AUG 2011 Q&A
Commercial Hindi films back in the day weren’t big on styling, yet you were among the first filmmakers to give your heroines a distinct ‘look’. What inspired that?
I never went out consciously to create a look for my heroines. I wanted to be honest to the script and the characters, but I also wanted to portray my artistes as best as I could visually.
In those days you didn’t have specialized fashion designers to do clothes. Actresses very often wore their own saris in their films, or a costume assistant was hired to buy clothes in bulk that the artistes changed into on the set.
When I first became a director with Dhool Ka Phool in 1959, I used to go shopping for each and every item that was required on set. I was joined by my cameraman, an assistant director and a set designer. I liked to select the props myself because I had a good idea of how I wanted my scenes to look.
While making my first color film Waqt (1965), I remember going to Bhanu Athaiya who was the topmost designer at the time and requesting her to do the clothes for the ladies. I would personally go shopping for clothes with Bhanu and the heroine of the film, Sadhana. I was always aware of the fact that ultimately the audience has to find the picture visually beautiful.
What were your inspirations for the way you made your heroines look in your early films?
When I started working in the later fifties, our only library was older Hollywood films. Closer home, you had the films of Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, and my own brother BR Chopra. But I don’t think I ever saw a film and took down notes as future references. I was always inspired by what I saw around me. A film director holds a mirror to society. Perhaps I dipped into the locker of my subconscious.
Research is needed only when your heroine is playing a specific character, if you’re making a film about a culture that you’re unfamiliar with, or when the film is based in a specific period. While making Veer-Zaara, I watched lots of videos of marriages in Pakistan since Preity (Zinta) was playing a girl from a well-off Pakistani family. We also consulted Nasreen Rehman, a professor from Cambridge University who helped us with the finer details of Pakistani culture, how their courts are conducted and the local dialects of that area.
Some of Bollywood’s most popular actresses have looked best in your films — Rekha in Silsila and Sridevi in Chandni are names that come immediately to mind.
I’ve always believed that the woman is the most beautiful thing God has created, second only to nature. It’s your duty as a filmmaker to portray them as beautifully as you can
Rekha and I worked very hard on Silsila. For the songs, she used most of her own jewelry.
While making Chandni, I had a vision of who I wanted this girl to be. I told Sridevi that most of her costumes in the film would be in white. She told me to go ahead with what I had in mind. I reassured her that I wouldn’t make her look like a widow, but her features would be enhanced in white.
You’ve always been partial to white, haven’t you? Apart from Chandni, you’ve dressed every single one of your heroines in white at some point or the other…
Yes, I like the color white as it symbolizes purity. I remember for one classical dance sequence in Chandni, Sridevi was keen to wear a peach-colored dress, but I wanted white. I told the designer to make the same dress in both colors and Sridevi tried both out. Even she agreed that the white one gave the whole sequence a pristine look.
There are times when my cameraman has complained that the whole frame is white – from the heroine’s dress, to the walls in the room. But I tell him: “Arre, tumhaara kaam kab niklega?” (Show me what you can do with this!) I ask him to use his imagination to shoot the scene interestingly.
I like dressing my heroines in white. I always tell them that hairstyles and jewelry don’t make a girl look beautiful, it’s her simplicity that does.
Which heroines posed the biggest challenge when it came to giving them the ‘Yash Chopra makeover’?
I couldn’t easily put my finger on how I wanted Madhuri (Dixit) to look in Dil To Pagal Hai. I remember giving Manish Malhotra a brief on her character, and him bringing various outfits that I rejected outright. It was hard to explain exactly what I had in mind, and I’ve never believed in approving sketches or dresses on a hanger. I have to see the outfit on the heroine. Manish created 54 dresses that I rejected before he came up with the simple salwar kameez that I finally approved, and that became Madhuri’s signature look in the film. We spent so much time and money on that process, but I don’t know any other way.
I’m working with Katrina Kaif in my new film and styling her is going to be a challenge, because she’s one of those actresses who looks beautiful in just about everything. Given that, we have to present her differently.
