From Dhool Ka Phool in 1959 to Veer-Zaara in 2004, your cinema epitomizes romance in Hindi films.
We've tried our best. People talk about the romantic aura in our films. Aura aise hi ban jata hai. It's a process on which I've no control. If people expect Veer-Zaara to be the ultimate romantic fable it could be because I'm directing a film after seven years. The curiosity for the film kept growing till the last minute because we couldn't decide a title. Again, that wasn't intentional. People's expectations make me tense and nervous. Will I be able to live up to them? After all these years, I get as anxious and insecure about a release as I did when I made my first film. With every film my responsibility towards my audience and my banner increases. If for any avaricious reason I betray my audience, they'll never forgive me. And to compound my anxieties Veer-Zaara is being released along with Mughal-e-Azam one of the all-time great romantic films which I've watched so many times…Actually I had finalized another idea when my son Aditya suggested I make an earthy very Indian film. That's how Veer-Zaara was born. We finished the film within one year.
When did your romance with romance begin?
If you go back to my first film Dhool Ka Phool, you'll see a lot of love scenes in it. The film was about an illegitimate child. And children, as you well know, aren't born out of thin air. After I wrote my love scenes in Dhool Ka Phool, I became hooked to them. I remember in Dhool Ka Phool, there was a sequence where a man and woman on different bicycles fell on each other. The censors asked me to delete the scene. Today men and women are falling over each other for no reason. No one raises an eyebrow. When I think of a love scene I don't calculate how much should be exposed or which angle to capture the lead pair in. It should come from the heart. Otherwise it looks fake. People should connect with the romantic emotion. Not one member of any Indian family would be embarrassed by the love scenes in Veer-Zaara. I'm very happy with what I've done in not just Veer-Zaara, but most of my films.
During the mid-1970s you made a series of action films like Trishul, Kala Patthar and Deewar.
Shall I tell you one thing? Deewaar which is considered one of the most successful action films had only one fight sequence! It was the mother-son emotions that saw the film to its success. Yes Trishul and Kala Patthar were action films. Those subjects came to me and I liked them. Thereafter I had a series of romantic failures like Vijay, Parampara and Faasle. Then one day I was driving down to town from my home in suburbs of Mumbai. Every hoarding that I saw had men holding guns in their hands. I realized I was losing my way. I believed in romantic films, so why wasn't I making them? That's how I made Chandni. When I was asked about the film's highlights I said the songs are the highlights. When a distributor saw Vinod Khanna in a romantic role he left my film! When it was released people predicted it would flop in week. But its success reaffirmed my faith in my vision and my audience. That faith has stood by me all these years.
I think we've gone overboard. What we see in today's films isn't romance. Love is a very intimate and personal emotion. Our audiences have been exposed to every possible culture and experience on television. In the last 2-3 years our films haven't been doing well. In desperation, filmmakers have turned murder, sex and nudity into formulas. I firmly believe Indian audiences go for strong story and Indian values. That's the only formula that will last. By showing skin you can't get your film to make a long-lasting impact. It's a passing phase. When I made Silsila and Lamhe in 1989 and 1991, people said they were premature creations. When I'm pregnant with an idea I have let it be delivered in its natural course. For some reason my two "neglected children" Silsila and Lamhe remain my favourites. I'm especially proud of Lamhe. I don't know why it didn't succeed at the box office, maybe it was ahead of its time. But it got me the biggest critical acclaim of my career. Silsila was the first film on extra-marital relations to have broken the barriers between offbeat and mainstream cinema. Some films are destined to succeed in retrospect. This was the case with Guru Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool. On release it was a disaster. Today it's a classic. Our business may be called showbiz but we owe more to society than mere entertainment. We have to make films that would wean audiences away from their mindsets regarding cinematic entertainment. When I look back on my career, I feel God has been kind to me. Of course I worked hard to get where I am. But more than that, there's a power that has got me here
Which of your films are you the proudest of?
