If Raj Kapoor, with his Freudian complexes, dreamlike visions of ‘women in white’ and evergreen melodies, defined ‘romance’ in Hindi cinema it could be reasonably said that Yash Chopra sought to redefine it. Indeed, they share a link that suggests them as somewhat like ‘kindred spirits.’ One story goes that back in the 1950s, Chopra’s brother and mentor BR Chopra had recommended Raj Kapoor’s name to his fledgeling younger sibling (along with Mehboob Khan’s), so that he could assist RK and learn from the best. Neophyte Yash opted to work under BR Chopra, instead. Yash Chopra fans will know that it was only in later years that he assumed the indisputable ‘King of Romance’ rep. But his early films were nothing at all like his latter-day ones. The 1950-60s output of Dhool Ka Phool, Dharmputra and Waqt, for example, revealed Chopra’s uncanny commitment to social realism while remaining strictly within the boundaries of mainstream routine, taking more than a leaf out of the BR Chopra copybook. But once Yash Chopra shifted full-time to romance, most likely with Silsila in 1981, his canvas became an eloquent celebration of love, female beauty and fine aesthetics. At some point in Yash Chopra’s industrious ‘romantic’ phase, his cinema touched Raj Kapoor’s in passing – the only difference being that while RK’s obsessions were chiselled to perfection at the dream factory that was RK Studios (sold to Godrej Properties earlier this year, to the tune of an estimated Rs 200 crores to develop a sprawling township), Yash Chopra’s visions of fantasy needed a Swiss push. Both men were hopelessly in love with the idea of ‘love.’ Over time, RK’s ‘Bollywood’s Showman’ title was neatly passed down to his legitimate heir.
Larger-than-life. Glossy. Beautiful women. Blockbuster. Jukebox-y. Big budget. Swiss Alps. Modish costumes. Ménage à trois. Excess. Indulgent. Candy-floss. Over the decades, the media has launched a thousand adjectives in an attempt to define the Chopra-scape. One film that brings together all these elements into a sum of endless beauty and special three-pronged spark was Chandni, which turns 30 on September 14. Arguably, Chandni may rank as Yash Chopra’s first out-and-out romantic outing in his long and justly-celebrated career. At Yash Raj Films (YRF), it may all have started with this Sridevi-Vinod Khanna-Rishi Kapoor-Waheeda Rehman starrer. For good or ill, Chandni is most probably the prototype on which not merely Chopra but the entire modern Bollywood blueprint was formulated, thanks to younger filmmakers like Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar who made it their go-to shrine and fashioned their own dream factories out of Sridevi’s chiffons. In their own ways, they have all attempted to play catch-up with the kind of romance Chopra has conjured but have rarely succeeded quite like him. In the years to come, Chopra himself has come up with different iterations, combinations and permutations of Chandni (Lamhe, Darr, Dil To Pagal Hai, all three-wheelers ending with the true lovers uniting. Before that, there was the star-studded Silsila). It has been said that Chandni gave birth to the modern Hindi film, with its baroque excess, upper-class protagonists, wall-to-wall music (nine songs, no less), exotic Swiss landscapes, two male eye candies (Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor) and of course, the sexy Sridevi whose remarkable talent was the magical way in which she could put her ‘good girl’ role on flight mode to transform into a sultry movie goddess as if she was killing the seedhi-saadhi Sridevi each time so that the seductress could get out and give us a shine. In the age of “action and Madras invasion, Chandni brought back romance, love and music. It was radically different from anything that was being made in that era,” said Karan Johar, an avowed Chandni fan, in a 2009 interview with his YRF ‘mentor’.
The Yash Chopra Heroine
The film, released in 1989, came at a critical juncture for Chopra personally as a filmmaker. In a widely-watched, freewheeling conversation with Shah Rukh Khan while promoting swan song Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), Chopra admitted that he wasn’t creatively happy with his 1980s phase in general and with duds like Faasle and Vijay in particular. That led Chopra to question himself as he believed he was compromising his creativity as a filmmaker. “There’s a difference between a good film and a hit film,” he told the audience that filled a sold-out event with Shah Rukh Khan in Mumbai in 2012. The idea for Chandni was primarily to make a film with “songs as a highlight” just as action had been the mainstay of many of his 70s hits, including Deewaar and Kaala Patthar. Deciding to strike out in a wholly new direction, he made up his mind to do something “in which I believed in – a hardcore romantic film with nine songs that will be nine highlights.” Thus, was born Chandni. The film brims with youthful buoyancy and straight-from-the-heart romance betraying the director’s own approaching autumn years. Chopra was in his mid-50s during the making of Chandni and with age, they say, he only started getting younger. Not only that, his films, too (all the way into the 90s) kept getting younger.
A few years earlier, Chopra had made Faasle in which the scarf-sporting hero (singer Mahendra Kapoor’s son Rohan) was echoing his lover Chandni’s name (Tabu’s sister Farah) in icy climes. But audiences had to wait until 1989 to get their favourite Chandni being called out by none other than Rishi ‘Sweater’ Kapoor (voice: the long-lost Jolly Mukherjee) in wallpapered Swiss locales. In a Bollywood long dominated by all-powerful heroes, Chopra’s Chandni was a refreshing aberration – a heroine-centric outing that shepherded Sridevi out of what Karan Johar dubbed “Madras invasion,” Mr India’s whacky joys and cringe-worthy snaky hisses of Nagina towards a more household fantasy. She was now the quintessential Yash Chopra heroine, a shorthand for matinee diva that sends male hearts pulsing. Otherwise demure, Sridevi was the rare temptress who could switch on her movie persona at the drop of a sari pallu and turn on her seductive powers to satisfy the demands of a million film-goers.