You were also the first Hindi filmmaker to shoot so extensively abroad. There was a time you shot every film of yours in Switzerland.
Initially I used to shoot my films in Kashmir or Shimla, but with the terrorism threat in Kashmir and the lack of adequate infrastructure for film shoots in Shimla, I had to find an alternate.
When we were planning to shoot Silsila, that line from the song we’d written kept coming back to me: “Dekha ek khwaab toh yeh silsile hue, door tak nigahon mein hai gul khile hue” (I saw a dream that led to this relationship. As far ahead as I look, I only see flowers). I knew I had to shoot this song in the most beautiful place on earth.
I’d done a recce in Switzerland already, but I was looking for a place that could justify the line: “Door tak nigahon mein hai gul khile hue”, so I asked Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) if he knew a suitable location. Amit went home and returned with a mini projector and showed me some footage of a garden that was filled with tulips. Immediately I felt like that line in the song had been written specifically to describe this place. These were the Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam, and I instantly knew we had to shoot there.
Subsequently I shot in Switzerland and London, but you’ll note that I’ve always relied on these beautiful European locations strictly for their visuals. My characters, my stories have always remained deeply rooted in the Indian context.
The ‘Yash Chopra heroine’ is considered the epitome of beauty, but women have always existed in your films only to sing and dance, and to fall in love. You rarely give them careers, and they’re seldom independent. It’s a very chauvinistic perspective.
I agree with you. The truth is that in the films of those days, the only profession for a girl was to fall in love. One never focused on any other part of a girl’s life or personality. In later years, Hindi films began slowly moving towards reality and it became important to see a more rounded personality. In Chandni, Sridevi takes a job only when her relationship with Rishi Kapoor breaks up. She takes up a secretarial job. In Dil To Paagal Hai, both Karisma (Kapoor) and Madhuri (Dixit) were professional dancers. In Veer-Zaara, Rani (Mukherjee) was a lawyer.
You’ve repeatedly said that the film closest to your heart is Lamhe, and that its commercial failure hurt you the most. Why do you think the film failed?
It was ahead of its time. When I was making Lamhe, everyone around me thought it was a very interesting idea, but they weren’t confident about the ending. Even Adi (son Aditya Chopra) asked me if I was sure I wanted to go with that ending. I knew I would have it no other way. The film had to end with Anil Kapoor accepting Sridevi romantically, despite his initial reservations over the fact that she was the daughter of the woman he loved. It was a risky ending, but the only ending as far as I was concerned. If I couldn’t have this ending, there was no point in making the film.
With Dil To Pagal Hai, you famously came up with the suggestion that “somewhere, someone is made especially for you”. That theory has formed the basis of so many Hindi films. Yet how relevant is that idea in today’s times when so many marriages end in divorce?
You’re correct, but I grew up in a different generation. I respected my elder brother (BR Chopra) so much that I wouldn’t sit down till he asked me to. I wouldn’t call him my friend, he was my elder brother, guide and teacher.
The way I see love is also then different. I understand that marriages break up quickly today. A husband looks at his wife, and thinks: “I don’t love her anymore. Why are we both miserable? We should end it.”
But we also showed different kinds of love in our films. In Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai (which Yash Raj Films produced), Uday (Chopra) and Bipasha (Basu) played best friends who live together, but are not romantically involved. Even in Dil To Pagal Hai, there’s a scene in which Karisma (Kapoor) looks at Shah Rukh (Khan) and says: “You’re my best friend, and yet when you’re in love, why can’t I feel happy for you?”
I see movies today, and I realize that yes, love has changed.
You’re making a new film now after seven years. What are the challenges you anticipate?
I’m senior in age, and the sensibility of the audience has changed completely. People say that for a film to do well at the box-office today, it needs to be accepted by the youth. So the challenge I see before me is making my kind of movie but in today’s language.
It took some time for me to find a story that suited my temperament; now I need to convey it in a modern way. Adi is writing the film, and he’s definitely more in touch with this generation than I am. But I also believe that the language of emotions is universal so my story won’t be irrelevant to a younger audience.
(An edited version of this interview first appeared in Vogue India’s Oct 2011 issue)