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 he is here in the flesh, clearly and visibly.
The series is an old tribute to the films and legacy of Aditya’s late father Yash Chopra. However, Yashji, as he was fondly called, directed the epic trilogy of Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Kaala Patthar (1979), which featured Amitabh Bachchan in his angry-young-man avatar, and Shah Rukh Khan’s second bad-guy. . By the time Darr (1993) came out, he was primarily known for elegant upper-class homes and lush romances set in exotic locales (usually Switzerland).
Equally, as Rani Mukerji points out in the series, he is known for making “female-centric” films that give his heroines respect and self-respect.
I was always struck by the fact that many of Yash Chopra’s female protagonists are working women. This was unusual at a time when women were often featured in Bollywood films were. No one knew what they did. One assumed they were waiting for a wedding—perhaps a true mirror of real life. But not in Chopra’s film. In Trishul, Sheetal (Hema Malini) is a general manager who plays golf and tennis in her spare time. In the same film, Geeta (Rakhi Gulzar) in her no-nonsense printed silk saree and matching blouse plays the role of a businessman’s efficient secretary. In Kala Patthar, Sudha (Pheri Gulzar) is a doctor and Anita (Parveen Babi) is a journalist.
After watching the Netflix series, I revisited some of Yash Chopra’s popular romantic films, including Kabhi Kabhi (1976), Silsila (1981), Lamhe (1991), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and Veer-Zaara (2004). But I think Chandni (1989), starring Sridevi, Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna, presents a perfect, perfect example of the quintessential “Yash Chopra woman”. The film came at a time when Chopra was going through a string of failures (Victory in 1988; flop in 1985; even Silsila despite all the hype).
It was the era of action movies with titles like Aag Ka Gola, Hanaat Ki Aandhi and Vardi. The tide was turning towards soft, gentle cinema (Maine Pyaar Kiya was also released in 1989), but no one knew it then. Rachel Dwyer in her book Yash Chopra: Fifty Years in Indian Cinema (2002) quotes the filmmaker as something of a “suicide attempt”. “Distributors were worried. How can you Vinod Khanna and take any action? A distributor also left [because of this].” But Chopra was tired of action and wanted to make the film he wanted, the film of his own heart. The gamble paid off. Chandni is the biggest hit of the year.
In it, Sridevi plays a small-town girl who meets Rohit (Rishi Kapoor) at a wedding in Delhi. Despite opposition from their wealthy families, the two fall in love and decide to marry. Then tragedy strikes. Rohit meets with an accident and is confined to a wheelchair. He thinks he’s being cruel to be kind, and tells her he doesn’t love her anymore. Chandni returns her ring and takes a train to Bombay to make a new life for herself. When she is finally brought to task, what the film offers me, is its most memorable line. With a look of relief and happiness on her face, the young woman whispers to herself, “Ab main saas le shakti hoo, ji shakti hoon, zinda rahin kuya (Now I can breathe, I can live, I can live).”
After some time, her boss Lalit (Vinod Khanna), who is also lonely and lonely, proposes to her and she accepts. However, Rohit has now recovered. How the triangle resolves shapes the rest of the film.
Through movies, Chandni never lost her confidence. She responds to all the disturbances in her life with dignity. It doesn’t hurt that he never looks less than stunning while doing so, but that was Yash Chopra’s standout feature. Her heroines were always to be seen in a brilliant, beautiful, aesthetically pleasing way.
Chandni is universally regarded as one of Sridevi’s best performances. Over the course of the film, she transforms from a fun-loving girl to a more worldly wise woman. Although there was a trademark song sequence featuring chiffon sarees and the Swiss Alps (in this case, the song Tere Mere Hothon Pe Theo), Sridevi mostly wore white chudidars and pastel sarees. Bhanu Athaiah and Leena Daru’s outfits sparked some craze for “Chandni” outfits.
What this film proved was that a committed director could make a film with a proper flesh-and-blood heroine that was far removed from the filmic tropes of the time – spoiled rich girl, self-sacrificing martyr, absent-minded airhead, one-dimensional cardboard cutout and so on. I am happy to see the film again; You can be too.
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