In 1970, when Yash Chopra broke away from his older brother and mentor B.R. Chopra’s filmmaking banner to establish his own, he had no idea how to set up a company or run a business. All he knew was how to make films. It turned out that was enough.
The six-film old director had already proved his talent with unconventional stories, right from his 1959 debut, Dhool Ka Phool, about a Muslim man raising a Hindu child who had been born out of wedlock. He reversed that theme with his 1961 Partition drama Dharamputra. And with epic family drama Waqt (1965), which had an ensemble cast including Balraj Sahni, Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore and Sunil Dutt, Yash Chopra, the director, had arrived.
So when he decided that it was time to turn producer in his own right, he had earned enough respect and goodwill that his lack of business experience didn’t matter. Filmmaker V. Shantaram gave him a small room in his studio that he could use as an office, while actor Rakhee even offered him money for his first production, which she was to act in. And lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi told him he would take money only after the film was a hit.
Of course, the film was a massive hit. It garnered seven Filmfare award nominations and won two, and is considered, to this day, a classic, thanks to its groundbreaking theme and fantastic soundtrack (Laxmikant-Pyarelal, with Ludhianvi’s words). In the week of Yash Chopra’s 88th birth anniversary and Yash Raj Films’ 50th anniversary, we turn the clock back to YRF’s debut production, Daag.
Shades of bigamy, yet safe enough to please the masses
The movie begins with the warm and fuzzy love story of Sunil (Rajesh Khanna) and Sonia (Sharmila Tagore). She’s an orphan who lives with her loving maternal uncle and his not-so-loving wife, whose main concerns are whether Sonia’s independent-mindedness will ‘corrupt’ her own young daughters and what people will say — about anything. Her uncle, though, gives the young couple his blessings and they head off to make a new life for themselves, Sunil having just secured a job at a well-regarded company.
But their happiness is short-lived, as, while they are staying at his new boss’ house until their accommodation is arranged, the man’s son, Dheeraj (Prem Chopra), tries to rape Sonia. Sunil walks into the room just in time, but in the ensuing violence, Dheeraj dies. Sunil is convicted of his murder, but on the way to prison, the police jeep crashes and all the officers and convicts in it are believed to have died.
Five years later, Sonia has taken up a teaching job to provide for herself and her son, Rinku, conceived on the one night that she had with Sunil. She’s a popular teacher, but a few people on the board want her fired because they don’t want the students’ parents to get wind of the fact that her husband was a convicted murderer. She finds staunch support in one board member, Chandni (Rakhee), whose daughter, Pinky, is Rinku’s friend, but the latter’s empathy and solidarity find no takers. Chandni invites Sonia to stay with her, and this is where the plot thickens, because Chandni’s husband Sudhir is actually Sunil.
It turns out that Sunil was the sole survivor of the accident. On the run from the cops, he tried to find Sonia, but she, believing him to be dead, had left her uncle’s home and gone away without disclosing her plans to anyone. On a train, while searching for her, he met Chandni, a woman burdened not only with the care of her ailing father, but with the knowledge that she had been duped by a man and was now carrying his child, out of wedlock. Sunil (now Sudhir) saw a way out for both of them — they would pretend to get married, so that she and her child have his name, and they would live in the same house but not as man and wife.
How the three of them find a way to save themselves and each other from societal (and in Sunil’s case, legal) ruin is what forms the heart and soul of this daring film. Daring because, even though technically there is no bigamy, it is the film’s underlying theme.
This was something Chopra was a master of — touching upon a controversial subject just enough to push the boundaries, but playing it safe enough to win over the audience. Decades later, in 1991, he did it again, with Lamhe, which gets off on a technicality but whose entire plot is built on the suggestion of incest.
Female solidarity and relationships with no name
One of the finest moments in Daag is when Chandni, who yearns for her ‘husband’s’ love, begs Sonia to stay, even though she knows the truth. She has come to love Sonia’s friendship, and she has understood that all three of them have a role to play in each other’s lives, and all three of them can help each other, but they can only do it if they stick together.
Later, when Sunil thanks Chandni for testifying in his favour in court despite knowing it would spell stigma for herself and her daughter, she tells him that he came into her life when she needed someone to share her troubles with and today, she has just done the same for him, that this is a relationship that doesn’t need a name. Just then, Sonia comes up to both of them and says, “Let’s go home.”
It was a controversial ending, and one that everyone told Yash Chopra to change, because they feared it would not go down well with the audience. But this was a man who was convinced that his audience would be mature enough to accept it, and he stuck to his guns. That courage of conviction is what made Daag so special.