From social realism to jingoism: Capitulation of the legendary YRF
After resisting the pressure to produce one-dimensional films on Hindu supremacy, Yash Raj Films finally succumbs as it churns out ‘Samrat Prithviraj’
An entire generation in the 1970s grew up mouthing dialogues of Amitabh Bachchan like, “Main aaj bhi phenke huye paise nahi uthata” (I still don’t pick up money thrown at me- Deewaar, 1975), “Anand marte nahi” (Anands of the world don’t die- Anand, 1971) and of course from Sholay. It was dizzying to find cinema in which the underdog always won eventually. In the sentimental 70s it filled us with hope.
Yash Chopra became my generation’s favourite director. We were driven by Chopra’s Vijays (Deewar, Trishul, Kala Patthar) and their ability to combat injustice and discrimination.
Post Chopra’s death in 2012, his cinema drew my critical interest. He was a successful storyteller who understood the audience and the market. YRF (Yash Raj Films) founded in 1970 became mainstream Hindi cinema’s final seal of approval. Insiders began to believe that films backed by YRF would reach millions and create a recall even if the box office may not. Even the most washed away productions of YRF have been considered a cut above the rest.
Chopra, a refugee impacted by Partition, made his filmmaking debut with Dhool Ka Phool (1959), a story of an unwed mother, her love child raised by a good Muslim. The sensitive and humane storyline was deftly dealt with by the 27-year-old director with the film using one of the most haunting lyrics in the subcontinent penned by Sahir Ludhianvi-- the super hit song ‘Tu Hindu banega, na Musalman banega/ Insaan ki aulad hai, insaan banega…’ (You will neither be a Hindu nor a Musalman/ Child of human beings, you will be known as just that…). The film went on to become the fourth highest grosser of the year, wining Filmfare Award for best story.
It was followed by a more political and socially relevant, Dharamputra (1961), in which a Muslim boy is raised by a Hindu family but who grows up to be a Hindu fundamentalist (the first adult role of Shashi Kapoor). It was Chopra’s statement against rising Hindu fundamentalism in post-Partition years. The film won National Award for the Best Feature Film at the 9th National Film Awards.
He ventured into post-Partition lost-and-found drama, Waqt (1965) and complex relationships in Ittefaq (1969) and Daag (1973) but never strayed from social realism. Deewar (1975) was made for the new audience of the 70s, in the backdrop of a poor, under-developed nation, migration and the rising number of the urban poor.
Chopra planted the Verma family – a mother and her two children in search of work and shelter in the city. But instead of showcasing the big city as a place of countless opportunities, Deewaar showed the other side, where the poor scavenge for space, like the bridge under which Sumitra and her two sons Vijay and Ravi found shelter.
In Deewaar too there is a good Muslim, Rahim Chacha, an elderly dock worker fond of Vijay, the new recruit. Chacha ties a protective Islamic talisman on Vijay’s left arm to protect him from the endemic brawls at the dockyard. The film has long been considered a zeitgeist of India in 1970s.
Yash Chopra moved on. After Kala Patthar in 1979, he went back to relationship-based films which earned him the title of King of Romance. Yet he never moved totally away from social realism.
While YRF continued to produce films following Chopra’s demise in 2012, its latest production, a melodramatic historical saga about a Hindu King Prithviraj Chauhan, based on a 12th century ballad Prithviraj Raso penned by court poet Chandbardai, caught YRF fans by surprise. The tedious, one-dimensional depiction of a king skilled equally well in wooing his lady and in fighting wars with a vile, brutal Muslim marauder on horseback, Mohammad Ghori, followed a predictable script. The end is a no brainer.
While post-2014 several other producers quickly understood the benefits of churning out historicals like Padmavat, Manikarnika or Tanhaji, the closest YRF came to a historical was Thugs of Hindostan in 2018 which was far from being ultra-nationalist.
On the contrary it had produced espionage thrillers – among the most balanced. Protagonists belonged to different faiths and hostile countries were shown to get into serious and long-term relationships.
YRF’s ability to produce realistic cinema oblivious of the political climate was amazing. Even Tiger Zinda Hai did not abandon the idea of the good Muslim and did not look at Hindu-Muslim relations in easy binaries of just black and white.
One had hoped YRF to buck the trend of mindless films propagating Hindu victimhood and past glory. But it was too much to hope and in Samraat Prithviraj, there are no good Muslims.
Ironically, the crowds protesting against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) had played and drawn inspiration from the legendary track, ‘Tu Hindu banega, na Musalman banega...’, from Yash Chopra’s debut film.
R.I.P. Yash Chopra.
(The writer is an author and filmmaker)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)