Big B R. His Juhu bungalow — a fantasy villa straight out of one of his shot-in-Manali movies — meant movie moghuldom. Tall as an emperor, with an athletic throw of voice but a certain tentativeness while making eye contact, Baldev Raj Chopra was like his movies. At times as tough as the steely tonga driver of
and at times, as quirkily humorous as his
Pati Patni aur Woh
In mid-conversation, he would look at you to gauge if you agreed with him. If you did he’d put his hand forward for a clap on the palms. If you didn’t, he would be avuncular, thump you on the back and announce bemusedly, “I was a journalist once,” and repeat the aphorism you can never tire of hearing, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
He courted critics even if they thumbed him down repeatedly. Perhaps, he understood them a shade better because there was a time when he was reviewer for a Lahore monthly magazine Cine Herald.
For a film junkie kid, growing up on the B.R. Chopra movies of the 1950s, it was like learning the arithmetic of cinema. His work followed the traditional cause-and-effect format, almost always kick-starting with a prologue in a strong baritone voice that filled the viewer in about the purpose of the film that was about to unspool. That he was deeply affected by the Partition, having lost in moorings in Lahore, was evident through most of his 37 films, in his various capacities as a writer, producer and director.
This sense of displacement perhaps led to a belief in a new India based on the foundation of secularism. In this, his collaborations with his younger brother Yash Chopra have been remarkable particularly for Dhool ka Phool (1959) memorable for the song “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega”, and Dharamputra (1962) which spoke of the after-effects of the Partition. Once, the brothers separated for irrevocable reasons, B.R. Chopra veered towards a buffet of murder mysteries, brilliantly written courtroom dramas and ticklish comedies. Yash Chopra, out of home turf, literally flew to Switzerland for romantic fantasies.
As the BR banner became more powerful, controversies became endemic. The New Wave young Turks considered him hostile to experimental cinema. Some of the most creative writers in his story department made an exit. And B.R. Chopra was furious when his Pati Patni aur Woh ran into trouble with the censors. Khushwant Singh wrote an incensed piece supporting his filmmaker friend, all of which left a neophyte journalist like me, wondering about the wheels-within-the-wheels and the PR chess games in the business.
Also when Insaaf ka Tarazu was about to walk away with the Best Story Award, a video-cassette of the Hollywood movie Lipstick with the same plot, had to be presented to the jury for its final verdict. Yet, B.R. Chopra would take that in his stride. And quite unarguably, he was in the peak of his form with the woman-centric drama Nikaah (1982), blending a credible storyline with lavish sets, sumptuous costumes and an excellent music score. Subsequently he handed over charge to his son Ravi Chopra. His daughter Shashi taught economics at St Xavier’s College and he would say, “For me, that’s more important than filmmaking.”
The TV serial Mahabharat was his last hurrah. Then he would occasionally drive to his office, a zip drive from his villa. B.R. Chopra, on a wheelchair, was unthinkable. Yet during the finale of his life, he retained that lust for storytelling. He would narrate the idea of Ek Aur Itihaas, a film which he could never make. After the narration, he would make eye contact. And when you said that you liked it, he would stretch his hand out for that clap on the palms.