Yashji! I love him. And I’ve already written a lot about him for his birthdays and such. Let’s see if I can come up with something new!
Yashji had a unique ability with people. That’s why I call him “Yashji” and his wife Pamela “Pam Aunty”. Everyone in the industry calls them that. It’s almost weird to hear them referred to as anything else. With Dilip Saheb, the “Sahab” is a gesture of enormous respect. It was added late in his career when he had earned that respect. “Ji” is an honorrific as well, but a bit of an intimate one. By the time Yashji had reached the peak of his career, he was too old for people to casually call him by his first name. But no one would have thought of calling him “Mr. Chopra” or “Chopra Sir” or anything like that. The kids who knew him from back then called him “Yash Uncle”, everyone else called him “Yashji”. And Pamela, she was Pam Aunty, whether you were 10 or 20 or 30. They were the Hindi film industry equivalent of that nice older couple on your block that always had cookies when you were little and were thrilled to see you when you came by during college break.
After Yashji died, people came out of the woodwork with stories. He would call everyone in the industry, whether he had ever worked with them or not, to wish them happy birthday. If he saw a movie and liked it, he would call you up and congratulate you on your performance. That was for strangers, people he had met maybe once at a party, or never. For his friends, the calls were daily, just to wish you good morning, see how you were doing today. When Jennifer Kendal was alive, Yash Chopra was the only figure from the Hindi film industry she allowed into her house. When Anupam Kher’s father died, Yashji spoke for him at the prayer meet. And when Yash Chopra died, the entire Hindi film industry shut down. The Mumbai Film Festival was canceled, stars flew in from shoots all over the world, the only person who didn’t come was Aamir Khan and that was because he was on Hajj. The only thing more important than being at that funeral was a religious pilgrimage.
This is why Yashji was a great, and unique, director. He loved the people he worked with, and he loved the characters he invented, and he saw them for the unique people each of them where. He made the rest of us see them that way too. He was a starmaker, Amitabh and Sridevi and Shahrukh, each of the biggest stars of Hindi film in the past 40 years, were made by Yashji. He wasn’t their first director, but he was the one that found the kernel of who they were and brought it forth onscreen. Those were the three that Yashji really transformed, but everyone he worked with got something special from their Yash Chopra role, Parveen Babi to Anil Kapoor to Jackie Shroff to Juhi Chawla. We saw them, really saw them, in their roles. And we loved them because we saw them.
When Yash Chopra looked at a character, he wanted to understand why they were the way they were, and if they could be any other way. The conflicts in his movie weren’t contrived, they came out of these characters and how they would react in certain situations. All Yashji did was come up with certain people, help his actors embody them, and then allow the conflict to arise once those people started started interacting with each other.
Yashji’s last films are the ones people are most familiar with today. Jab Tak Hain Jaan, Veer-Zaara, Dil To Pagal Hai, those are the ones most readily available, most constantly played. And that is unfortunate, because those are the films where he had the loosest grasp on his characters. His stories are written to grow from the characters and the performances, not be inserted from above, and his last 3 films are a steadily decreasing series of logical characters. Dil To Pagal Hai had perfect clear characters in Karisma and Akshay. They were kind people who would be honest in their love and inspire those who they loved to try to be worthy. But they were also kind people who would immediately step back once they learned the ones they loved didn’t love them back. It’s with Madhuri and Shahrukh that Yashji stumbled, not so much in the characters as in the casting. Madhuri came off as too old for the naive fragile girl she was supposed to play, and Shahrukh came off as too young for the powerful producer he was supposed to be. The conflict between them, his resistance in giving in to love and her inability to turn away from it, that feels contrived, not something that comes naturally from the actors and characters. Veer-Zaara, another stumble. The goal was to establish three genuinely good people who recognize each other as fellow good people. Shahrukh and Preity, two folks who unite over trying to do a selfless thing. And then separate because they are both too selfless to put their own needs over others. And Rani is the third good person, who brings them together because it is the right thing to do. While the characters are perfectly drawn and cast in this case, the essential story doesn’t work, the selfless decision Shahrukh and Preity make is more illogical than selfless. And both these problems are greatly expanded with Jab Tak Hain Jaan, the casting is all over the map, the logic of the characters motivations is no where. And this is how Yashji is now remembered.
Let us look, instead, at his classic film Silsila. SPOILERS START It’s a love quadrangle, but besides the initial impetus (Shashi dying and leaving pregnant Jaya, forcing Amitabh to marry her and turn his back on his girlfriend Rekha who then has to marry Sanjeev), nothing is contrived. It is simply how these 4 people would react in this situation. Amitabh in this film is a romantic, the type who falls in love at first sight and then sends poetry. Jaya is cautious, the type who has to be wooed and won over time and is never really free to express what she wants. Rekha wants magic, flowers and poetry and signs of love. Sanjeev Kumar is casual and practical, takes life as it comes. Amitabh and Rekha are a perfect match, his passionate wooing matches her desire for magic. Of course they fall in love, and of course their marriages to other people can be easily set aside when they meet up again. Amitabh is too determined to believe in his perfect love story, and Rekha is too willing to be won over. And of course, Jaya will suspect what is happening but choose to be quiet and endure rather than push her demands on her husband. Of course Sanjeev will suspect as well but rather than reacting with drama, will react with tamped down practicality that lets Rekha pretend she isn’t hurting him, just as Jaya’s quietness lets Amitabh pretend she doesn’t see what is happening. SPOILERS END
The details of the plot don’t matter, how Jaya and Sanjeev started to suspect, how Amitabh and Rekha met again. The characters were always going to do these things, Amitabh and Rekha were always going to run into a fantasy while Sanjeev and Jaya were always going to dig in and make the best of things. The conflict was if Sanjeev and Jaya’s patience was going to run out before Amitabh and Rekha’s passion. If Rekha was going to break through her fantasy of romance, if Amitabh was going to give up on his stubborn determination to have true love. That’s the conflict that fascinated Yashji, the internal conflict. He didn’t want to make large loud obvious statements about society, he wanted to strip bare the inner lives of his characters and make statements about people, the things they do and why they do them.
Yashji’s films tend to be dismissed as fantasies, big houses and fancy saris, escapism. But all of that was just to support the central story. In Lamhe, Sridevi has two roles, and part of us seeing the two characters as substantially different from each other is the way they are dressed differently. In Chandni, the big fantasy house of Rishi in the first half is to contrast with the small crowded room Sridevi rents in the second half. In Kabhi Kabhi, Amitabh’s aggressively modern house is to show how he has rejected the old-fashioned poetry of his youth and embraced science and modern superficial life in his older age. It’s not about the songs, the clothes, the sets, any of the “Yash Chopra” touches. It’s about the humans in the stories. Whether you are watching Deewar or Trishul or Aaina or Darr or anything else, keep your eye on the characters. Crime film or family drama or thriller, it’s the humans that matter.
Yashji told us that in his first film. The first movie he made was about a Muslim man adopting a baby born to a Hindu couple, and the first song he directed was titled “You Aren’t Hindu or Muslim, but Human”.