Do you think films can become agents of change? Films borrow from the society. Have you ever heard about any film that has brought even a small change in the society. My learned friends would like to mention Einstein (Sergei not Albert) and his Revolution trilogy. But here also the revolution was already there and Einstein was just helping the cause. Of course, a film can have a positive effect on an ongoing change. This leads to the next question should a film be a film of artist’s conscience. Our own Shekhar Kapoor says,” it’s a big risk in an art form which is so expensive”. Our mainstream filmmakers have always avoided that risk. The parallel independent cinema industry, if it is an industry at all, tries the socially relevant subjects but their reach is very limited.
Thinking about social relevance of the mainstream Hindi film industry reminds me of B. R. Chopra who almost every time took the risk mentioned by Shekhar Kapoor. Through his works, he proved that entertainment can be socially relevant and unlike the art cinema, presented a commercially successful fusion to the viewers. His films were never preachy yet delivered strong social messages.
Consider this- a fascist Hindu extremist youth leader, a Muslim hater, suddenly one day comes to know that he is actually a Muslim by birth. This was the story line of B. R. Chopra’s Dharmaputra (1961).
A victim of partition, he had to leave Lahore in 1947. He came to Bombay and formed B. R. Films in 1954. In 1957, came his first production Naya Daur, a huge commercial success. Through the story of a small village, B. R. Chopra presented the socio-economic condition of a nascent India. It was a battle for survival of man against machine. It portrayed anxiety of India during its first steps towards nationhood. The film did not compromise on the entertainment quotient. Its songs are timeless gems and the story of love and friendship is pure entertainment. Yes, it advocated Nehruvian Socialism. The beauty is that Nehruvian Socialism may have lost its relevance today but Naya Daur is still relevant, may be in different interpretations.
In Sadhna (1958), he presented the viewers, Mohan, an upright, honest Professor who teaches his students the evils of prostitution but falls for a girl who is a prostitute. What should he do now? The prostitute who came to Mohan’s house to steal, posing as his fiancée in front of his dying mother is transformed by the overwhelming love and respect showed by him and his mother. What should she do now? Today this may sound clichéd but do keep in mind it was 1958.
In 1959, he released Dhool ka Phool, the story of an illegitimate Hindu child being brought up by a Muslim. This was the first directorial venture of Yash Chopra.
Then came 1960 and he surprised the viewers with Kanoon, India’s first songless courtroom drama presenting a case against capital punishment. It was a very bold experiment to make a song less film as songs used to be the main attraction during those years. The distributors were apprehensive. But everyone watching the film never felt the need and history was made when a songless movie became a huge hit. Capital punishment is still being debated throughout the world and B. R. Chopra, way back in 1960 questioned the justification of capital punishment in a justice system based on witnesses.
During the next 20 years i.e. from 1960 to 1980, all his films were having social themes like Gumrah(1963), Waqt(1965), Humraaz(1967), Aadmi Aur Insan(1969), Dastaan(1972), Dhund(1973), and Zameer(1975). Most of them were hits. In 1969, he again experimented with a song less film Ittefaq, starring Rajesh Khanna and Nanda. It was a murder mystery with a shocking twist.
Insaf Ka Tarazu, as said by most critics was his boldest and most controversial experiment. He questioned crime and punishment in a patriarchal social structure where a rape survivor is victimized everywhere, in the courts and in the society. The victim in his movie was portrayed as a very strong character that was determined to seek justice even if it costs her reputation in the society. He advocated amendments in the rape laws in 1980, which were seriously thought upon only after the Nirbhaya incident. This discourages one’s view on films as an agent of change and gives an impression that real accidents are needed to bring about change.
In my opinion, B. R. Chopra’s boldest take on unjustified social norms was Nikaah (1982). No one dares to question Muslim personal laws even today in popular media. No one wants to get on the wrong side of an Islāmic cleric. But he questioned what he thought was wrong. Nikaah presents the pathetic condition of women in Muslim societies where the marital laws are totally unjustified and misused. He presented it as a story of every woman treated like a toy by male chauvinism. I am not sure he would have been able to make this film today. Perhaps those times were less “Intolerant”.
After making several unsuccessful films post-Nikaah, B. R. Chopra was back with a bang on the yet emerging small screen with Mahabharat. This is unarguably most successful TV serial ever made.
His works are relevant even today. Most of the questions raised by him through his works, still persist and are debated about. All of his films can be considered films of his conscience and by making them commercially successful, he proved that he knows his art well.
He got National Awards for Kanoon and Dharmaputra. Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1998. In 1963, he was a member of the jury at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.
And yet they say his greatest contribution to Hindi Cinema is his younger brother Yash Chopra.
Just listen to this song from Gumraah, a film by B. R. Chopra. One of my favorites.