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Guest Post: Yash Chopra – On the fringes of art

- Rakesh Katarey     

What art is and how a work qualifies its creator to be an artist, have long been central to any discourse on art. Any serious retrospective on the body of work left behind by Yash Chopra will have to consider this sublime puzzle.
It is expected of artists – intrepid and avant garde as they are – to use the canvas to represent and reflect ideologically on life and experience and confront our inconvenient truths. Was Yash Chopra an artist enough whose works did so? Was he able to achieve through his modern idiom half of what the peerless K. Asif achieved in his historicals?
It is not easy to conclude if Yash Chopra will ever make the list of India’s best filmmakers, given the parameters being laid out here. But progressive he was, and yet, breathed his last on the fringes of art, hesitant as he always was to tar his canvas in black. Something his brother B.R.Chopra did with far greater conviction and honesty.
While younger directors like Imtiaz Ali and Zoya Akhtar have brought to bear their convictions upon their films in dealing with the complexities of relationships in a matter-of-fact manner, Yash Chopra spent years sorting triangles, battling the one conflict that seems to dog almost his entire body of work.
Filmmakers play out the dialectics of mind and experience, the contrasts of the utopias and the dystopias to draw cinema out of life. They subvert the status quo through their events and characters. But Yash Chopra could only watch convention destroy the lives of his characters in being a passive spectator as if his job were to only point out how unfair it all was, but do nothing about it. Perhaps he was too gentle to become an artist confronting ugly truths. His advice to Mahesh Bhatt to refrain from projecting harsher aspects of life and spare his films the dosage is therefore instructive.
He possibly modelled his characters on the lives of his near and dear ones and, of course, on his own. But in trying to be fair to his characters and therefore to himself, he curbed and compromised their natural propensities. Since he had chosen one of its roles to play himself – or many – he failed to be objective and built excuses to explain the helplessness of his characters in dealing with the inconvenient truths of their relationships. He defended their vacillations in the name of fate and chance. And life in all his films would invariably degenerate in the second half into a sum of divine accidents, not a result of interconnected ideological conflicts beginning in the first half.
In Kabhi Kabhie, an ageing Amitabh smoulders on the virtues of silence and sacrifice to please their elders than assert his love, a regressive sentiment celebrated for decades thereafter. In fact, Yash Chopra spawned an entire generation of film makers who felt life was ‘all about loving your parents’(KKKG) or taking their permission and suffer their irrationalities than elope (DDLJ). It allowed parent pleasers to don the masks of sacrifice – as inTrishul -to hide their betrayal of their true love and gutless surrender to tradition.
In that sense, his characters – although rebellious enough to fall in love – are fettered by him and have had to suffer rather than stand and fight. They’ll have to settle for happiness only when allowed to.
In JTHJ, the director has done worse. He has fiddled out a story that has no conflict! Only his inconsequential triangles stay. The first half is a breeze as Katrina transforms from a dainty of the castles into a galli ki goondi. As they set the screen on fire together, Shah Rukh is the agent of change holding a mirror to Katrina’s inner self and tutoring her on the virtues of modernism over her deal-making devotion.  For a while, she seems truly transformed. Yet when the push comes to the shove she regresses into the morals of faith and kills the only possible seed of conflict. And the director doesn’t seem to mind! He seems more interested in setting up events that can somehow bring the two together! The promise of a grand rebellion over nothing is soon exposed and the film goes into an eternal yawn after the intermission. So of what consequence was her transformation to the narrative? As usual, the thespian’s characters are quite simply out of depth with the times. All he takes are Ray Ban’s, Guccis and a few sundry accidents to get the film to cross the tape.
From Kabhi Kabhi to Trishul to JTHJ, Yash Chopra seem to only drawn the scars of lakshman rekhas rather than become the saboteur of convention he is made out to be. Yes, his cinema was progressive enough to have crossed the borderlines of lies we live out. But his celluloid shrinks at the very sight of standing by the truths that subvert the status quo.  And that diminishes his claims over being an artist.
(Rakesh Katarey heads NITTE Institute of Communication, Mangalore)
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