23 January 2013
JAB TAK HAI JAAN / AS LONG AS THERE IS LIFE (Dir. Yash Chopra, 2012, India) - Footnotes
Hindi cinema of late has unfortunately bypassed me and I have successively missed many of the major releases. I think it is a seemingly impossible enterprise to keep on top of the many Hindi films released each year but I’m trying to catch up with some of the more populist films that made it to UK cinema screens in 2012. One of the biggest Hindi films of 2012 was Jab Tak Hai Jaan. JTHJ was Yash Chopra’s last film as a director but unlike Veer-Zaara which functions as a summation of Chopra’s dominant ideological sentiments, this is a film that lacks any sense of purpose other than to pair Shahrukh Khan opposite Katrina Kaif. Although the film bears the familiar Chopraesque elements, the writing, direction and acting are underwhelmingly devoid of the dynamism or spark that usually compensate for melodramatic conventionality. While Yash Chopra had effectively announced his retirement in 2004 after the release of Veer-Zaara, the news of him returning to the director's chair was somewhat of a surprise. JTHJ can be viewed as more of a cynical attempt by Yash Raj to generate profits at the box office and the films of Yash Chopra could easily be regarded as a lucrative franchise for the studio. In other words, the cynical construction of a film like JTHJ was predicated on a need to fulfill commercial impulses rather than offering audiences something relatively intelligible or innovative. If you know a film is going to be a sure fire hit at the box office does that mean you can literally offer anything to audiences as long as you dazzle them with enough hype? It seems to be case with JTHJ. There is nothing problematic with framing the narrative within a diasporic context but to then populate such a landscape with hackneyed imagery and excruciating characters is indicative of the way so many Hindi films especially ones aimed at a mainstream, if not international, audience find scripting such a secondary and subordinate element. The film's second half is built on the dodgy foundations of a character suffering from retrograde amnesia. Memory loss and eventual retention is a narrative device not uncommon to Hindi melodramas from the 1970s onwards and it is emblematic of directors such as Yash Chopra who knowingly demonstrate a fondness for the past but it is rendered hopelessly devoid of any kind of emotional conviction by hyperbolic acting from the main leads.
It was Yash Chopra’s older brother, B.R Chopra who gave him his first break as an assistant. In 1959, he directed Dhool Ka Phool (Blossom of Dust), an unconventional love story that focused on the taboo subject of illegitimacy. It was the multi-starrer Waqt (Time, 1965) that brought him commercial success. Characterised by the ‘lost and found’ narrative and by the stylised, middle class settings of a New Indian society, Waqt was an escapist melodrama. Parting company from his brother in 1973 with the film Daag (The Stain), Yash Chopra became an independent producer whilst Gulshan Rai acted as distributor on many of his popular films, including Deewaar. His meteoric rise as one of the most successful directors of the 1970s was mirrored in his collaborations with Amitabh Bachchan. In the late 1980s, he suffered a commercial slump but came back in the 1990s with a string of lavishly shot romantic films including Chandni (Moonlight), Darr (Fear) and Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart Is Crazy). Around the same time, Yash Raj enjoyed what was their biggest ever commercial success with the Kajol and Shahrukh Khan Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (The Big Hearted Will Take The Bride, 1995). Directed by Yash Chopra’s son, Aditya Chopra, the film helped to transform the Yash Raj banner into an integrated studio. One could go as far as to say that Yash Raj was perhaps the first Indian production company to respond to the growing cultural needs of the Diaspora by creating what has become a universally renowned cinematic brand. Admittedly, not all recent Yash Raj ventures have succeeded at the box office, but Shahrukh Khan’s close relationship with Yash Chopra has meant they have been helped by the global appeal of Indian cinema’s most recent superstar in reaching the widest demographic possible. As a matter of fact, every film Shahrukh has made with Yash Raj has succeeded at the box office, with recent hits including Chak De India! (Come on India!), Rab Ne Banda Jodi (A Match Made By God) and Veer Zaara. In many ways, Yash Chopra’s methodology for sustaining the longevity of his position in the industry has been his instinctive aptitude to collaborate with the leading stars of each decade. Nevertheless, it would be an oversight to pigeonhole him as simply a director of romantic melodramas as his body of work shows someone who has worked across a broad range of genres. With the angry young man films, he also represented working class concerns and although he never returned to such unfamiliar territory again, the Javed Akhtar scripted Mashaal (The Torch), which he made in 1984 with Dilip Kumar in the lead role, hinted at his potential for addressing political concerns within the framework of popular melodrama. The Salim-Javed scripted Deewaar, Trishul and Kaala Paathar are the films in which he came closest to imitating a realist tradition.
One thematic point of interest for Chopra is separation, evident in many of his films, and it reappears yet again in his final film. The theme of separation may be attributed to Chopra having been born in Lahore before leaving for Bombay during partition. The trauma of partition shaped much of his ideological sensibilities and the pain of separation, be it in terms of nation, gender or ideology echoes in the work of Chopra as early as the multi starrer Waqt. Rachel Dwyer’s book on Yash Chopra was one of the first studies of a mainstream populist Hindi filmmaker to be published in the UK and Chopra’s output up until the 1990s cannot be dismissed since its influence is prescient in helping to shape the landscape of commercial cinema. Personally, his collaborations with Amitabh Bachchan and Salim-Javed during the 1970s and beyond saw him at his creative best. If the angry young man cycle of films came to define his films during this period, it was the romantic epics like Kabhie Kabhie and Silsila that were to endure with audiences. I’m not a fan of his later collaborations with Shahrukh Khan since the involvement of Aditya Chopra seemed to bring into question the authorial presence of Yash Chopra, and besides, much of this twilight period lacks an ideological rigour that characterised much of his work in the 1970s. In fact, the song and dance sequences in JTHJ are credited to Aditya Chopra. Indian films are still largely marketed on the basis of star appeal and film stardom is still a precious and dominant means of attracting audiences but Yash Chopra was one of the few directors as stars to have emerged since the 1970s in mainstream Hindi cinema. In many ways, the image he cultivated as the director as star can be compared to someone like Spielberg; both branched out into producing, nurtured talent and collaborated with many of the major mainstream film stars. In one of the rare instances in the career of SRK, collaborations with Yash Chopra meant being upstaged by a director who could draw in audiences on the bankability and legacy of his own name. While JTHJ is a disappointment, the end credits gives us a brief look at director Yash Chopra busily filming at the grand old age of 80. Perhaps then we should situate JTHJ as merely a footnote and one to be ignored in many respects in such an illustrious film career.