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Star-maker, studio mogul and widely regarded as one of India’s most successful filmmakers, Yash Chopra’s 40-odd films have been instrumental in shaping the iconography of mainstream Hindi cinema even before the term Bollywood was invented.
No wonder the official profile supplied by Yash Raj Films describes the studio’s chairman as follows: “Take the producing acumen of a Louis B. Mayer or a David O. Selznick and combine it with the sublime directorial skills of a Frank Capra or a Michael Curtiz and you get some measure of Yash Chopra, the “Baadshah” (Emperor) of blockbuster dreams for more than five decades.”
As one of the first directors to literally take Indian cinema global by pioneering overseas shoots — especially his unique romantic songs filmed in Europe and the U.K. — Chopra was honored by the Swiss government for “helping rediscover Switzerland” and was presented a special award by Ursula Andress. A lake in Switzerland has even been unofficially named “The Chopra Lake.”
The fact that Chopra galvanized the careers of superstars such as Amitabh Bachchan since the ’70s, and Shah Rukh Khan since the ’90s, explains why hordes of aspiring actors from all over the country wind up at the formidable YRF studio gates in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb.
According to YRF, 12 of its recent productions in this decade grossed in excess of $200 million worldwide while the six highest selling music albums of all time include soundtracks of four YRF films.
In terms of its content, YRF could best be compared to Walt Disney given that Chopra’s unique grasp of Indian family values remains the banner’s driving force to this day.
The youngest of eight children, Yash Chopra was born in 1932 in undivided India’s Punjab state in Lahore (now in Pakistan). Following the end of British rule in August 1947 and the onset of partition, like most Hindu Punjabis, Chopra’s family also migrated to India. Chopra worked as an assistant to his elder brother B R Chopra, a former film journalist who moved to Mumbai and went on to become a successful director/producer of socially relevant films.
Chopra’s career was nurtured by his brother’s banner B R Films, which produced his first five movies starting with his successful 1959 debut “Dhool Ka Phool” (Blossom of Dust) that tackled the offbeat subject of a betrayed woman and her illegitimate child which also established Chopra’s talent for nurturing music, crucial for any Indian film.
YRF was established in 1970 and in the decades that followed, Chopra delivered some of Indian filmdom’s biggest hits such as all-time classic “Deewar” (The Wall, 1975) which catapulted the then up-and-coming Amitabh Bachchan to iconic status. The director-star combo went on to deliver musical hits such as 1976’s “Kabhi Kabhi” (Sometimes) and 1981’s all-time classic love triangle drama “Silsila” (The Affair), among others.
YRF was again instrumental in revitalizing Bachchan’s career in the late ’90s as the star battled bankruptcy caused by the financial failure of his ambitious multimedia venture ABCL.
In an industry where some long-established banners — such as RK Films founded in 1948 by legendary actor/director Raj Kapoor (also with film family roots in pre-partition Punjab) — have struggled to keep up with the times, YRF is still a powerhouse.
“YRF has evolved a business model that is like any Hollywood studio by expanding into all aspects of the business from production to theatrical distribution to home video, music, digital and more, while remaining content-driven,” says Mumbai-based PricewaterhouseCoopers India entertainment industry analyst Timmy Kandhari. “Its a banner that seems to have a hang of what kind of movies work.”
Much of the credit for YRF’s evolution, especially over the last decade, goes to Chopra’s son Aditya, 38, who delivered one of Indian cinema’s biggest hits with his 1995 directorial debut “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” (The Braveheart Will Take the Bride) that made a superstar out of former TV actor Shah Rukh Khan. Like his father, Aditya also has an ear for music and “DDLJ” laid the foundations for a new sound for Hindi cinema. It was Aditya’s second directorial outing, 2000’s “Mohabbatein” (Love Stories), that revived Bachchan’s dormant career.
The intensely media shy Aditya is YRF’s vice chairman and creative head, supervising every production and all aspects of the studio’s value chain and expansion plans while upholding the studio’s tradition of fostering new talent. His younger brother actor Uday, 36, also supervises YRF’s forays into digital and new media.
Thanks to its local and international distribution network, YRF was ranked India’s top film distributor and 27th worldwide in The Hollywood Reporter’s 2004 survey of distribution companies.
Reflecting the globalization of the Indian industry, in a first of sorts, YRF and the Walt Disney Co. co-produced 2008’s Hindi animation feature “Roadside Romeo” as part of a two-picture deal.
As the industry went corporate in the last decade, Chopra played a crucial role in helping launch events like the annual FRAMES conference organized in Mumbai since 1999 by New Delhi-based industry body Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Recalls FICCI’s former additional director and head, entertainment division, Siddhartha Dasgupta, “It was only due to his efforts that we could successfully bring together all the elements to take FICCI-FRAMES to such heights. When he speaks, everyone listens.”
As for the future, YRF’s corporate plans indicate the banner’s intent to up its existing slate to nine films in 2011 and 12 in 2012 and backing additional films as a studio. While strengthening its existing businesses, YRF also plans to enhance its presence in television by producing more content for global distribution.
Given the rapid changes in India’s film landscape, both on the corporate and creative fronts, YRF may need to adapt further at a time when Hollywood majors are getting aggressive here. As Kandhari says, “Audience tastes are changing rapidly and new players such as UTV Motion Pictures offer much more experimental and edgy content even though YRF has tried some offbeat ideas.”
While its not clear if Chopra himself will direct again following his latest outing 2004’s “Veer-Zara,” he is a contented man, still humble despite his iconic stature. He sums up his life’s journey with a poetic response, “I started out alone/Towards my dream destination/But along the way others joined me/Till one day I discovered there was a whole cavalcade accompanying me.”
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