I don't make any film that I don't believe in. But sometimes a film that you believe in doesn't get the love and affection from the audience that you hoped for. Then that becomes your favourite child. From my first film Dhool Ka Phool which I made for my brother, to my first film as a producer Daag to Deewaar , Trishul, Chandni, Dil Toh Pagal Hai….all my films are important to me. But my two "neglected children" Silsila and Lamhe remain my favourites.
Many of your critics say your cinema is insulated against reality?
I don't agree. Whether its arranged marriages, man's battle with the machine age, corruption in the public sector…they're all there in my films. My 1960s' hit Waqt is considered an escapist entertainer. But it was actually a film about man's destiny and how it cannot be controlled. In recent times social content including patriotism has become a formula. The man on the street has become blase about corruption. I decided to make films on the one theme that can never get outdated, namely human emotions and human relationships. Somewhere there's a love story unfolding at every given point. I decided to give a new twist to the emotion called love in my films. If I can touch even one person's heart in any corner of the world I'm a happy filmmaker. Whether laughing or crying audiences should feel good while watching my films. As for social content my film Dharamputra in 1961 addressed itself to the sensitive issue of communal relations. It sparked off disputes between Hindus and Muslims. Theatres were threatened with bomb scares. To assure that nothing went wrong my film's leading man Shashi Kapoor, my friend Deven Verma and I personally attended the first show at Mumbai's Maratha Mandir. Such gestures went a long way in building a bond between the Yash Chopra banner and the distributors-exhibitors.
Do you get scared by audiences' expectations?
At that time I was judged as B.R. Chopra's younger brother. Then in 1973 I was again nervous as a school-boy during first day of school when I branched out on my own to produce and direct Daag. I knew I was doomed if it failed. I remember the first trial show 12 days before release. People praised me. But I could see the hesitation about the controversial subject-a man with two wives. And my leading man Rajesh Khanna had as many as 8 flops prior to Daag. But to my relief, the film was a super hit on the first day. God has continued to be on my side.
You share a very special rapport with Lataji?
Lataji has always been so kind to me. She can never say no to me. As long as I am there and she's there she'll continue to sing for my films. And if we're creating history in Veer-Zaara by reviving the melodies of Madan Mohan 30 years after his death, how can she not be there? And she's sung like an angel. That a lady of 75 can sing like this is unbelievable. Unhone hamari jaan nikal lee. Woh log khush-naseeb hain jinhe Lataji ke saath aaj bhi kaam karne ka saubhagya mil raha hai. People call her an avatar of Goddess Saraswati. When others sing they follow music, but when she sings, music follows her. I truly believe that. When she sang for Dhool Ka Phool the first film I directed, I was in awe of her. Today I'm much closer to her. But the awe remains. I'm a very small player in the story of the Indian film industry. She's given so much more. Today the two of us have come together with lyricist Javed Akhtar to pay homage to one of our greatest music composers.
How do you explain the immense success of your productions like Hum Tum and Dhoom which you don't direct?
That's my son Aditya Chopra's domain. He handles the creative side of our productions. I handle the financial aspect. When Aditya or I make film then we discuss everything in detail. But a film like Dhoom is orchestrated entirely by him. Being a romantic film Hum Tum wasn't so costly. But Dhoom being an action film was very expensive. We had to import 8-9 bikes. Australian stuntmen participated….Production costs shot back. But when I saw the end-product I knew it was going to be successful. I never thought it'd be this successful. Without major stars-Abhishek, John Abraham, Esha Deol and my younger son Uday aren't really big stars— the film is doing unbelievable business. I think Dhoom worked for its young international look. Though I'm the producer I don't have anything to do with Dhoom's creativity.
What do you feel about the films being made these days?
We're making all kinds of films-English, Hinglish, sex, horror…..this and that. It's a healthy trend. But for a film to run it has to have Indian values. For a film to be a blockbuster it has to be rooted to our culture.
How do you explain the long-running success of DDLJ?
