When Yash Chopra died on October 21, an era in Indian cinema came to an end. Chopra, whose film career spanned for over five decades, was a visionary, a filmmaker ahead of his times. As a director, he broached issues that few filmmakers would dare to portray perhaps even today. His films often reflected the socio-political realities of their times and hence, were rooted and believable in that sense. And yet, Chopra’s movies also brought in glamour and aspiration that very few filmmakers have been able to embody so perfectly.
His first films were social dramas like Dhool ka Phool (1959), followed by Dharmaputra (1961). While the former was about illegitimacy, the latter was a radical movie and perhaps one of the very few to depict Hindu fundamentalism. These issues, unlikely to be made into sensible cinema even today, were clearly much ahead of their times, establishing Chopra as one of the most progressive Indian filmmakers of all times. However, while Chopra went on to make several socially relevant films and even nail-biting thrillers, he ultimately came to be most remembered for his romantic movies—a genre that almost became synonymous with him. To use a cliché, Chopra redefined romance; his romance was much beyond the beautiful locales and stunning visuals of Switzerland that he is known for.
Much in tune with his typical approach to filmmaking, Chopra’s perhaps most fascinating aspect has been the depiction of women in his cinema. While many argue that Chopra mostly objectified his leading ladies, what is true is that his depiction of women was dichotomous in the sense that he presented them as a unique combination of sensuality/glamour along with grit and soul. His ‘heroines’, so to speak, were more often than not glamorous and sexy in their own ways. The chiffon-clad, dancing in the rain image of his leading ladies has become immortal. However, even while he did present them as objects of desire, Chopra also made it a point to give all his women a character, a soul, a definite presence and their own mind. They were never just incidental to the movie; rather, they were central to the plot and instrumental in its progression. Some memorable, path-breaking women characters immediately come to mind.
In 1969, Chopra directed a brilliant crime thriller Ittefaq, starring Nanda and Rajesh Khanna. Nanda was made to dress sexily in Chopra’s trademark chiffon saree (the same through the film since it spans across one night) and she looked the best she ever had. However, her character was much beyond this enticing beauty; it was a complex character that carried its own devils, and a range of hidden emotions. Chopra smartly got the Hindi movie ‘heroine’ out of her holier-than-thou box and at the risk of playing spoiler to those who may not have watched this movie, Nanda’s role in Ittefaq was a perfect example of that.
In Deewar, glamour queen Parveen Babi (opposite Bachchan) was a bravely scripted character. She smoked, she drank, she slept with her man before marriage—all things that till then only a ‘vamp’ did; things, that in the conservative times of 1970s, were considered taboo for respectable women and hence, leading ladies were never made to do. Babi, despite her overtly sensual role, was not just a gangster’s moll, she was a person in her own right, who carried her own vulnerabilities and fears. With this character, he represented what was to be, the new modern Indian woman.
His 1981 controversial movie Silsila, a take on extra-marital affairs, portrayed its two leading ladies very differently. While Jaya Bachchan was the epitome of submissiveness and tranquillity, Rekha was the glamorous rebel. Both characters, however, had a certain dignity yet vulnerability about them. There was a certain degree of dignity in Bachchan’s silent endurance of her husband’s meandering as well as in Rekha’s desire to revive an old affair post-marriage. And yet, both carried their own vulnerabilities. They were people with passion, not merely side-kicks to be thrown around by the superstar leading man.
With Chandni in 1989, Chopra reaffirmed his image of the leading lady—the sexiness of a drenched chiffon saree, combined with depth of character. The leading lady was either glamorous or a woman of ‘substance’. Chopra, however, managed to create his own leading lady, portraying her as unapologetically sensual yet a strong, normal woman.
This is not to say that all of Chopra’s women were strong, memorable characters; but to point out that he was one of the few filmmakers to give his women a challenging presence in mainstream Indian cinema. He allowed them to embrace their sexuality, without compromising on their individuality.
Perhaps this legend’s most complex yet intricate portrayal of woman was in the 1991 film Lamhe, where Sridevi essays the role of both mother and daughter. Chopra gave both versions distinctive characteristics and strengths, not easy when the same person is playing both. However, his progressiveness and genius was in creating a plot and women characters, much, much ahead of their times.
The older Sridevi is not afraid to loiter around in the deserts of Rajasthan till late at night with a younger man, clearly infatuated with her, even while she longs for her partner. Her daughter, meanwhile, does not allow herself to be held back by social shackles and norms, when she falls in love with a man twice her age, almost like a father-figure to her. She also isn’t afraid to finally marry this man, despite knowing how he felt for her mother. Both characters are people in their own rights, with their own mind, doing exactly what their heart tells them to, unafraid of social condemnation. In Chopra’s case, he made the movie and created women from his heart, according to his beliefs, despite perhaps knowing it wouldn’t go down well with the still conservative Indians of the early 1990s, where the impact of liberalization was yet to take roots.
His movies that followed— Darr, Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Veer Zara— all brought out different aspects of women and their strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. He defined women’s strength not in the Mother India sort of way, but in a more subtle and relatable fashion.
Yash Chopra allowed Hindi cinema to create women who did not repress their inner desires, who were sexy and sensual, ‘modern’ in the real sense, and yet much, much more than mere objects on screen. As Chopra’s last movie releases today, it is precisely this creation of this genius that Indian cinema would miss most.