Bollywood brothers, a break-up and big hair

Yash Chopra
July 5, 2002

There is a small but growing literature on the Indian film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, though of course Bollywood refers only to the Bombay Hindi film industry. For example, Nasreen Munni Kabir has recently published a general introduction to Bollywood. Ashish Nandy, one of India's leading social scientists and a controversialist, has written cogently about Indian films in the round. There are new books in a postmodern tradition about Indian cinema.

To this small body of literature, Rachel Dwyer's book is a welcome addition. It deals with one of Bollywood's more commercially successful producer/ directors, Yash Chopra, who was the subject of a recent live interview at the National Film Theatre. He has been a successful maker of Hindi films for four decades. In this he is like his elder brother, B. R. Chopra, with whom he started as an assistant. Dwyer recounts the early collaboration of the brothers and its break-up (very much like a Bollywood film story). She relies on extensive interviews with her subject as well as his associates. She gives a film-by-film account of Chopra's oeuvre. She places Chopra's career in the context of Bollywood films of the past four or five decades and traces the social background of India's film-going public.

Bollywood is a chaotic place financially. The government of India did not, until very recently, recognise it as an industry, and banks were reluctant to lend money to film-makers. So it was merchant capital and later criminal capital that financed them. Since many films are produced and the rates of interest are high, there is no tendency to be innovative. Formula films are churned out, and even then two-thirds flop. But once a producer produces a hit, especially two hits, his financing problems become less acute. He acquires a permanent staff and a studio and some equipment he can call his own. But the more sunk capital he has, the more risky is a flop. In the past, actor-producers such as Raj Kapoor had to work double time as actors in any film on offer to keep their producing business afloat.

Chopra has had a smooth innings, with only an odd flop that drove him to direct films for others. Dwyer tries to attribute a special style to his films. But this is a bit like being lyrical about a TV commercial. Chopra's films are slickly produced, his women are fashionably dressed and coiffed, and his locations are exotic. And he has made a lot of them. But he is much less innovative than B. R. Chopra, who has pursued some bold story lines. But B. R. Chopra was not willing to talk, and Yash was.

Still, this is a good attempt to map the Bollywood jungle. Near the end of the book Dwyer discusses the sociology of Indian film audiences and shows how the changing market - the availability of TV, VCRs and now DVDs at home - has shaped the way film-makers develop themes of romance or violence. I would have liked this at the beginning, but it is a minor matter. We need many more studies of Bollywood directors like this one.

Lord Desai is professor of economics, London School of Economics. He is working on a biography of Indian actor Dilip Kumar.

Yash Chopra

Author - Rachel Dwyer
ISBN - 0 85170 874 9 and 875 7
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £48.00 and £13.99
Pages - 211

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