Hindi Film 101: The Chopras and Amitabh

Another post on Amitabh in honor of his second birthday.  This one about his relationship with the Chopra family and Yash Raj films (part 1 of the Chopra series here, part 2 here)

Usual Disclaimer: Everything I am saying may or may not be true, I don’t know this people in real life.  But this is the background that most people have who are longtime fans of Hindi film, so if you are new to the films, or somehow missed this bit of the backstory, here it is!


In the last section, I talked about how BR Chopra was a film pioneer, and also Yash Chopra’s much older brother, essentially his foster father.  BR initially tried to discourage Yash from working in film.  After Yash had proved his abilities working for someone else, BR brought him into the family production house and Yash started directing.  In 1965, he directed the first real “Yash Chopra” picture, Waqt.  It was very different from BR’s social dramas with a message, instead of it was all about color and songs and romance and costumes and emotions.  It was a massive hit, but BR didn’t like Yash build on that, instead putting him back on making BR-type films.  Culminating in Ittefaq, the last film Yash made for BR Films.

Image result for ittefaq

(Remake just announced, also produced by BR Films)

In 1969, the same year Ittefaq came out, Yash Chopra got married to Pamela Chopra.  It was a semi-arranged marriage.  On my last post, datablue reminded me of an interview with Pam Aunty from a few years back.  She went into more detail about their marriage there.  A mutual friend had arranged their meeting, although she had already seen Yash before at a wedding where she was singing and at a cricket match where she sat behind him.  The initial meeting went terribly, they were both stiff and bored.  But they met again the next day, after having already turned down the match to both their families.  And this time they were relaxed and themselves, and hit it off immediately.  And Yash admitted that he remembered her both from the wedding and from the moment at the cricket match years earlier.  Which I think is super romantic!  That he remembered her from so long before.

Pam Aunty also went into a little detail about the situation she had married into.  With no specifics, she said that there was “unpleasantness” between the brothers.  That she felt her arrival made it worse, although Yash always told her it didn’t.  That after they moved out, Yash always respected his brother BR enormously, but they would meet very rarely.  And that BR’s wife and son Ravi never really forgave Yash for moving out.  But she never says what the “unpleasantness” was!

Image result for yash chopra br chopra

(Here’s one of those rare meetings in their later years)

Lacking an specifics, here is my guess.  My guess is that it was a professional issue which spilled into the personal.  Post-Waqt, Yash’s popularity and talent could not be denied.  And yet he was still just a director for BR Films, not on his own.  Plus, BR tried to force him back into the BR mold, especially with Ittefaq which could not have been less Yash Chopra-y.  There was already the odd way that BR forced Yashji to get a job with some other director before he would let him work for BR Films.  From the outside, it looks to me like BR was just never going to see Yashji as an independent talent in his own right, was never going to let him grow up as an artist or a person, was not going to trust him to follow his own vision.

And Yashji finally bringing home a wife, at age 38, that was a pretty clear sign that he was ready to be an adult, to have his own household and make his own decisions.  I imagine that is where Pam Aunty was getting the sense that she somehow made the situation worse.

Finally, reading between the lines of the interview again, it sounds like the real breaking point between the families was when Yashji and Pam Aunty moved out of the shared household.  Which would have been around the same time that Yashji set up his own film house.  Again, personal and professional are all mixed up.  His own house, and his own production house, both of those would be a slap in the face to his older brother, like he no longer needed him, no longer respected him.  And this insult to BR’s status both personally and professionally is what his wife and son Ravi could never get over.

To make it worse, Yashji pretty quickly proved that he was equally talented as his older brother and capable of running his own life.  Not right away, it took a couple years for the first Yash Raj film to come out.  But once it came out, Yashji proved himself.

Yash’s first independent film was Daag: A Poem of Love starring megastar Rajesh Khanna, along with two popular heroines, Sharmila Tagore and Raakhee.  He built on the love triangle concept that he had tried out with Raaj Kumar and Sunil Dutt and Sadhana in Waqt, and created the same conflict between choices that he would keep all the way through to his final film, Jab Tak Hain Jaan.  What’s lovely about Yashji’s triangles is that there is no “wrong” choice.  Everyone involved is a good person and a sincere person (well, except for Darr).  Most often, it is a matter of balancing compatibility and companionship with passionate poetic love.

Image result for daag a poem of love

(and in this case, there were also two kids involved)

While the ultimate success of the film is because of Yashji’s sensitive direction, the initial funding and support is because Rajesh Khanna agreed to be in it.  This was possibly Yashji’s biggest talent, finding and nurturing stars.  He had already done it with Rajesh, getting from him one of his all time great performances in Ittefaq.  And he knew that he needed a star to make Daag work and convinced Rajesh to do it.  Even giving him the second half of the name of his studio, “Raj” for “Rajesh”.

Before Yash Raj productions made its follow-up film, Yashji put in his time nurturing more of those star relationships.  Well, actually, building up the stars to begin with.  I don’t want to say that Yash made Amitabh into AMITABH, but he certainly had a large hand in it.  Yash was hired to direct Deewar, helped pick Amitabh for the lead and groom him into the role.  A year later, he asked Amitabh to star in a multi-starrer Yash himself would produce and direct, Kabhi Kabhi.