There're some phenomena which defy explanation. How do you explain Lataji's voice? How do you explain the fact that at 75, she sang like an angel in my Veer-Zara? Dilwale… is another miracle. Bhagwan ki kripa hai. I don't deserve the success I've got. Yes, Dilwale…has broken all records to become the most successful Indian film ever.
How do you explain that?
When it completed 200 weeks I thought we had had our innings. But DDLJ kept growing. Now after 500 weeks the general-manager of Maratha Mandir tells me it can easily go on for six more months. It still goes houseful during weekends! Aditya was only 23 when he made DDLJ. I still remember the first time when he narrated the story to me. I had tears in my eyes for two reasons. Firstly, it was because my son had written it. And secondly because it was such a heartwarming story. I knew it was going to be a hit film. But to this extent?! Never. It touched a chord in Indians all over the world. It prompted them to go back to their country, traditions and roots. DDLJ was the first romance where the boy takes the girl away only with the parents' consent. The whole process of winning over the girl's family was unique.
How do you rationalize its continuing success after so many years?
Log pagal nahin hain jo roz DDLJ dekhne jaate hain. Adi ne dil se banayee yeh picture. I feel the films being made today have no heart. Most of them are superficial in content. I was amazed by the depth and emotions in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black. To my pride Yashraj Films has the privilege of distributing this unique film overseas. Hats of to Sanjay for his conviction courage and confidence. He never thought of what money it would make. He did what came naturally to him. Black is a rarity today.
Did you have an inkling of DDLJ's success?
The first time I really realized the film's potential was when we took the print to Prasad Lab in Chennai to record the Dolby sound. The technicians there asked me to dub it in Telugu. I did so. It was super hit in Telugu. Never in my life have I seen such reactions to any film. It became a landmark thanks to my son's honest and sincere effort.
It's also become a liability for Aditya.
Yes, it has become a benchmark for him. He can't make DDLJ again, though I'm sure he'll always make good films. But success cannot be guaranteed…Would you believe Shah Rukh was at first hesitant to do DDLJ?
Are you serious?
Yes, he didn't want to do more mushy romance. Adi convinced him. He predicted that every viewer from the age of 6 to 80 will love him after DDLJ. Sure enough his fan-following multiplied manifold. Every member of the cast was perfect. I remember the late lyricist Anand Bakshi saying, 'Even if Adi puts half of his ideas on screen he'll make a historic hit.'
I remember after the release you told me you had never seen so much money in your life.
It's true. DDLJ has done many things for me. It has helped us to realize so many of our dreams. When I came to realize that distributors aren't quite upfront in their dealings I decided to become my own distributor. For the first time we saw big money. I asked my son what he wanted. He said he wanted that we should've our own studio. Today we're ready to open our own state-of-the-art studio, thanks to DDLJ.
How important is marketing for a movie?
Very important. But you can't sell a product that the audience doesn't want. Out of the 150-200 films being released per year the audience chooses to go to theatres for 10. You've to make sure you bring the audiences in to see those 10 films through promotion and marketing. Word-of-mouth publicity is a myth. The only recent film that ran by this method was my elder brother B.R. Chopra's Baghban. It was such a brilliant subject. My brother lived with the idea for twenty years.
Today Yash Raj is the largest filmmaking empire in the country.
It's a scary thing. We try to make the films that we believe in. Every Friday a new destiny is chalked out for some filmmakers, not just in India but all over the world. The cinema business has become unpredictable. All we can do is work with sincerity.
There has been almost cent-percent success for Yash Raj Films in recent years?
More than hard work, it's God's blessings. Of course every director works very, very hard. But I believe there's a power above hard work. Look at Lataji. Why do you think she's a legend beyond all human definition? She's my sister and I'm so proud of her. Even at 75 she has sung perfectly for me in Veer-Zaara and gave the songs emotions that are unimaginable.
You are as unspoilt as she is.
You are right. I never planned any of the things that happened to me. They kept happening one after another. It's all God's blessing.