Jab Tak Hai Jaan has its Yash Chopra moments, but doesn’t measure up to his brilliant legacy.

Much as I don’t want to, I have to admit Jab Tak Hai Jaan is far from being Yash Chopra’s best film. In fact, if truth be told, his last few movies have not been anywhere as powerful as his earlier ones; Darr, made close to 20 years ago, was the last time he made me sit up and hold my breath.

Of course his swan song, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, is a film very much in the Yash Chopra style — a love story strewn with hurdles that is illuminated by snatches of poetry, has a luminous leading lady, and an impossibly romantic hero. It is a beautiful-looking film, an elegantly told film with quite a few moments, but, alas, an inordinately long one that has another era written all over it. Though some superficial details have been ‘contemporarised’ and Shah Rukh Khan actually kisses his heroine (after years of swearing not to do so onscreen), its heart is old-fashioned, and the twists and turns in the plot rather anachronistic.

The SRK charm is turned full on, but there’s just so much of a weak plot it can sustain. Anushka Sharma overdoes the chirpiness to grating point (shades of the old Sridevi) and Rahman’s music is such a let-down, it even minimises the impact of Gulzar’s lyrics. The one clear winner is Katrina Kaif, who logs in her best performance yet (not saying much, but there it is) and has never looked as beautiful (which is saying a lot).

Directing Yashji!

Watching the film, the mind went back some seven years ago, when for a fleeting half-hour or so, I directed Yash Chopra! Quickly, let me add that the privilege was handed to me unilaterally by the legend himself.

It was 2005. I was then Editor of Filmfare magazine, and his son Aditya Chopra had won two awards (Best Dialogue and Best Story) for his father’s Veer Zaara. As is well known, Chopra Jr has long refused to make a public appearance where there is even the slightest danger of a camera being around. So his father agreed to record a small ‘thank you’ clip on his behalf.

So there we were - Nilakshi Sengupta, who was handling all the audio-visuals for the event, and I — at Yash Chopra’s Juhu bungalow one bright morning. When we got there, he was ready on time (as always), and social niceties dispensed with, got down to work. “Where would you like to shoot and where do you want me to sit?” he asked me.

Who were we to give such instructions to a legend? It’s your house, your shoot, you decide of course, I demurred.

“No, no,” he said, “you are the director of this film; you tell me what to do.”

It took me a few seconds to realise that he was entirely serious, and that it wasn’t fake humility but his way of treating us as he would any other director on a shoot. True to his word, he did exactly what we asked him to without a murmur, and let Nilakshi choose her camera angles and shots.

I added a new layer of understanding to that episode a couple of years later, when I was talking to Javed Akhtar about his long working relationship with Chopra, and he remarked, “There is something about Yashji that makes you feel, this is a very special film and I am very special. It is a sign of great leadership that he never dominates but gives others the confidence to give of their best.”

Akhtar had made that observation when I asked him about Hindi cinema’s most famous dialogue: “Mere paas maa hai”. Did he and co-writer Salim Khan discuss that scene with Yashji on the sets of Deewar, I wondered. “We always gave our directors a very detailed screenplay. But it was up to the director to take our suggestions or do it his way,” he replied. “However, Yashji never does a director’s dance with the camera; he does not allow the flow of the text to be disturbed by camerawork. His shot-taking is so gentle and low-key and unobtrusive that he lets the screen speak.”

Javed had put his finger on it. Think of the many memorable scenes from Yash Chopra’s films, and they will invariably come to mind not because of any attention-grabbing camerawork or obvious directorial flourish, but because of a great piece of dialogue, the chemistry between two actors, beautiful music, the poetry of the lyrics. Of course, it takes a great director, leader and assimilator of talents to make all of that happen with the kind of artistic harmony his films achieved. But it also takes immense confidence and a distinct lack of ego to do so subtly. (The only exceptions were his song picturisations, in which he indulged himself thoroughly.)

Less prolific

After making Darr, Chopra became less prolific; he took four years to make Dil To Pagal Hai (1997); seven for Veer Zaara (2004) and eight for Jab Tak Hai Jaan. In what cannot be mere coincidence, this period followed his son Aditya’s debut with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge in 1995. Characteristically, Chopra stepped back to play producer to his son’s movies and those that rolled out of the Yashraj studio, which was commissioned in 2005.

Dil To Pagal Hai marked the beginning of his late period, when the cinematic fire seemed to have dimmed and when the media dubbed him ‘The King of Romance’, a tag that reduced him to a purveyor of love stories and mushy songs. He didn’t fight the label either. Perhaps it suited him in his later years when his favourite actor was Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Romance in front of the camera.

Cinematic injustice

However, that label did him a great cinematic injustice. For the current generation, all that Yash Chopra meant was chiffon romances, love songs, heroines who looked their most beautiful, and an idealised concept of love. Romance was an inescapable part of his films and his soul, yes. But the real power, fire and, above all, courage, came in the 30-odd years preceding his chiffon phase. His oeuvre is remarkable not only for its longevity and variety, but his determination to stick to his convictions regardless of the many trends that came and went over the decades.

In the last few years, Yash Chopra became so much of a pater familias for the film industry, and such a sturdy pillar of the establishment, that it is easy to forget that he was a career-long rebel. Right from his first solo film Dhool Ka Phool through Ittefaq, Deewaar and Kaala Patthar to Lamhe and Darr, he gave us movies that touched our hearts and minds in equal measure.

His love stories were not mere romances, they presented us with very adult dilemmas and situations. And even when he was elegantly disrobing his heroines or dealing with the most sensitive subjects, he was never unaesthetic. Consider: In Hindi cinema’s worst phase, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Yash Chopra made films like Silsila, Chandni and Lamhe. As Javed Akhtar put it, “Yashji preferred to be marginalised rather than succumb to trends. He was a film-maker of very deep conviction who never compromised on his basic cinematic values — dignity, literary value and a sense of aesthetics.”

We will not see a film-maker like him again. As the credits for his last movie rolled, it was the montage of shots of an ageing Yashji on the sets that left me far more saddened than the rest of Jab Tak Hai Jaan. But then, those were vignettes from real life — those of a gracious man and a great director.

shashi.baliga@gmail.com

(This article was published on November 15, 2012)
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