The news of the death of the famous Bollywood filmmaker and director Yash Chopra (September 27, 1932-October 21, 2012) has been received with great sadness in Pakistan. Almost all leading Pakistani English-language newspapers paid tributes to him, and I am sure the same is true of the vernacular press. Among Lahoria film buffs, the sense of loss is personal as Yashji was a native-born Lahori. Anybody who heard him speak Hindi would notice that he spoke it in a very familiar Punjabi way. Pakistani Punjabis and especially Lahorias are describing him as a prodigal son on facebook and twitter. The attraction of a shared culture and language and indeed identity — Punjabiyat — remains an indelible reality 65 years later.
I can speak with considerable confidence that many of our elected and unelected leaders have been among the addicts of Bollywood films. General Muhammad Ziaul Haq and his family have had direct family relations with Bollywood stars notwithstanding the stern and severe Islamism he forced down the throats of the Pakistani nation. Right-of-centre Mian Nawaz Sharif is another Bollywood film buff while Imran Khan’s conquering looks have not gone unrequited in that tinsel town. General Pervez Musharraf, unlike the other three, is not a hypocrite. He likes dancing and singing and does it well. Thus my theory that culture unites while politics divides is an iron law applicable to India and Pakistan and especially the Punjabis.
Let me record here with great personal sadness that I was going to meet Yash Chopra in Mumbai in February 2013. I would be attending a conference not far from Mumbai and my friend Ajay Deshpande was going to take me to Yashji for a heart-to-heart talk. That, alas, will not happen now.
On the other hand, on January 4, 1997, I had the privilege of meeting his elder brother, B R Chopra in Mumbai. He met me with great warmth and wanted to talk a lot about his days at Government College, Lahore. He had begun his career as a film journalist in Lahore and was planning to make a film in cooperation with another Ravian, I S Johar, who hailed from the hamlet of Talagang, northern Punjab, but then the events of 1947 rendered that impossible.
The Chopras were a typical Lahori family. They lived on Chamberlain Road but some years before the partition shifted to Victoria Park, close to the Punjab Assembly. B R Chopra told me that Lahore was always in his thoughts, but his wife who belonged to Shahalmi Gate, Lahore, was too traumatised by the fires that were set to their homes on the night of June 21-22 1947 and subsequently as well, until all the Hindus and Sikhs fled from there.
B R Chopra showed no signs of bitterness. He told me that the children of his close friend Sheikh Abdur Rashid continue to write him even when their father had died. We discussed politics and as always happens on such occasions, expressed the hope that one day our two nations could become friends. The planned conversation with Yash Chopra in February 2013 would have been on similar lines but especially about his Lahore memories. He was just 15 when the partition took place.
Yash Chopra earned himself the fond title of Bollywood’s ‘King of Romance’, whose patronage of Punjabi lyrics in Hindi songs and music based on Punjabi tempo and beat was well known. Often times, his characters were like him: middle class Khatris. Although his elder brother probed Gandhian socialist themes, notably in Naya Daur (1957), Yash Chopra was more into successful upward mobility under capitalism — a sort of celebration of shining India.
Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan especially benefited from his patronage and went on to become megastars, and recently, Salman Khan has also done a blockbuster with him. Yashji won many laurels, including the Filmfare and Zee films awards. He was honoured by the Indian film industry with the highest recognition through the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2001 and by the Indian state with the prestigious Padma Bhusan in 2005. Recently, Yashji told Shahrukh Khan that his Jab Tak Hai Jaan scheduled for release on November 13, 2012, would be his swansong. His sons Aditya and Uday Chopra are already in films as director and actor respectively, and the Yash Raj banner their father founded in 1973 is likely to continue to entertain people in the future.
With regard to the Lahore link, his Veer Zara (2004) will remain a memorable attempt to connect with his city of birth. I am told Yashji sought permission to shoot his film in Lahore but was denied. The plot is full of the twists and turns you would expect in an inter-religious Indo-Pak romance. An Indian Hindu air force officer Veer (Shahrukh) falls in love with the Pakistani Zara (Priety Zinta) who belongs to a powerful Lahore family. Veer comes looking for Zara to Pakistan and lands up in jail on trumped up charges that he is an Indian spy, only to be found languishing for years in a prison cell by a Pakistani women and human rights lawyer played by Rani Mukherjee, who decides to appeal for his release. The scene from the Lahore High Court where Shahrukh Khan delivers a powerful speech before the presiding judges will always be treasured as Yashji’s everlasting tribute and homage to his home city across the border, and indeed to the loftier vision of friendship and solidarity between the Indian and Pakistani nations.
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org