The Man Who Loved Women: Yash Chopra and His Leading Ladies

Even though he used to write poems in Urdu, filmmaker Yash Chopra left romancing women to his movies.

6 min read
Yash Chopra directs Sridevi in <i>Chandni.&nbsp;</i>

He would write poems in Urdu but these weren’t for publication. “They’re too amateurish, full of women bathed in moonlight, strolling by stream sides,” he’d apologise. “Sahir Ludhianvi saab was my friend, I didn’t dare to show him any of my so-called verses.”

Six years ago during his 80th birthday celebrations, while in conversation with Shah Rukh Khan, he had said ever so seriously, “God has made women beautiful. I respect all women. I don’t see any ‘badness’ in them. I am doing my duty by making God’s creations even more beautiful.”

On Yash Chopra’s 86th birth anniversary today (September 27), here’s rewinding to a man who loved women. Perhaps he couldn’t quite articulate his romantic facet in poetry and conversations. Clearly, he left romancing the women to the movies.

In his private life, he maintained a squeaky clean profile, flinching whenever he was ribbed about his crush on Mumtaz, whom he had featured in a supporting part in Aadmi aur Insaan. At the dining table if his sons, Aditya and Uday, would bring up the perky ‘Mumu’, he’d huffily change the topic.

Feroz Khan, Mumtaz and Dharmendra in <i>Aadmi Aur Insaan.</i>
Feroz Khan, Mumtaz and Dharmendra in Aadmi Aur Insaan.

Married relatively late at the age of 38 to an army officer’s daughter Pamela Singh – an arranged marriage prompted by her cousin Simi Garewal and actor Romesh Sharma – the filmmaker from thereon considered ‘Pam’, as she was monikered, his muse. She has contributed immeasurably to his music scores, story concepts, costume designs besides frequently serving as a playback singer.

In a career span sprawling over five decades through which he directed 22 films, Yash Chopra cast practically every A-list heroine – and for that matter every hero – in his oeuvre, which U-turned from social reformist black-and-white tracts to escapist love stories, infallibly foregrounded with deep red roses, tasteful décor and a bespoke wardrobe of pastel chiffons, textured silks, and bling for the festive sequences.

From the Pahalgam vales to the tulip fields of Amsterdam and then most famously the hop-overs to the Gstaad dales in Switzerland, was the route chosen by this master of glossy valentines. Comfortingly, the love stories would culminate in an all’s-well-that’s-swell ending.

Although, he didn’t formally make women-centric cinema, but for the eponymously titled Chandni, his leading ladies weren’t blindsided even in the angry young man blockbusters Deewaar and Trishul of the angst-ridden era of the 1970s. Always omnipresent to supply the emotional quotient –take the cameo by Parveen Babi as a high-class call girl in Deewaar – his women characters were no shrivelling lilies.

Right from his early heroines Mala Sinha, Nanda and Hema Malini down to the latter-day Madhuri Dixit, Karisma Kapoor, Preity Zinta, Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma, they were all given the Chopra treatment – loving close-ups, feisty dialogue, dance set pieces and scenes in which they were assigned an upper-hand to the heroes.

The director’s sole regret was that he couldn’t ever do sufficient justice to Neetu Singh, who was featured in Kabhi Kabhie, Kaala Patthar and Deewaar. “My fault,” he had admitted in an interview with me. “When I saw her performing so spontaneously for Kaala Patthar, I was astonished. Then she married Chintu (Rishi Kapoor) and quit the movies till their children grew up.”

Poonam Dhillon in <i>Noorie.</i>
Poonam Dhillon in Noorie.
(Photo Courtesy: Yash Raj Films)

That Yash Chopra banked on established stars was part of his signature. He did introduce female actors once in a while like Poonam Dhillon (Trishul, followed by Noorie produced by him), Naseem (Kabhi Kabhie), Farha (Faasle) and Sonam Rai (Vijay). Besides the Noorie girl, the others proved to have a brief shelf-life.

Of his gallery of heroines, at least five of them received a tremendous impetus -- or their career boosting roles -- with the Yash Chopra treatment.

