B.R. Chopra - master of socially relevant filmmaking (Obituary)

November 5th, 2008 - 3:58 pm ICT by IANS  

Mumbai, Nov 5 (IANS) He’s the man who gave us “Naya Daur” in the 1950s that dealt with the conflict between man and machine as well as the kitschy “Mahabharat” in the 1980s that brought the epic alive on the small screen. Baldev Raj Chopra, the iconoclast filmmaker, managed to successfully strike a balance between socially relevant and commercial cinema. Chopra, who crossed over from Lahore to New Delhi during partition, viewed filmmaking as a mission to highlight social issues and not as a money-making enterprise. The 18 movies that he directed and 28 that he produced from 1951 to 1992 bear testimony to that.

Born in Punjab’s Ludhiana town in 1914, Chopra initially worked as a film journalist.

After obtaining his Masters degree in English Literature from the Lahore University, he began working as a film reviewer with a monthly called Cine Herald, published from Lahore. He soon earned the status of a fearless writer and his reviews were found to be strident, but Chopra never changed his style.

Chopra’s journalism career, however, was short-lived. The pre-partition communal violence, which saw his house in Lahore being burnt down, forced the family to join the exodus of millions of Hindus towards the Indian side after division. They settled in New Delhi.

While still in Lahore, Chopra had tried his hand at filmmaking and started making a movie called “Chandni Chowk”, which was financed by his father’s friend. However, he could not complete it due to the partition.

He took to movie making again in 1948 and produced “Karwat”. It turned out to be a resounding flop.

Film financier Goverdhandas Agarwal suggested that instead of only producing movies, Chopra should take up direction as well. Inspired by Agarwal, Chopra directed the Ashok Kumar-starrer “Afsana” in 1951. The film was a runaway hit and even celebrated its silver jubilee. After that there was no looking back for Chopra.

In 1955, Chopra floated his production house B.R. Films. With “Ek Hi Raasta” (1956), a tale about widow remarriage, Chopra kick-started a line-up of thought provoking films and success followed thereafter.

“Naya Daur” (1957), “Sadhana” (1958), “Dhool ka Phool” (1959), “Kanoon” (1960), “Gumrah” (1963), “Waqt” (1965) and Humraaz (1967) were some of the other films that the legendary filmmaker made.

While “Naya Daur” tackled the competition between man and machine, “Sadhana” was a story about a prostitute’s love affair with a professor.

After watching “Naya Daur”, former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Chopra that he was compelled to watch the entire film and thoroughly enjoyed it.

To Chopra also goes the credit for giving Indian television its most viewed epic series - “Mahabharat”. More than 20 years later, the characters and dialogues of the serial are still etched in the minds of the viewers.

“Dhool Ka Phool”, with which Chopra’s young brother Yash Chopra debuted as director, tackled the stigma attached to illegitimacy, and “Kanoon”, considered the best courtroom drama ever made in Hindi, was about a defence lawyer who suspects the judge in a murder case.

Yash Chopra directed one of B.R. Films’ biggest hits “Waqt” in 1965 but left the production house in the early 1970s and founded his own banner Yash Raj Films. However, another brother, Dharam Chopra, a cinematographer, is still with B.R. Films.

The last film that Chopra directed was “Kal Ki Awaaz” in 1992, after which he passed on the baton to his son Ravi Chopra, who has since made hit films like “Baghban” and “Baabul”.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair in his old age, Chopra used to occasionally visit the B.R. Films’ office at Santacruz, about five kilometres from his Juhu home, and have lunch with the staff.

What made Chopra a successful filmmaker was that he could blend social themes with the commercial format of Bollywood without resorting to gimmicks or compromising on his conscience.

“Only money speaks today,” he used to lament in his later years while referring to the trend of filmmaking in Bollywood.

A filmmaker par excellence, Chopra was conferred the Indian government’s highest honour to a film personality - the Dadasaheb Phalke Award - in 1998. Chopra was also presented the National Citizen Award for the TV serial “Mahabharat” and received the National Awards for “Dharmputra” “Gumrah” and “Humraaz”.

In 1961, he won the Filmfare award for “Kanoon”, which was adjudged the best film. This apart, Chopra won multifarious awards throughout his career.

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