Sadhana and her suit! And romance and color and flowers, and all the Yash Chopra touches)
And then right after Yash found his voice with Waqt, BR dragged him away from it and gave him Aadmi Aur Insaan, an old-school anti-corruption courtroom drama. And then Ittefaq, which could not be less of a Yash Chopra film! No songs, no costume changes, no relationship drama, none of the things that make his art soar.
Now, again, I don’t know exactly what happened. But after Ittefaq, Yash was done. He walked out on his big brother’s banner and his house and struck out on his own, at age 38. And shortly before that, he got married.
Famously, he first saw Pamela Chopra (or “Pam Aunty” as everyone calls her) at a wedding where he heard her singing. It is the same first meeting he recreated over and over again in Chandni, in Silsila, even Jab Tak Hain Jaan had a young woman singing a Punjabi folk song at a family event (a birthday instead of a wedding, but still close).
(For Yash Chopra, this is all just a pale imitation of round faced older non-actress Pamela Singh at a family wedding back in 1969)
This one moment of their love story ended up changing the lives of millions worldwide, by the way. We have Yash Chopra to thank for the “filmi wedding” sequence in dozens of films, because for him there was nothing more romantic than meeting at a wedding. And because of all those “filmi wedding” sequences, suddenly millions worldwide started thinking a wedding necessarily includes dance routines, week long celebrations, and possibly falling in love with a nice boy while you are there.
That first meeting, and the marriage which followed, was arranged by their families. Both parties were slightly over the hill by Indian terms. Yash was 40, and Pamela was 34. But for 40 years, they were ecstatically happy together and shared every part of their lives. Including Yash’s films. Pam Aunty sang for Yash on several soundtracks, and more than that, she was present at script meetings, music sittings, brought food to outdoor shoots, was part of every small moment of production.
(There are many many cute photos of the two of them like this. From the photographic record, it appears that they never stopped smiling, or holding hands, for 40 years)
Which is why I have to wonder if we have Pam Aunty to thank for the birth of Yash Raj Films? It’s certainly interesting timing, that he finally broke from his brother right after their marriage. It could be just a combination of events, all coming together. Maybe the whole reason his brother wanted to get him married was because he was wanting to take on more responsibilities and strike out on his own and BR thought a wife would distract from that? Or maybe Yash felt he couldn’t found his own banner until he had someone to help run his household, so he no longer had to live with his brother? Or maybe it was just turning 40 and taking stock of his life?
But I could also see new bride Pamela seeing clearly that her new husband was being stifled and dying inside, forced to follow a vision that was no longer his own. However it happened, it is certainly true that Yash struck out on his own shortly after his marriage, moved out of his brother’s house, and never worked with him again. And no one involved, on either side, has ever talked about exactly why this happened.
(Here they are at their wedding, with Rajesh Khanna. Pam Aunty and Yashji are on the right, don’t know who the woman in the middle is)
Okay, that’s enough for now! Come back on Tuesday for Yash Chopra Part 2, Ravi Chopra, and The Mahabharata!