‘Today’s Bollywood Heroine Has Shades of Grey’: Yash Chopra at SOAS

While I was back in England on leave I went to a talk given by Yash Chopra at my alma mater, SOAS. Bollywood producer/director Yash Chopra is probably the most influential figure in Indian cinema today. He has brought us mega-hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Veer-Zara as a producer, Silsila and Dil To Pagal Hai as a director, and is responsible for giving tens thousands of women unrealistic expectations about love.

Chopra-ji had just received an honorary doctorate from SOAS and was able to spare an hour for a Q and A session with Prof Rachel Dwyer in front of a rather starstruck audience of ex-SOAS students.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Yash Chopra in mainstream Bollywood cinema. He basically is mainstream Bollywood cinema. For some of us in the audience it was almost a religious experience to see him in person.

The discussion touched on a broad range of themes, ranging from the strong presence of Punjabi culture in his movies to the impact that dvd piracy could have on the Hindi movie industry.

One particularly interesting question that came up was the question of what are the defining characteristics of today’s ‘Yash Chopra woman’? (Chopra’s movies are known for their intensely romantic female leads). Chopra gave a cryptic but interesting answer which I might unpack more in another blog post. ‘In the past, female leads used to be very “black and white”. There was a positive pole and a negative pole’ said Chopra-ji ‘but today’s ‘Yash Chopra woman’ has shades of grey.’ Today’s heroine has notes of moral ambiguity that would have been unacceptable to earlier Bollywood audiences, and this is a bonus to today’s crop of female actors, as they have more complex characters to portray, he explained. I would have been interested to hear him go into more detail on this point and to give an example of a grey-shaded heroine.

Another good question was who, out of today’s crop of new talent, will be the next superstar? (That is to say, I’m inferring, an Amitabh or Shahrukh rather than, say, another John Abraham). For the boys, there was no hesitation on this one: Ranbir Kapoor. Even though he is only a few films old, his ‘lovable onscreen presence’ and charisma mark him out as the Next (really) Big Thing in Bollywood. Prof Dwyer agreed hands-down (and so, for that matter, does The Ajnabee). Yash Chopra did not have a clear answer when it came to female actors. Although Bollywood has no shortage of talented and very beautiful female stars, no-one on the scene seems to have quite that ‘epic’ quality that, for Yash Chopra, separates a star from a superstar.

Chopra admitted that one of the films that he had enjoyed making the most – and had been the most surprised by – was Veer-Zara (2004). Even when the film was just about to hit the cinema screens, he was unsure of how today’s audience would receive it. Would the younger generation really accept a melodrama in whose hero is so devoted to a woman that he refuses to even take her name for over 20 years for fear of damaging her reputation (even when he is in prison, and speaking her name could get him out)? Or a heroine who, thinking her lover is dead, leaves her native Pakistan, and goes to India to care for his aging parents? Well, buy it they did, and Chopra’s Indo-Pak romance became one of his best-loved movies.

Veer-Zara may be melodramatic, but Chopra believes that its ‘strong moral core’ is exactly what the audience wants – and indeed expects – when they go to see a Yash Chopra movie.

Yash-ji was economical with what he let on about his next movie, so unfortunately The Ajnabee has no breaking news for you about future projects.

There was too little time and too many questions, but for us ex-SOASers it was a real privilege to have an audience with the great man himself.

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