The camera pans over a pristine valley of green Swiss mountains and a cozy-looking hamlet tucked into the hillside. A honeymooning couple appears, strolling through the scene. The camera moves in. Their gaze meets. The couple embraces, and as the music swells in the background, the woman lifts up the edge of her yellow lace sari and breaks into song, her man looking on, adoringly.
By the song’s last refrains, the scene fades to a shot of our heroine in elegant repose on a pillow, rudely summoned from her fantasy by the clanging of a phone. The verdant Swiss peaks and the multiple sari changes are all a dream, of course. But they’ve been an enduring one. The scene from the 1989 megahit Chandni is a timeless slice of Bollywood romance, a trope that veteran director Yash Chopra helped perfect. Chopra, who died on Sunday, was roundly celebrated as Hindi cinema’s “king of romance.” Many of his wildly popular films like Chandni, which won India’s National Film Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, helped shape how love was painted on India’s silver screen: often star-crossed, but always chaste, and hopelessly romantic.
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India’s Twittersphere went into mourning on Oct. 21 on receiving the news of Chopra’s death. A long list of Bollywood luminaries chimed in with their condolences; even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent out a missive that Chopra’s “flourish to essay romance and social drama was unmatched.” The director died at the age of 80 in a Mumbai hospital after battling dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness. During his five-decade career as a filmmaker, Chopra won six National Film Awards and 11 Filmfare Awards. His latest and final film, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, is scheduled to be released in November.
While perhaps best known for the way that he shaped Hindi cinema’s notions of love in the ’90s, Chopra did not shy away from heavier fare. His directorial debut in 1959 delved into the taboo realm of raising an illegitimate child. He went on to make films tackling subjects including India and Pakistan’s partition, and wealth and social divides. His films crowned Bollywood royalty like Amitabh Bachchan, who shot to stardom after his role in the 1975 film Deewaar. Similar to James Dean’s cultish rise in Rebel Without a Cause, the “angry young man” that Bachchan portrayed and Chopra depicted has become a lasting Bollywood icon.
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Chopra’s popularity as a filmmaker dipped in the 1980s, but Chandni marked both his personal comeback and the resurgence of family films, featuring musical numbers, in Indian cinema. He went on to make the 1991 cult classic Lamhe, which, while not a box-office success, is widely reported to be Chopra’s own favorite, and more commercially successful films like Darr, in 1993. In the years since, Yashji, as he is affectionately known in India, secured his place as one of Bollywood’s most beloved and definitive voices. As Indian actor Randeep Hooda tweeted today: “RIP Yash Chopra. A self-made man who touched millions of hearts, inspired many a dream and left a mark on the journey of cinema quite his own.”