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April 4, 1997


And miles to go...

Sharmila Taliculam

B R ChopraThe 1995 Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award was one of the few that did not inspire debate and disagreement - all involved agreeing that the recipient was truly deserving of the honour.

For the awardee was no less than a certain Baldev Raj Chopra - more popularly known as B R Chopra, a film-maker whose credits include trendsetters of the order of Waqt, Insaaf Ka Tarazu, Nikaah, Sadhna,and Ek Hi Raasta.

All of 80 years old and still feisty, Chopra says that despite all the hardships associated with his career as a film-maker, he had a ball doing what he did. “Actually, I wanted to be a journalist,” he smiles. “But then, this whole thing just happened, and I guess fate and good luck ensured my success.”

But enough of preamble, here is the man himself. Exclusive, to Rediff On The NeT:

My early years: I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, in a middle class family. My father was a government servant and most of my childhood was spent in Pakistan.

We were six brothers and one sister, Yash (the film-maker Yash Chopra) being the youngest one. I studied in Pakistan, doing my MA in English from Government College in Lahore.

My first ambition, thanks to my father, was to sit for the Indian Civil Services exam. I’m not sure whether it was fate, or whatever, but I fell sick and did not do well in two of my papers. At that point, I refused to try again, reasoning that God just didn’t want me to go that route.

During my college days I used to write articles on films, do film reviews and submit short stories for various magazines. So in March 1938, somebody approached me with a recommendation from New Theatres, who I used to write for when they were called Varieties. They offered me the post of editor of a magazine called Cine Herald, which they intended to start. I had no experience in being an editor, but decided to give it a shot. Luckily, the magazine became popular within the first six months, I became known as a good writer, so they made me a partner in the paper.

The paper as it was in my time was totally devoted to film stories, all of them true. The publication made good money, and ran till Partition. I brought out the last edition on August 2, 1947, and then shifted to India.

During my last days in Pakistan, some friends of my father who were in business in Rawalpindi, told me that they had some money to spare and asked me if I would make a film. I had the contacts, decided to give it a shot and so my first film, Chandni Chowkwent on the floors with some big names like music director Chisti (whose assistant was Khayyam).

The day we went for recording, though, there were riots in Lahore, and as the tension and bloodshed escalated we couldn't stay there. All of us left Pakistan, and the film remained incomplete.

Partition and its aftermath: Partition affected us to a considerable degree. After my father died, I was the only earning member in a family of 25 people. We had our own house in Jalandhar, and during the unsettled period of Partition there was a time when we had 150 people living in that house, mostly people who had come from Pakistan to seek shelter.

Sure we suffered. We lost everything. One day I was in Pakistan with a good job, with friends, contacts, everything. The next day, I was in India, with nothing. And it was definitely a time of struggle for us, a time of sadness.

DharamputraThe pity is, India and Pakistan are still at war, all the time. I want to go to Pakistan because my friends are still there, but I am afraid to. I made Dharamputra (left), which was about Partition. My television serial Sauda was also based on the same subject. Both reflect my feelings, experiences during Partition, it reflects the pain.

On coming to Bombay: It was after Partition that we came to Bombay - the whole family. And we decided to make a film - Karwat - which proved a massive flop. We became bankrupt, almost found ourselves on the streets. So I reverted to journalism, applied to the Hindustan Times where my uncle was the editor.

My partners, however, felt that we should give films another try. I was frankly apprehensive, after the earlier experience, but they were confident that they could arrange the finances. Around this time, I S Johar called us up about a story he had written. I liked it very much, but the finances proved a problem.

At that time, there used to be a place called Christian Dairy where you would find lots of film folk. One day, I bumped into someone who knew me from my Lahore days. We got talking, I told him about our financial difficulties, and when he heard the story he said he would bankroll it provided I directed the film. I was flabbergasted - I mean, I had no experience at all, what if I let him down? But he was adamant that I alone should do it, so I went ahead.

B R Films: Having become a director, I went the whole hog. I signed Ashok Kumar, Veena, Kuldeep Kaur, Pran. The film was called Afsaana. After that, I did two other films for the same person - one was Shole, the other was Chandni Chowk. And both of them did very well.

Till that point the banner was called Srikumar Pictures, but with the death of one of the partners, we would it up and started B R Films in 1955. The first film under the new banner was Ek Hi Raasta.

