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Revisiting BR Chopra’s directorial debut, Afsana

On the filmmaker’s birth anniversary (he was born on 22 April 1914), a look at his foray into direction with Afsana (1951) starring Ashok Kumar, Veena, Pran and Kuldip Kaur.

BR Chopra

Sonal Pandya

Dadasaheb Phalke awardee Baldev Raj (BR) Chopra, older brother of Yash Chopra, was born in Ludhiana on 22 April 1914. With a master's degree in literature from Lahore University, he started out as a journalist for the monthly magazine Cine Herald in Lahore in 1938. However, Partition in 1947 forced the 33-year-old to move to Bombay and begin afresh.

BR Chopra moved into film production with Karwat (1949), but his first attempt failed at the box office. But Afsana (1951), which he also directed, went on to become a grand success, paving the way for him to become an acclaimed producer-director.

Written by IS Johar and co-produced by Shadilal Handa, Afsana is the story of twins Chaman and Ratan (both played by Ashok Kumar), a popular trope in Hindi cinema at the time. It is established early on, through a cutely staged play enacted by children, that Ratan is attached to his friend and neighbour Meera (charmingly played by a lively Baby Tabassum).

Though the brothers are identical, Meera emphatically chooses Ratan. The two already act like an old married couple, until tragedy strikes one day and they are all separated from one another at the local fair when a storm strikes.

Chaman grows up to become Dewan Chaman Kumar, a wealthy man who also handles a theatre group where he flirts with Rassilybai (Cuckoo), the lead actress-dancer of his plays. His good friend Chatpat (Jeevan) is his sidekick in all things disreputable and can be usually found saying, “Puccho kyon [Ask me why].”

Meera, still traumatized by the separation from Ratan, who is believed to be dead, has grown up to become a morose young lady. The actress Veena bears a startling resemblance to actress Naseem Banu, but her mourning for Ratan doesn’t allow her to do much else than mope and burst into sad songs.

Meanwhile, Ratan grows up in an orphanage as Ashok Kumar and has become a judge in Gorakhpur. He is also married, to the pretty Leela (Kuldip Kaur), and his best friend is the orphanage’s wealthy benefactor Mohan (Pran). All seems right in Ashok Kumar’s world except that Mohan and Leela are having an affair behind his back.

Accused of the murder of a rival theatre owner, Chaman flees to a hotel in Mussoorie, where he finds his doppelgänger, unaware that he is his twin. Chaman lures Ashok Kumar to a card game and slips many sleeping pills in his tea. He makes off with Ashok’s identity, leaving him behind as Chaman.

However, tragedy strikes when Chaman (impersonating Ashok Kumar) is killed in a car accident. Everyone assumes Ashok to be Chaman and no one believes he is actually the judge Ashok. Mercifully, the murder charges get dropped when it is revealed that the rival theatre owner had died of a heart attack.

Ratan finally returns home, not knowing his past. Meera recognizes the difference between the brothers and is overjoyed when she sees the scar near Ashok/Ratan’s neck. But the childhood sweethearts have no reunion yet, because Ashok can’t remember past events and he is hell-bent on revenge against his former friend Mohan and wife Leela who have declared him dead.

The films BR Chopra directed and later produced under the banner BR Films were socially aware and tried to address the problems of an emerging India. Although this was a crime thriller, Afsana’s main protagonist is deeply concerned about justice and doing the right thing.

The love triangle of Ashok Kumar, Kuldip Kaur and Pran dominates the film rather than the romance of Ratan and Meera. Pran and Kuldip Kaur were said to be romantically involved off screen as well, and that is evident in their easy chemistry on screen. How Leela decided to say yes to the staid judge Ashok Kumar is anyone’s guess.

As Chaman, Ashok/Ratan stages a musical performance for Leela, revealing her affair with Mohan. Stricken and shamed, she runs away. This sequence brings to mind the big revelation in Subhash Ghai’s reincarnation saga Karz (1980). Music composers Husnlal and Bhagatram also had a peppy number ‘Chowpatty Pe Kal Jo’ which reminded me of 'Main Toh Raste Se Ja Raha Tha' from Govinda's Coolie No 1 (1995).

The film’s ending quickly turned into a sermon about wives who stray and how Leela tries to redeem herself in her husband’s eyes. Yet, with a double role by the popular star Ashok Kumar, Afsana (1951) celebrated a silver jubilee with a 25-week run at the theatres when it was released.

BR Chopra with younger brother Yash Chopra

In 1956, BR Chopra established his own banner, BR Films, and continued to make hits and classic social dramas like Ek Hi Rasta (1956), Naya Daur (1957), and Sadhna (1958). With Dhool Ka Phool (1959) and Dharmputra (1961), he gave younger brother Yash the mantle on which to kickstart his own career as a director.

In 1963, BR Chopra was part of the international feature film jury at the Berlin International Film Festival alongside American actor Karl Malden and French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. His banner, BR Films, was known for being commercially successful while dealing with issues like infidelity, rape, widow remarriage, and the rehabilitation of prostitutes.

As a director, BR Chopra experimented with a songless courtroom drama with Kanoon (1960), which fetched him the National award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and his only Filmfare as Best Director.

He also produced the sweet romance Chhoti Si Baat (1975), directed by Basu Chatterjee, and introduced Salma Agha with the Muslim social, Nikaah (1982).

In the 1980s, Chopra took to the new medium of television with his adaptation of Mahabharata, which was watched by millions in India and eventually followed around the world.

His son Ravi Chopra carried on the banner with Baghban (2003) and Baabul (2006), and his grandson Abhay is currently directing the remake of BR Films’ hit Ittefaq (1969) starring Rajesh Khanna and Nanda. And it all began with a film called Afsana (1951).