Sharmila Tagore

Raakhee Gulzar, Yash Chopra and Sharmila Tagore on the sets of <i>Daag.</i>
Raakhee Gulzar, Yash Chopra and Sharmila Tagore on the sets of Daag.
(Photo Courtesy: Yash Raj Films)

Waqt was the big daddy of multi-starrers. Balraj Sahni, Raaj Kumar, Sadhana and Sunil Dutt were allocated chunkier footage. Yet La Tagore played her cards right. After debuting in Kashmir ki Kali, she paired up with Shashi Kapoor in a marginal part which had been nixed by Asha Parekh.

La Tagore’s urban cool was noticed, and the collaboration with Yash Chopra continued with Daag -- a riff on Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge --in which she crossed claws with Raakhee Gulzar while vying for the attention of then then superstar Rajesh Khanna.

The tension between the two ‘Bengal Tigresses’ was widely reported. Presumably, to ensure that neither heroine turned out to be a loser, the end showed both the tigresses settled under the same roof with the same man, suggesting an ‘open marriage’. A first?

Raakhee Gulzar

Yash Chopra, Shashi Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar and Raakhee Gulzar on the sets of <i>Trishul.&nbsp;</i>
Yash Chopra, Shashi Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar and Raakhee Gulzar on the sets of Trishul. 
(Photo Courtesy: Yash Raj Films)

She appeared in as many as five Yash Chopra romances (Daag, Joshila, Kaala Patthar, Kabhi Kabhie and Trishul). The filmmaker’s offer of Kabhi Kabhie to Raakhee wasn’t exactly welcomed by Gulzar and is said to have fuelled their estrangement.

That apart her screen chemistry with both Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan in Kabhi Kabhie was terrific. And if there’s a protypical image of the bride on a suhaag raat it’s that of the light-eyed Raakhee bedecked in elaborate ghota-zardozi bridalwear, which continues to be imitated by the millenial designers.


Yash Chopra with Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha on the sets of <i>Silsila.</i>
Yash Chopra with Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha on the sets of Silsila.
(Photo Courtesy: Yash Raj Films)

Silsila which came to be derided as Sillysila created waves during its making by the infamous ‘casting coup’ of Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha-Jaya Bhaduri. The original heroines – Smita Patil and Parveen Babi – were shown the door after a few days of filmaking. The adult too-close-to-the-bone love story bombed (okay, okay, it’s a cult of sorts now) but there’s no taking away from the passion play between Ma’am Re and Bachchan Sr.

Rekha’s red chiffon sari and the ornate magenta salwar kameez worn during the song sequence, Tu ladki hai ya shola, became style statements. Rekha did fetch up subsequently in Chopra’s Faasle but snooze-walked through the movie which has gone (deservedly) under the cracks.


Yash Chopra with Sridevi on the sets of <i>Chandni.</i>
Yash Chopra with Sridevi on the sets of Chandni.
(Photo Courtesy: Yash Raj Films)

Without her both Chandni and Lamhe are unimaginable, and are arguably among her best Bollywood super scorers. On her passing away earlier this year, Chandni was streaming all over the OTT platforms. The piece de resistance there, is of course, the semi-classical tandav performed in a white Amrapali costume by a Swiss lakeside.

In Lamhe, it was the difficult dual role, which like Gulzar’s Mausam earlier, was considered shocking because of its incestuous connotations. It didn’t click on its release, and yes now it’s a cult, with Sridevi rocking the Rajasthani courtyards and the dune scapes from the first frame to the last.


Juhi Chawla

Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla in <i>Darr.&nbsp;</i>
Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla in Darr. 
(Photo Courtesy: Yash Raj Films)

After a tiny pop-up in Chandni, she was showcased as Shah Rukh Khan the stalker’s unattainable subject of desire in Darr. She fit into the Chopra mould easily, oozing glamour.

Which wasn’t always enough. Going way beyond her patented pout-pourri, Juhi broke into a teasing tandav to an instrumental track titled Obsession, and could never quite equal that combo of oomph and chutzpah ever again.

It wasn’t as if Yash Chopra had introduced tandav interludes to Bollywood. Yet a beguiling dance set piece became an obsession -- evidenced also in his swan song, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, in which Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma, separately, shimmied and bopped till they dropped.

For Yash Chopra as much to the audience, a woman of seduction, spelt fabulous art and entertainment.

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