Chandni is a Sridevi power-game through and through. She’s the film’s elusive attraction. We first meet the shy Chandni (Sridevi) at her best friend’s wedding where she’s urged to hit the stage. After much prodding, she drops her reserve and you get the first treat: “Mere haathon mein”. (Fun fact: it appears that Salman Khan has used this tactic in at least two hits: the Madhuri Dixit number “Didi tera devar” in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! as Khan’s Prem gatecrashes the all-women gathering mimicking Rishi Kapoor and opposite Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam). We immediately fall in love with Chandni. So has the rich brat Rohit (Rishi Kapoor). He pursues her and ultimately convinces her for marriage but Rohit’s wealthy and class-conscious Delhi family would never accept the middle-class Chandni. In a near-fatal accident, while wooing her, Rohit’s plane from which he is showering rose petals on her, crashes. He’s now wheelchair-bound. (Anil Kapoor had said ‘no’ to this role as he “didn’t want to sit in a wheelchair.”) But like the devoted Radha, Chandni craves to look after her Krishna. Realising that she may be destroying her life, Rohit deliberately insults her so that, spurned, she leaves him forever and is forced to make a new life for herself. This is the first half set in Delhi. Shortly afterwards, the action moves to Bombay, where Chandni has shifted after her humiliating and unexpected betrayal from Rohit. She is looking for a job and a new life. All she wants is to leave her past behind and start afresh. And in drives Vinod Khanna (in his 40s, but still every bit as dashing and suave as ever) who is immediately attracted to her and offers her a job in his travel company. As cliche as it sounds, Chandni is now torn between the loves of two men. She cannot forget Rohit, with whom she was engaged to be married but Lalit (Khanna) is the ideal groom, with his soft and gentlemanly qualities. Moreover, there’s Lalit’s exceptionally warm-hearted mother (the ever-graceful Waheeda Rehman joins the trio in a cameo), whose affection the homely Chandni quickly wins.
True to tradition, Chandni aims to be a classic Yash Chopra triangle rooted in the idea that behind every true and consummated love lurks an unrequited one. Indeed, it’s the oldest trick in the book but Chopra brings novelty and excitement each time he picks up the third wheel trope. On second thoughts, even Trishul is a triangle. But let’s stay with Chandni for now. Three decades later, the film may look like an institution but back in the day, despite Chopra’s clout, there weren’t many takers for it. Distributors were not ready to bet on it and Chopra was left to shell out his own moolah to see it through. Reportedly, one distributor couldn’t believe that in spite of “action star” Vinod Khanna’s presence, there was not a single fight sequence. In fact, Chopra had originally conceived, and even shot, a dramatic entry scene for Vinod Khanna but dropped it later as it seemed out of place in a film as utterly romantic as Chandni. Apparently, Sridevi’s titular Chandni even had a son after she marries Rohit but that angle was nixed, too. “I wanted a romantic film with beautiful music. I was sick of violence,” Chopra said, explaining his decision in one of his later interviews. One reason for Chopra’s appetite for romance could be due to his deep love for poetry. As a young man, he was a fan of Sahir Ludhianvi. In the interview with SRK, the director revealed that the only person he was ever star-struck for was the legendary Pyaasa poet. Chopra himself wrote some poetry of his own, which he shared with Khan and the audience during the 2012 interaction. Blessed with an extraordinary ear for poetry and music, Chopra had great faith in Chandni’s soundtrack and he knew he could rely on the legendary Shiv-Hari, who had started composing for the King of Romance from Silsila (1981) onwards. While the title song sung by Jolly Mukherjee was an instant best-seller, “Lagi aaj saawan” in which a much-in-love Vinod Khanna pines for a rain-drenched Sridevi remains one of the crowning achievements of not just Chandni but the 1980s in general. Upon release, the film was an instant winner, vindicating Chopra’s inner voice.
Chandni is the first example of what would become the ‘Yash Chopra school.’ Sridevi, like Rekha before her, was a typical Yash Chopra heroine – a wish fulfilment and an embodiment of glam doll-dom. Reputed for his penchant for wardrobe and costumes, Chopra had envisioned a modern look for Chandni. No sooner had the film opened than the ‘Chandni look’ (chiffon saris and sexy but fairly simple salwar-kameezes) had become a rage. There’s even a beauty tutorial on YouTube teaching women how to get the desired ‘Chandni make-up.’ Karan Johar, a closet costume savant at YRF for years, has often cited Chandni’s fashion as a major influence in his own swanky work. Chopra went on to direct Sridevi in the underrated Lamhe but it was in Chandni that she first displayed the ‘desirable and yet, unattainable matinee idol’ smokiness and sex appeal that would forever become entwined in the mysterious Sridevi myth.
No wonder, when the iconic actress died in 2018, the mourning headline-writers, fans and film denizens alike remembered her as “Bollywood’s Chandni.” To sum up, it won’t be wrong to say that Sridevi was essentially the last Bollywood original and Chandni, in every way, a film most central to her timeless appeal.