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Top Bollywood director Yash Chopra "the king of romance" passes away at eighty

by Alex Farba-Deleon

The dean of Indian film directors, Yash Chopra, passed away on October 21 at the age of eighty.

Yash Chopra was not just another Bollywood director --he was one of the world's top craftsman of the seventh art although he always crafted his films to suit the taste of the Indian audience, which is the main reason he remains practically unknown in the West.   In Asia where Bollywood films are far better known than here Chopra was honored at the Pusan (South Korea) film festival in 2008 as "Asian filmmaker of the year" and an Indian cinema night was held to commemorate the occasion.

Since his directorial debut in 1959 with a film called "Dhool ka Phool" (Blossoms in the dust) Chopra has directed a total of 22 features, (including his latest just finished) which may not seem all that impressive over a five decade career, however he was extremely meticulous and this filmography is laced with numerous landmark films, now regarded as classics of the Hindi cinema.  Among them "Deewar", 1975, the film which launched actor Amitabh Bachchan's "Angry young man" career, "Darr" (Fear), 1993, a major film in the early career of  Shahrukh Khan, which established him as the successor to Bachchan as "King of Bollywood", "Dil to pagal hai" (The heart is crazy) 1997, a landmark musical romance featuring legendary dancer Madhuri Dixit, and "Veer Zara", 2004, a politically tinged love story between a Pakistani girl and an Indian air force pilot (played by Muslim Shahrukh Khan!) which plays out on both sides of the border. This last film was particularly close to Chopra's heart as he was a Punjabi born in Lahore when it was still British India, but which has been on the Pakistan side of the line since the Partition of India in 1947.  Besides being an inter-faith and cross border love story, Veer Zara was one of the few Indian films to show Pakistanis in a positive light (a female Islamic lawyer crusades to get the Indian flyer released from a long unfair jail sentence) and hence became a clarion call for better relations between the two bellicose nuclear armed neighbors.

Equally if not more important than his directorial career was his career as a producer, which covered some forty films right up to the present. The Yash-Raj production company, (Yash Raj Films) founded by him in 1973, is now considered as the prestige "Banner" in Bombay, the one every aspiring actor hopes to score a casting with. This has been run by Yash and his son Adita Chopra, who is also a director of some note. Under Yash's watchful eye son Aditya directed the most successful romcom in Indian history, "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayege (DDLJ =He who has heart will get the bride).  DDLJ released in 1995 still plays to packed houses in Mumbai seventeen years later!  Films like this, shot partly in England, were made to appeal especially to the overseas (NRI) Indian audience and started a trend in this direction.  These days many Indian films depend on earnings in UK, USA and Canada to recoup their production costs.  Recent films produced by Yash Raj Productions include "New York", 2009, which was shot completely in The Big Apple, and deals with post 9/11 repercussions in the South Asian communities of New York, and "Dil Bole Hadippa", a Punjabi cricket comedy, which premiered at the Toronto film festival in 2010. There is a full length study of the career of Yash Chopra in English authored by Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian studies at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London and published by the British Film Institute in their "World Directors" series.

Yash Chopra was one of the first Indian directors to shoot parts of his films outside of India, (these days a common practice) --notably, extravagant dance scenes set in the Swiss Alps, which have been a big hit with Indian audiences enamored by the "exotic" locales to be seen in these movies. In fact, a lake in Switzerland has been unofficially named ‘Chopra Lake' because of its frequent use as a backdrop by Yash in his pictures. Chopra has been honored by The Swiss Government for "rediscovering Switzerland" and was presented with a special Award by Actress Ursula Andress on behalf of the appreciative Swiss people.
During his five trend setting decades in the entertainment business, Yash Chopra became the indisputable leader of the Indian Film industry. In India itself he has received just about every award conceivable, and is regarded as "The King of Romance".  He was also known for promoting new talent, musical and writing, as well acting.  Following Veer Zara, his final directorial effort just completed after an eight year hiatus, is "Jab Tak Hai Jaan", another epic romance, again starring Yash regular Shah Rukh Khan and sex icon Katrina Kaif. 

The film is finished but an additional dance sequence was still to be shot in Switzerland. All preparations had been made but because the directors unexpectedly sudden demise Aj Tak will release without it.  What a shame says actress Katrina. It would have been his final signature scene, and he had assured us that it wouldn't be work to shoot it --just fun!  The film itself takes place in the politically problematic Kashmir area where Khan is a military officer romancing Katrina and reporter Anushka Sharma is a journalist assigned to make a documentary on him.  The title of this film which will now become Chopra's swan song translates, almost prophetically, as "As long as there's life".
On his eightieth Birthday at the end of September, in an hour long stage interview with favorite actor Shah Rukh Khan, Yash said the film just finished, would be his last and announced his retirement from directing, however he looked hale and hearty and was his usual jovial self.  A sudden case of dengue fever hospitalized him three weeks later and suddenly he was gone. The outpouring of grief and elegies in the Indian film community has been what one might expect at the departure of a truly beloved monarch. "JabTak Hai Jaan" opens in India on November 13 and will hopefully circulate widely in the West along with other works of Chopra's so that this remarkable Indian director finally gets his long overdue recognition as an international grand master.

Anushka Sharma in Yash chopra's swan song film "Jab Tak Hai Jaan".
Anushka plays a journalist with the
Discovery Channel producing a documentary on the military character played by Shah Rukh Khan. Anushka made a memorable debut paired with SRK in 2008 in the Yash-Raj production "Rab ne bana di Jodi" (A couple made by God) a picture which cleaned up at the box-office.


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