It has been exactly a month since Yash Chopra passed away and the avalanche of well-deserved tributes has now more or less subsided. I waited for this time when I would be able to look at his films a little objectively (though that has never been my forte) and talk about some aspect that has not been covered in all those tributes.
And after a lot of thought, I decided to write on that rough hewn solid rock of a film – Kaala Patthar.
It is quite strange that the tributes hardly mentioned Kaala Patthar because it is a perfect example of what Yash Chopra did really well for the first two-thirds of his career: superbly written, conflict-driven, emotion-driven multi-starrers. Waqt, Daag, Deewaar, Trishul, Kabhi Kabhie were all in this mould.
Here I would also like to point out that it is a little unfair / inaccurate to label him as the King of Romance. Of the 20+ films he has directed, I can count only 8 that were out and out romances, which included his most mediocre films (Veer Zaara and Dil To Paagal Hai for example). He pretty much defined that Angry Young Man was. In any list of the 10 Greatest Hindi Films of all time, Deewaar would be a sure-shot entry. How can you dismiss such a filmmaker as a chiffon-and-snow sort of guy?
Emperor of Emotion would be a more apt title.
Kaala Patthar – shorn of the fisticuffs and action – was essentially a tale of very complex emotions and all its characters had incredible depth.
A disgraced naval officer. An escaped convict. An idealistic engineer. A lady doctor. A bangle seller. A cards shark. Not only the stars but even the bit parts (Macmohan as the cards shark, Parikshit Sahni as a garrulous truck driver) were portrayed with intricate detail.
It is easy to ascribe a large part of Yash Chopra’s success to Salim-Javed and indeed, their scripts for at least three of his biggest hits were superb. But if you see Kaala Patthar, you would realize the value a great director brings to a great script. Of course, the tension of the rivalries, the exploitation and the eventual climax were brilliantly structured but Yash Chopra filmed them only as he could.
He framed Amitabh’s shots in close-ups and low-angles to accentuate his brooding and heighten his already towering presence. He framed Shatrughan Sinha's swagger in wide-angle shots to bring about his ‘lord of all I survey’ attitude. The miners’ colony – while not reaching the realism levels of Wasseypur – was coated with grime. The movie had a distinctly brooding undertone and the mine (as well as the colony) was decidedly claustrophobic.
Despite that, the pace of the film was breathtaking and he followed Manmohan Desai’s dictum of entertainment – “one item every nine minutes – to the tee. Look at the roster of events:
“Teesre badshah hum hain” – Shatru’s badass card trick.
A very underplayed but critical scene of labour rights (which had distinct shades his earlier hit, Deewaar).
Multiple scenes of Amitabh’s explosive dialogue delivery, including one in which he wrenched off a knife from a goon with bare hands.
A symphonic build up of the Amitabh-Shatru rivalry – using tea, beedi and tablets for fever – that eventually ended in a mind-blowing fight scene.
And of course, the final mine-flooding scene that was a mindboggling piece of cinema considering the primitive technology of Bollywood at that time.
Bollywood never believed in genres. Every hero – especially in the 1960s – did a little bit of everything to make a complete masala potboiler with action, emotion, music, romance, drama, comedy, tragedy thrown into one giant blender. Yash Chopra bucked this trend in the 1970s.
Each one of his lead characters remained true to their mental makeup throughout the films. So, the fiery dockworker remained steadfastly anchored to his simmering rage while his happy-go-lucky brother sang a couple of songs with his fiancée. Even in his later films (though a little less so), the young Kunwar transformed into a sober bore while his bald friend remained resolutely hilarious.
Kaala Patthar is one of the best examples of this where a disgraced naval officer took anonymous refuge in a mine. Amitabh Bachchan’s intensity reached unprecedented levels (even including Deewaar) as he seemed incapable of smiling for an overwhelming part of the film. His backstory came much later in the film and Yash Chopra added some subtle hints of his past (his picking up of an English paperback in the doctor’s chamber, for example).
When he burst out in Raakhee’s clinic with that iconic line – “Pain is my destiny and I cannot avoid it” – it hit you like a sledgehammer.
Kaala Patthar remains his most under-rated film and thanks to it being sandwiched between Trishul and Silsila, almost undiscussed. It is a blazing testimony of Yash Chopra's non-romantic talents and also a fine example of how serious can also be entertaining.
Wish there were a few more like him... RIP, Yash-ji.
Do read my other eulogies of the man who is undoubtedly my favourite Bollywood director.