Aditya Chopra narrates his plots in real screen time. The film runs in his head, frame by frame, and he describes what he sees, for more than three hours – the running time of the film. His passion is evident in his intensity. Sometimes, in the emotional scenes, his stammer worsens. But his energy doesn’t flag.But Aditya’s ardour failed to enthuse the Yash Raj Films unit. In May 1994, cinematographer Manmohan Singh, art director Sharmishtha Roy, dialogue writer Javed Siddiqui and family friend Deven Varma gathered in the Chopras’ gadda room (cushion room) to hear what Aditya had in mind. They weren’t impressed.
Manmohan didn’t like the first half. Plotwise, little happened. Others thought there wasn’t enough intensity in the story – why does the boy follow the girl to India when he doesn’t even know if she loves him. The climax sounded too much like another successful film, Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (The Heart Does Not Listen, 1991), in which the father encourages his daughter to run away from her own wedding and marry another man. Aditya was devastated. He loved his story. He thought it was brilliant. He asked himself two questions: ‘Do you love this script? Will you be a film-maker who speaks his voice?’ The answer to both questions was a resounding ‘Yes’.
Originally Aditya had planned to take newcomers, but as the script took shape, he realized that the film required seasoned performers. Kajol, an actress from a three-generation family of actors, was his first choice for Simran. With a dusky complexion and hazel-green eyes, she didn’t fit the fair-skinned stereotype of the Bollywood heroine. But on screen, she had the charisma of the great screen idols, a mesmerizing intensity from which it was hard to take one’s eyes off.
Kajol agreed immediately, but wondered how she would play this traditional, obedient daughter. Headstrong and forthright herself, Kajol couldn’t relate to Simran at all.
Shah Rukh had more knotty problems with this project. Aditya wanted Shah Rukh because until then he hadn’t played a romantic hero. Kajol and Shah Rukh had been established as a successful screen pair with Baazigar (Gambler, 1993), but the film was a thriller. During the making of Darr, Aditya had talked to Shah Rukh about making a film called Auzaar (Weapon). Shah Rukh assumed that a film with this name would be a ‘macho, cool dude’ kind of movie. Instead Aditya had narrated a love story.
Shah Rukh thought that romances were ‘pansy’, effete. He wasn’t interested in singing songs in pretty locations and then eloping with the girl, as was the Bollywood norm. Besides, the other two Khan heroes – Aamir and Salman – were playing the lover boy roles with great success, and Shah Rukh was happy to be regarded as a hatke (different) actor. Over three weeks and several meetings, Aditya tried to convince the reluctant star.
In their fourth meeting, Aditya told Shah Rukh that he was indeed a star, but he would never achieve superstar status unless he was every woman’s dream man and every mother’s dream son. As Shah Rukh dithered, Aditya thought of alternatives – perhaps Saif Ali Khan, the son of leading actress Sharmila Tagore, would fit the bill. But one day, at Mehboob studios, outside the sets of Karan Arjun (1995), Shah Rukh finally agreed to do Aditya’s film.
Aditya had always known that the colour of his film was yellow. He had visualized Raj and Simran reuniting in a swaying field of sarson, yellow mustard flowers. The image of Raj, in his Harley-Davidson jacket standing in the quintessentially Punjabi sarson, encapsulated DDLJ ’s Western look-Eastern-values message. The trouble was that there was no mustard to be found.
Three weeks before his January schedule, Aditya was scouting for sarson. Yash, Manmohan and Aditya travelled through Punjab, but sarson proved elusive. There were occasional patches of flowers, but not the sea of yellow that Aditya was looking for. Finally a local suggested looking in neighbouring Gurgaon. Gurgaon was exactly what Aditya wanted – carpets of yellow flowers with a train track going through it.
Aditya was sleeping when his film’s first show started at twelve noon on 20 October 1995. For years, he had seen other directors’ movies in the first show, but he decided to skip his own. He wasn’t interested in seeing the first half because he knew there was enough masala to keep the audience entertained. Aditya was worried about the climax. In the twentieth reel, Shah Rukh would give a long speech with tears in his eyes. If the audience hooted or even got restless, DDLJ was sunk. Aditya and his third assistant Sameer entered the Gaiety theatre just after the interval. When Shah Rukh’s speech began, Aditya crossed his fingers and put his head between his knees. There was complete silence. The audience was hanging on to every word Shah Rukh said. Aditya was home, safe.
What had taken Yash decades, Aditya had achieved with one film. But at the Chopra house, the elation was tinged with bitterness. In the weeks after the film’s release, a controversy erupted that made the painfully mediashy Aditya into gossip magazine fodder.
Honey Irani and Pamela had been friends for twenty-two years. Honey had been married to writer Javed Akhtar, who had scripted many of Yash’s films. Their children had grown up together. Uday and Farhan were close friends. After her divorce, Honey’s fledgling writing career had found wing in Yash Raj Films. Her first script was Lamhe. She had also written Aaina (Mirror) and Darr and had had meetings with Aditya during which they had worked on the DDLJ screenplay. But Honey’s name does not appear on the DDLJ credits.
Beyond this, the facts are foggy. The month before the film released, a tug of war over writing credits ensued. Aditya maintains that Honey’s contribution to DDLJ was minuscule – he says that he only had four sessions with her, and then wrote the film on his own. So Yash decided to give Aditya a solo credit for the story and screenplay. Honey disagrees vehemently. She says they had several 7 a.m. meetings on DDLJ and she even accompanied the unit for the Switzerland schedule. While she concedes that Aditya had done ‘quite a lot of work’ on the story, she says she helped to flesh out the narrative and add details. ‘Even if 80 per cent of the screenplay was his, at least 20 per cent was mine,’ Honey says. ‘Don’t take that 20 per cent away from me.’
Pamela, who was abroad when the trouble started, tried to make peace. But the media added fuel to the fire. Aditya remained silent, but Pamela and Honey exchanged accusations and counter-accusations in print.
Honey never worked with the company again. Aditya didn’t heal either. He says: ‘All my life I hoped and craved for my share of the spotlight, for a day when hopefully people will think of me as a talented person. And that day came but I never enjoyed it because I always wondered how many people have this doubt in their minds that this is not my work.’
DDLJ ’s dialogue writer, Javed Siddiqui, also parted ways with the Chopras. Aditya, who says he rewrote much of the film’s dialogue, took the credit of ‘additional dialogue’. Siddiqui insists that his writing was hardly changed – Aditya only wrote some lines, which were added while shooting in Switzerland. Siddiqui felt that the joint credit was ‘an injustice’.
Despite the laurels, Aditya remained reclusive. He made Yash his representative at award functions and Bollywood parties. Apart from one interview to Filmfare magazine about winning their award, he did not speak to the media. He also refused to be photographed, so magazines were forced to use stray, decades-old pictures of him. Aditya Chopra became a name, but not a face.
The distinction was critical. Aditya explains, ‘The purity of DDLJ came because I see films for just the love of films. I love films and the charm of going to the theatre, buying a ticket, buying popcorn and waiting for the film to start. That is my greatest high. Nothing gives me more pleasure than that. It is largely responsible for the kind of film I made. It gives me a lot of respect for the audience. I never want to fake an emotion or cheat them. I can only be sincere when I am one of the audience. I firmly believe that if I cannot sit in the theatre as a common person, I’ll be finished.’
So, one of the most successful directors in India has remained almost invisible.
Excerpted with permission from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge A Modern Classic, Anupama Chopra, HarperCollins India.