Kabhi Kabhi is just the funnest movie.  And also a remarkable blending of characters and stars, making sure each has their moment to shine.  It’s perhaps one of the few Amitabh films where Amitabh is balanced by all his co-stars.  In his autobiography, Rishi complained about how Amitabh got so much credit for taking over films and people forget that was because producers and directors would give him the script backed roles.  That is NOT true in Kabhi Kabhi!  Rishi gets maybe more screentime than Amitabh, and the strongest internal conflicts are in the heroines, Neetu and Waheedaji and Raakhee have the meatiest dramatic moments.  And Shashi is in there too, in a small role on paper, but with a few scenes where he almost manages to steal the whole film.  But it’s an important movie in Amitabh’s career as well, because it showed that he could be a success and play more roles than just the lower class “action hero”.

Here’s something interesting about Yash Raj films, right from the start.  While Yash Chopra was a genius director, he didn’t direct all the movies he produced.  And he didn’t produce all the movies he directed.  But he did have a clear idea of what would make a “Yash Raj Film”, even if he wasn’t directing it.  Doosra Aadmi (1977), Noorie (1979), both were romances with great visuals and costumes and striking lead performances.

Yash Raj also started to develop a bit of a stable of stars.  Shashi Kapoor, Poonam Dhillon, Waheeda Rahman, whether the film was directed by Yashji or not, if it was a Yash Raj production, they would appear in it.  Yashji was great at showcasing stars in his films, and I think that was partly because he really cared about and knew these people in real life.

Image result for yash chopra poonam dhillon

(Here he is at Poonam Dhillon’s birthday, a good 40 years after he launched her in Noorie)

After Yashji’s death, all these stories came out about how he would call people on their birthdays, or congratulate them on a good film release, or just call to see how they were doing.  Everyone in the industry, from Vidya Balan to Anupum Kher had a Yashji story.  I don’t think Yashji was sitting there thinking “If I call Vidya to wish her happy birthday, maybe she will do a film with me in 3 years”, but I do think he must have realized at some point that his natural ability to build connections with people could have huge professional advantages.  In ways both commercial and artistic.  Yashji was able to think outside the box with casting because he knew these people in real life and knew what they were capable of.  And he could also assemble these amazing casts, because he knew these people in real life and they all liked him.  That’s what kept Yash Raj films going, even if his last film wasn’t a hit, he could still get together an amazing cast for his follow-up.  And even if all his directing work was being done to profit another producer, he could still use his time on set to build those connections with the stars and bring them on for his next “home” production.

These truly were “home” productions.  Again, from that Pam Aunty interview, she talked about how the business was run out of the house.  Writers would have sittings in the living room and she would have to feed them lunch.  The whole family would go along on “outdoor” shoots during the kids’ school vacations.  Pam Aunty herself would be consulted about all music choices, as that was her area of expertise.

And this also meant that young Aditya Chopra was getting the training that no amount of money can buy.  He was born in 1971, the same year Yash Raj Films was launched.  He spent his childhood hearing narrations from writers, music sitting, and going on outdoor shoots.  I want to talk about how Aditya took all that training and used it in his adulthood, but first let’s check in with the other Chopras and see how they were doing after Yash’s exodus!

Image result for yash chopra pamela

(Also, check out baby Uday and Aditya!  So cute!)

BR had kept directing at the same time Yashji was directing for BR Films.  In fact, that could have been another part of their falling out.  Perhaps Yashji wanted to spend more time on his own films and less time assisting BR with his.  Or maybe he wanted more credit for his contributions to his big brother’s films.  Certainly it is not a good sign that the first BR Films production after Yash left was a remake of BR’s very first film from the 1950s.  And starring a past-his-prime Dilip Kumar.  The whole thing feels more like a look backwards than a look forwards.  His next, Dhund, was a rehash of the most unusual elements of Ittefaq, but with lessor stars (Sanjay Khan instead of Rajesh Khanna).

And then in 1975, BR handed it back over to the younger generation when he gave his son Ravi his first film, Zameer.  It’s hard to tell what the backstory is for all of this, I am just going on the little crumbs dropped in interviews and analysis of the filmography for these people.  But it is true that both Yashji and Ravi were 29 when BR let them direct their first films.  And that both Yashji and Ravi were made to assist BR in multiple films before they were allowed to direct on their own.

Image result for ravi chopra

(Also, Yashji was more handsome than Ravi.  At least in this photo, I can’t seem to find one of Ravi when he was young!)

However, while Yashji remembers and has repeated multiple times that BR made him find work outside the family before he would be hired at home, I haven’t heard a story like that about Ravi.  Which either means that Ravi was just handed the keys to the kingdom, or that he went through the same process but didn’t resent it as much as Yash.

Zameer was another old-wine-in-new-bottles film.  A version of Bombai Ka Baboo, an old Dev Anand starrer.  But with newer stars, Amitabh and Saira Banu and Shammi Kapoor playing the patriarch.

