My parents were among the millions of South Asian couples who fell in love to the music and words of Yash Chopra's films. Sweeping, operatic and often absurdly melodramatic, the director's Bollywood musicals were shamelessly populist and hopelessly romantic. They were India's romantic comedies, its adult dramas and its crowd-pleasing blockbusters all rolled into one.
Chopra died Sunday in Mumbai of complications from dengue fever. He was 80 years old and just weeks from the international release of his last film in a career that spanned five decades.
We often learn about countries like India through their pioneering leaders, business tycoons or Nobel Prize-winning writers. Chopra was none of those things. He gave form to how everyday South Asians came to understand heroism, family and love — at the movies.
Anyone who knows India knows that India's cinema represents more than ticketed entertainment: It's a state of mind. Movie stars are worshipped, film dialogues are quoted on first dates, and songs from the three-hour musicals blare out of shops, stereos and apartment windows. Chopra was the patriarch of that filmi language of love.
Chopra's films introduced the over-the-top visual presentation of courtship that made Bollywood both iconic and way too saccharine for most Western audiences. His heroes and heroines would unexpectedly break into song and be magically transported from India's cities into the Swiss Alps. Starlets in chiffon saris, completely inappropriate for Alpine climates, would flutter in the wind against breathtaking backdrops; heroes would emerge from behind pine trees to sing of a love that would last lifetimes. Switzerland's landscapes featured so prominently in Chopra's films that it has become one of India's top tourism destinations. The Swiss even unofficially named a lake after the filmmaker for his contribution to the country's unexpected fame in South Asia.
But Chopra's films rose above a kitschy musical pastiche to become enduring works because they also dealt with very real and complex relationships. He tackled regional conflicts, infidelity and betrayal — and the resolutions of those universal human struggles. And all those multigenerational family sagas were beautifully projected onto the big screen. They featured song lyrics written by poets, and superstar ensembles whose performances won countless awards.
I came to know Chopra's films through my parents' VHS collection growing up in 1980s Pakistan. I realized only earlier this year how deeply those films had been embedded in my imagination. I was living in Bavaria in February of this year, and on a visit to one of the German villages where lederhosen and bier would make far more sense, I began hearing the strings of Chopra's musicals. The Alps were alive with Indian music, and impractically dressed, dancing heroes and heroines were the only missing feature. I returned to my apartment in Munich and rushed to download one of those soundtracks — it just made sense for the montage playing out in my mind. Apparently, I wasn't alone.
Modern India is a very different country from the one it was when Yash Chopra became famous. It's more global in its outlook and its tastes. A new generation of Indian filmmakers, who were raised on a diet of global cinema, are pushing movies beyond the traditional musicals. Cynicism, sarcasm and the modern single life are very much in today's cinematic mix.
But this week everyone in Bollywood is mourning the death of Chopra. His was a different way of both seeing and articulating love, and he never lost his faith in unabashed, full-throated romance.
Chopra's films were demure — they didn't need kisses or love scenes — but they were always infused with feelings that could fill whole valleys, Indian and otherwise.