In memoriam – B.R. Chopra

A titan of Hindi films, Baldev Raj Chopra passed away on November 5th at his home in Mumbai. Successful at both the typical Bollywood musical and hard-hitting social dramas, BR reigned over a golden period of Indian cinema when movies could carry a message while not sacrificing their entertainment value.

BR, who is the elder brother of Yash Raj Chopra, came to Mumbai as a casualty of the partition. A journalist by profession, he decided to take his chances in the movie industry, producing his debut movie Karwat in 1949 with the help of investments from his family. The movie bombed and he was forced to go back to his day job for a couple of years.

He decided to switch to direction for his next attempt, Afsana, a movie about mistaken identity that starred Ashok Kumar in a double role. This one struck box office gold and he never looked back. Over the next few decades, his production house B.R. Films churned out many memorable films, some directed by his talented younger brother, Yash.

In 1973, Yash Raj broke away to create his own production company called Yash Raj Films. BR continued to make movies in the 80s but the company’s star has been on the wane since then except for a spectacular success with the television serial Mahabharat, which created history by entering the Guinness Book of World records for highest worldwide viewership. In 1998, B.R. Chopra received the DadaSaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian cinema.

Today his son Ravi Chopra holds the reins for the venerable production house. Box office success has been fleeting, though one notable exception was Baghban, a sentimental melodrama about the plight of senior citizens abandoned by their children. The production house has also been involved in colorizing and re-issuing its classics like Naya Daur. A colorization of Gumrah is also in the works.

Here are some of the memorable movies directed by B.R. Chopra –

Naya Daur (1957) – The movie’s message was a lament about the effect of modern technology on rural tradition. But with stars like Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala and an inspired race between a bus and a tonga for a climax, it was also a cracking entertainer.

Sadhna (1958) – Starring Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala, this was a bold movie for its time. VYjayanthimala stars as Champabai, a mercenary prostitute who is rehabilitated by the love and affection of a good man and his mother. In the surprising end, the mother even accepts the dancing girl as her daughter-in-law, showing a redemptive morality that regressed in the movies in subsequent decades.

Kanoon (1960) – Insulted by a comment at a German film festival that Indian movies contained “nothing but songs”, B.R. Chopra decided to take it up as a challenge. Kanoon is a complex thriller that has no songs. I highly recommend this movie to lovers of classic Hindi movies.

Gumrah (1963) – Once again treading on the boundaries of acceptable social behavior, B.R. Chopra made this movie about a woman who, trapped in a marriage not of her choosing, decides to continue her relationship with her ex-lover. Sunil Dutt was perhaps miscast as the scheming lover.

Pati, Patni Aur Woh( 1978) – This time adultery has a definite comic tone, with Sanjeev Kumar playing the role of the husband with the roving eye. He convinces his nubile secretary (Ranjita) that his wife is on her deathbed and unrepentantly takes advantage of her sympathy. This was the only comedy directed by B.R. Chopra.

Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980) – a much grittier movie than some of his earlier efforts, the movie bowed to the modernization of Indian society and dealt with rape in a realistic and stark manner, shocking audiences with the graphic depiction of the act. Zeenat Aman gave a bravura performance as the woman who kills the rapist after he molests her younger sister.

Nikaah (1982) – Made with a complete unknown for a lead actress, Salma Agha, Nikaah nevertheless was a blockbuster dealing with the a love triangle that is complicated by Muslim marriage law. Salma’s unusual voice made for a striking soundtrack that was a huge hit.

Mahabharat (1988) – The epic Hindu saga got its first professional treatment as a long television series. This format that allowed many of the lesser known stories to be told, fascinating audiences worldwide. It entered the Guinness Book of World Records as having been watched by over 96% of Indians around the world.

These movies can usually be found at Indian grocery and video stores.

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