Master filmmaker Yash Chopra and his working girls
He is best known for his sweeping love stories, but even in these, the women had meaty roles. Many had jobs, built their own lives. Perhaps the best example is Chandni.
The most notable part of Netflix’s four-part documentary series The Romantics is the discovery that Aditya Chopra is real. In recent years, only a few people could claim to have met him, and now here he is in the flesh, articulate and forthright.
The series is a nostalgic homage to the films and legacy of Yash Chopra, Aditya’s late father. Though Yashji, as he is fondly called, directed the epic trilogy of Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Kaala Patthar (1979), featuring Amitabh Bachchan in his angry-young-man avatar, and Shah Rukh Khan’s second bad-guy outing Darr (1993), he is primarily identified with lush romances set in elegant upper-class homes and foreign locales (usually Switzerland).
Equally, as Rani Mukerji points out in the series, he is known for making “woman-centric” films that afforded his heroines dignity and self-respect.
I was always struck by the fact that so many of Yash Chopra’s female protagonists were working women. This was unusual in a time when women in Bollywood films often just were. No one knew what they did. One assumed they were just waiting to marry – perhaps a true enough mirror of real life back then. But not in Chopra’s films. In Trishul, Sheetal (Hema Malini) is a general manager who plays golf and tennis in her spare time. In the same film, Geeta (Rakhee Gulzar), in her no-nonsense printed silk saris and matching blouses, plays an efficient secretary to a businessman. In Kaala Patthar, Sudha (Gulzar again) is a doctor and Anita (Parveen Babi), a journalist.
After watching the Netflix series, I revisited some of Yash Chopra’s most popular romantic movies, including Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Silsila (1981), Lamhe (1991), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and Veer-Zaara (2004). But I think it’s Chandni (1989), starring Sridevi, Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna, that offers the best, most complete example of the quintessential “Yash Chopra woman”. The film came at a time when Chopra was reeling from a string of failures (Vijay in 1988; Faasle in 1985; even Silsila, despite all the hype).
It was the era of action movies with titles such as Aag Ka Gola, Nafrat ki Aandhi and Vardi. The tide was turning towards softer, gentler cinema (Maine Pyar Kiya was released in 1989 too), but no one knew that at the time. Rachel Dwyer, in her book Yash Chopra: Fifty Years in Indian Cinema (2002), quotes the filmmaker as saying that Chandni was something of a “suicide attempt”. “The distributors were worried. How can you have Vinod Khanna and no action? One distributor even left [because of this].” But Chopra was tired of action and wanted to make the film he wanted to make, a film after his own heart. The gamble paid off. Chandni was one of the biggest hits of the year.
In it, Sridevi plays a young woman from a small town who meets Rohit (Rishi Kapoor) at a Delhi wedding. The two fall in love and decide to marry, despite opposition from his wealthy family. Then tragedy strikes. Rohit is in an accident and becomes wheelchair-bound. He thinks he’s being cruel to be kind, and tells her he no longer loves her. Chandni returns his ring and takes a train to Bombay to make a new life for herself. When she finally lands a job, the film offers what, to me, is its most memorable line. The young woman whispers to herself, relief and joy on her face, “Ab main saans le sakti hoo, jee sakti hoon, zinda reh sakti hoon (Now I can breathe, I can live, I can stay alive).”
A while later, her boss Lalit (Vinod Khanna), also single and lonely, proposes to her and she accepts. But Rohit now resurfaces, healed and well. How the triangle resolves itself makes up the rest of the film.
Through the movie, Chandni never loses her sense of self. She responds to all the turbulence in her life with dignity. It doesn’t hurt that she never looks anything less than stunning while doing so, but that was a Yash Chopra standout trait. His heroines always had to look spectacular, in a graceful, aesthetically pleasing way.
Chandni is universally regarded as one of Sridevi’s best performances. Through the film she graduates from an exuberantly happy girl to a more worldly-wise woman. Though there was the trademark song sequence featuring chiffon saris and the Swiss Alps (in this case, the song was Tere Mere Hothon Pe), for the most part Sridevi wore simple white churidars and pastel saris. The costumes, by Bhanu Athaiya and Leena Daru, sparked something of a craze for “Chandni” outfits.
What this movie proved was that a committed director could make a film with a proper flesh-and-blood heroine who was a far cry from the filmi tropes of the time — the spoilt rich girl, the self-sacrificing martyr, the vapid airhead, the one-dimensional cardboard cutout and so on. I’m glad I revisited the film; you might be too.