Insaaf Ka TaraazuThe banner focused on films based on social problems. Kanoon, Sadhna, Insaaf Ka Tarazu (right), Aaj Ki Awaaz - all the films were on social problems, and all were hits. I used to make one film every year. After Nikaah, however, I made the television serial Mahabharat . - that took a lot of time, almost three years.

And by the time that was finished, I because unwell, so could not make films for a time. We did, however, make a few more serials.

Having been a journalist, I felt that when I became a producer and director I had some responsibility to society, I wanted to make films that, besides entertaining people, also had a message for them.

Ek Hi Raasta thus, addressed the problem of widow remarriage - something unknown at that time. I have personal experience of that - an aunt who became widowed at 17, could never marry and ended up suffering all my life.

NikaahI do feel that most of the problems in our society centre around women, who are the worst sufferers. Like in Nikaah (left), for instance - for the man, three words is all it takes to divorce his wife, and it is the unfairness of this that I look at.

Of course, along with these messages, I take care not to compromise on the entertainment value. After all, most of my songs are hits. My films don’t lecture - they entertain, and make people think at the same time.

Women do figure prominently in my films, but I don't use them as sex objects. I remember, in Lahore, I had a calendar, which had a picture of a globe and a woman sitting on it and it said, A woman sits on the top of the world - that sentiment fascinated me.

Naya DaurSure, there have been controversies as well. Naya Daur (right) was one instance, thanks to the Madhubala episode. She was a fine person, it was merely that in this one instance, things went badly wrong. For my film she did about ten days work and then her father refused to allow her to go outdoors for the rest of the shoot - I was never sure why. So we took Vyjayanthimala for the role and her father filed a suit against us.

The judge hearing the case even asked me whether I could make the film indoors and thus accommodate Madhubala, and I said I could not. You will not believe this, but the day the film was released, I saw the same judge coming towards me and saying that I was right, the film could only have been made outdoors. That's how I won the case. Madhubala did come to my house to apologise and say she was really helpless, but that's okay. I have no complaints.

Initially, Yash (Chopra) directed a few of my films. We parted when he got married and decided that he want to go independent - but there were no hard feelings. It was his decision, and I supported it. We lived together for quite a few years. Immediately after my marriage he started staying with us. He was very fond of my wife and we treated him like a son. When he got married, he shifted to my place in the city, in Napean Sea Road. Now he has done well for himself, and I am very proud of him.

Present perfect: Right now I am making a film. I can’t talk about it because it is still under negotiation.

What worries me today is not my health, which is quite fine, but the health of the film industry. I look around and wonder what kind of films are being made. I can’t make such stuff - but I do have the hope that there are people out there who would like to watch the films I like to make, quality films…

My son too hopes to start a film very soon - the script is ready, so his film might go on the floor first. The script for my film is still being written, so it might take longer. I spend more time writing my scripts than others do - that is because I rely on a strong story, instead of simply taking big stars and hoping to succeed.

B R ChopraI am also planning to make a serial called Bada Aadmi,based on the human mind. Films were, and continue to be, important - but when television came, we felt that it was a very intimate medium and what you can't say on the big screen you an say here. We wanted to take advantage of this intimacy, and we have succeeded - so now we have decided to do both, films and serials.

I want to make extension of Mahabharat, starting the serial at the point where the earlier one leaves off. I am going to Delhi soon, to negotiate with the government and with Doordarshan about that. You see, the government wants as much money from us as they can get. During the British rule, they never took a penny from us who provided entertainment. So we producers had lots of money and we could build institutions like Bombay Talkies, Prabhat, New Theatres, and such other studios. Today, there are hardly individuals, leave alone institutions. I think the government should come in and help us - and not try to make more money out of us.

I believe… : I believe in the Divine factor. I never thought that I would ever be a successful director, yet here I am. It is a miracle, no less.

I have been very lucky, in being loved by everyone in this industry. Personally and professionally, I have had a good time, and have no regrets at all. My artistes have been friends, I have enjoyed working with all of them.

I have nothing left to prove. I make films because I love it, and if they don’t do well then I can retire without any regrets. Let my son handle my banner at that point, let him do whatever he needs to be successful. I have three married children - one son and two daughters. And seven grandchildren whom I love very much.

It's been a good life. Very rich, very fulfilling. What more can a man ask for anyway?

Photographs B R Chopra: Jewella Miranda
Film Photographs: B R Productions