Here’s the interesting thing.  While BR Films had alternated between BR and Yashji productions until now, after Zameer, instead of directing his own movies or helping his son make more, BR Chopra switched to hiring on outside directors.  Huh!  Could be because he realized Ravi just didn’t have that brilliance that Yashji did, could be because BR was worn out and couldn’t make as many films himself, could be just because they were doing better and wanted to bring on paid talent instead of doing all the work themselves.  But it’s definitely noticeable that at the same time Yashji was hitting his creative peak, his nephew/brother Ravi was struggling to so much as make one film every 5 years.

Zameer was followed five years later by The Burning Train.  Which is AMAZING!!!  Full credit to Ravi Chopra, this film is ambitious and inventive and filled with more stars than you would think one film could hold.  It’s India’s version of The Poseidon Adventure/The Towering Inferno/Airport/and all the other disaster movies America cranked out in the 70s.  An assortment of characters each with their own backstory and problems are assembled in some large modern structure, there is a disaster, and they have to work together to survive it.

(It’s just the best movie!  School children!  Fire!  A train!)

I wonder, was The Burning Train Ravi Chopra’s Waqt?  The film that fully expressed his personal taste and talent?  And then did he bow to his father’s wishes and go back down the same old path?  This is a complete guess on my part, just from filmographies.  But Ravi never really made another film like this.  His next film was back to the social dramas about workers and families and injustice, just like BR had been cranking out since the 1950s.  And so was his next and his next and his next.  And BR Films got increasingly irrelevant with each film.

I am basing this not on box office figures, but on star cast.  Ravi went from Saira Banu and Amitabh and Shammi Kapoor in his first film, to Vinod Khanna and Dharmendra and Hema Malini and Parveen Babi and Jeetendra and Neetu Singh in his next (really, see The Burning Train!  It’s amazing!), and then suddenly he’s working with Dilip Kumar in 1983, when Dilip is hardly a top name star any more.  And then he hits a long string of films with Raj Babbar.  Who is talented and all, but not the biggest box office draw of the 1980s.  While Yash Raj Films was consistently drawing the biggest names of the day, BR Films had fallen far far behind.  Sure, they still got critical acclaim, but their releases had slowed and their industry power was less.

And maybe that was a blessing in disguise?  Maybe this slow slide encouraged outside the box thinking, and a lack of false pride?  However it happened, in 1988 Ravi Chopra got an idea which turned out to be one of the biggest landmarks in all of Indian popular culture, heck, in all of Indian history!  He decided, why not switch from films to TV?  And why not make a TV show based on the biggest story in all of India, The Mahabharata?

Image result for ravi chopra the mahabharata

(Here’s Ravi on set with his actors in costume around him)

At the time, satellite TV had still not arrived in India.  Which meant state-sponsored Doordarshan was the only channel.  Doordarshan was fine, sponsored some really good TV movies during the 80s, had some nice family friendly programming available on it, but for true popular media that swept through all layers of society equally, film was where it was at, not TV.  Until Mahabharat.

All those stories about hit TV shows, how shops would close so people could rush home to watch them, how actors were recognized as the names of their characters on the street, how streets would be deserted while they were playing, multiply all of that by a 100 and you can come close to the importance of the Mahabharat.  It ran for two years and 94 episodes, covering almost every detail of the story.  In terms of the Chopra family, it completely over-shadowed everything else BR and Ravi did in the rest of their career.  And it kept BR films afloat through the 90s as they struggled to find their way in the new era of NRI romances.  BR directed his last film in 1992, a drama about police versus family responsibility featuring slightly over the hill leads, Dharmendra and Raj Babbar.  And Ravi directed his last film of the 90s in 1991, Pratigyabadh, a Mithun Chakraborty B level action film based on the cast.

BR Films could have been left to die a slow death at this point.  While Yash Raj expanded and expanded and came to dominate the entire industry.  But BR had two more tricks up his sleeve, and Ravi had two more decent films his his directing abilities.  And so, in 2003, BR Films came back with a bang with Baghban.  The pendulum had swung back around to social family dramas, and suddenly there was a place for BR’s concept of a father and mother who are forgotten by their children.  Especially with all that Mahabharat money funneled into a star cast, good songs, and elaborate sets.  And two leads pulled from the old-time connections of back when BR Films was relevant, who had swung back around to being relevant themselves instead of just over the hill.

They managed to recreate a little bit of the magic a few years later with Baabul.  BR came up with the idea gain, while Ravi directed, and they brought back almost the same cast as Baghban.  But then BR died.  Suddenly Ravi was on his own.  No connections or story ideas or business supervision available from his father.  Would he do as well as his cousin Aditya or not?

Come back in a week to see the end of the story! (special one off edition of Hindi Film 101 going up on Thursday for Rangoon)

1 thought on “Hindi Film 101: The Chopras and Amitabh

  1. `

    I love the “. . . rare meeting in their later years” photo. I’m sure it just was the accident of when the shutter clicked, but they sure look to be in parallel universes.


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