My parents were one of the millions of South Asian couples who
fell in love to the music and words of director Yash Chopra’s films. Sweeping,
operatic, and often absurdly melodramatic – Yash Chopra’s Bollywood musicals
were shamelessly populist and hopelessly romantic. They were India’s
romantic comedies, its adult dramas, and its crowd-pleasing blockbusters all
rolled into one.
Yash Chopra died yesterday in Mumbai of complications from dengue fever. He was 80 years old and just weeks from the international release of his last film in a career that spanned five decades.
We often learn about countries like India through their pioneering leaders, business tycoons, or Nobel-prize winning writers. Yash Chopra was none of those things. He gave form to how everyday South Asians came to understand heroism, family, and love: at the movies.
Anyone who knows India knows that India’s cinema represents more than ticketed entertainment. It’s a state of mind. Movie stars are worshipped, film dialogues are quoted on first dates, and songs from the 3-hour musicals blare out of shops, stereos, and apartment windows. Director Yash Chopra was the patriarch of that filmi language of love.
Chopra’s films introduced the over-the-top visual presentation of courtship that made Bollywood both iconic and way too saccharine for most Western audiences. His heroes and heroines would unexpectedly break into songs and be magically transported from India’s cities into the Swiss Alps. Starlets in chiffon saris, completely inappropriate for Alpine climates, would flutter in the wind against breathtaking backdrops… heroes would emerge from behind pine trees to sing of a love that would last lifetime(s). Switzerland’s landscapes featured so prominently in Chopra’s films that it has become one of India’s top tourism destinations. The Swiss even named a lake after the filmmaker for his contribution to the country’s unexpected fame in South Asia.
But Yash Chopra’s films rose above a kitschy musical pastiche to become enduring works because they also dealt with very real and complex relationships. He tackled regional conflicts, infidelity, betrayal, and the resolutions of those universal human struggles. And all those multi-generational family sagas were beautifully projected on the big screen, featured music written by poets, and starred superstar ensembles whose performances won countless awards.
I came to know Yash Chopra’s films through my parents’ VHS collection growing up in 1980s Pakistan. I realized only earlier this year how deeply those films had been embedded in my imagination. I was living in Bavaria in February of this year and on a visit to one of the German villages where Lederhosen and Bier would make far more sense, I began hearing the strings of Yash Chopra musicals. The Alps were alive with Indian music and impractically dressed, dancing heroes and heroines were the only missing feature. I returned to my apartment in Munich and rushed to download one of those soundtracks – it just made sense for the montage playing out in my mind. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
India has become a very different country from the era that made Yash Chopra famous. It’s more global in its outlook and its tastes. A new generation of Indian filmmakers, who were raised on a diet of global cinema, are pushing filmmaking beyond the traditional musicals. Cynicism, sarcasm and the modern single life are very much in today’s cinematic mix.
But today everyone in Bollywood is mourning the death of Yash Chopra. His was a different way of both seeing and articulating love, and he never lost his faith in unabashed, full-throated romance.
Yash Chopra's films were demure, they didn’t need kisses or love scenes, but they were always infused with feelings that could fill whole valleys, Indian and otherwise.