You would be forgiven if your first thought when Switzerland is mentioned is of banks. Or rather, the fact that these banks are where gigantic sums of ill gotten money are stashed and managed by tuxedo wearing, cat stroking, exceptionally polite bankers who all seem to resemble the typical Bond villain. If Switzerland had a problem with that image, they weren’t really saying much. One man however, took issue with this injustice and dared to sweep aside these stereotypes and change it all. He almost succeeded and would have had a lasting impact on Switzerland’s universal perception had mosquitoes not played spoilsport. Yash Chopra’s loss is felt so keenly that we wouldn’t be surprised if the stiff upper lip of Switzerland’s tourism minister quivered when he heard of his untimely passing.
Yash Chopra’s long and illustrious career had many firsts, most of which are well documented. But if there was an element in his films that was totally unique it was the way he showed off his artist’s flair by serenading the Alpine scenery. If the 60’s and 70’s had Shammi Kapoor & Rajesh Khanna cavorting with their lovely heroines on the slopes of snow covered Kashmiri mountainsides, the 90’s ushered in Yash Chopra’s European extravaganza. Placid lakes and lush green meadows competed for screen time with Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit. Blonde Swiss men and women peeped out of streets in Zurich and woolly sheep were never too far from the frame. All these small things combined to paint a picture of such quaint beauty that Indians instantly fell in love with Switzerland. The rather contrite and reserved Swiss were so overwhelmed by Yash Chopra’s unbelievable portrayal of their country that they went so far as to rename a lake in the Alpenrausch to Chopra Lake in his honour.
If you think doing the best PR job for Switzerland single-handed wasn’t awesome enough, Yash Chopra did something else that could rival India’s economic liberalisation of the 90’s in terms of impact: He gave Indians confidence.
He made India -and Indians- feel cool enough to rent a red open top and drive it across Europe. And not just any corner of Europe but the part with the greenest grass, whitest snow, cleanest roads and biggest banks. His movies were a way of saying “We have arrived!” in such a stylish and melodious manner that we were left with nothing but the the inspiration to go forth and conquer. Of course, our beloved leaders took this lesson too much to heart as was witnessed during the brushing under the carpet elicited when ‘Switzerland’, ‘bank’ and ‘black money’ were used in the same sentence in Parliament. For the thousands of young professionals and students still dreaming of moving abroad, his movies in no small way showed them the world was literally a global village populated by kindly Swiss tending to their farm animals. His movies became a comfort to those newly emigrated, a bridge that spanned their lives and that of their folks back home. Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar built upon this premise further, stoking the picture of the globe trotting young Indian, wealthier than the rest but human enough to have to face challenges any regular person would meet.
These intangible but significant contributions were byproducts of something few directors today possess: A vision. They say that the mark of something good is when unintended, pleasant surprises occur as a matter of regularity. Surely Yash Chopra just wanted to sell a dream and tell a story through his movies, but years from now, when historians and sociologists look back towards the 1990’s and early 2000’s, they will see the broad brushstrokes of a master painter subtly making movies that the populace needed to watch. Movies they could bank upon as a portal into a life they could have led and movies that brought a slow but inevitable introspection of their own emotions. Yash Chopra was a storyteller unlike any other, and we are very lucky to have had him.