30 Years of Chandni: Why Yash Chopra’s Love Letter to Sridevi is the Ultimate Male Fantasy

Bollywood

30 Years of Chandni: Why Yash Chopra’s Love Letter to Sridevi is the Ultimate Male Fantasy

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Iwas barely one when Yash Chopra’s Chandni released and its album took the entire country by storm. Chandni’s music was the soundtrack of my early childhood. By the time I was four, its cassette had been played so many times in our house that the tape had worn out, and it had to be replaced twice. It was the epitome of the pre-Internet era replete with cassettes, longer attention spans, and songs whose popularity lasted beyond the next viral trend. 

But of course, Chandni is more than the sum of its songs. Complete with chiffon sarees, gorgeous locales, charming heroes, and chaste romance, Chandni is Yash Chopra 101. The story revolves around a love triangle: Rohit (Rishi Kapoor) is enchanted by the beauty of his beloved Chandni (Sridevi) but when he ends up paralysed after a tragic incident, he drives her away to save her from his terrible fate. It’s then that Chandni meets Lalit (Vinod Khanna) who falls for her instantly. The film takes a turn when Rohit returns, healed, and still very much in love with Chandni. 

At its heart, the movie is a celebration of feminine beauty that is effusive and unadulterated. The line between appreciation and objectification is always a thin one. But Chandni largely manages that delicate balance with panache. Chandni is the quintessential male fantasy in motion; except with Yash Chopra behind the camera, that fantasy translates as adoration and appreciation, instead of overt sexualisation. There is a sense of innocent abandon in the way the movie celebrates the splendor of Chandni that reels you in. Every shot feels like a gentle caress, like the gaze of an admirer or a devotee. Yet for all its flourishes, it’s this very gaze that robs Chandni of much of its complexity.

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There is a sense of innocent abandon in the way the movie celebrates the splendor of Chandni that reels you in.

Yash Raj Films

The film’s plot is paper thin and most of the scenes play out as an extended version of a love song. Falling in love in Chandni’s universe is as simple and as quick as looking at her. Nuances beyond that are ignored to an extent where the lead couple become estranged because they had to confront the cruelties of real life. Being in love with a paralysed individual is a kind of a story that, in a non-Chandni universe, is an opportunity to explore ideas about the definition of true love and what it takes to make it work. But in Chandni, it is simply an excuse to introduce a different variant of a hero. 

As a character, Chandni, forced to choose between two men, is not a pushover and Sridevi plays her with a quiet, almost stubborn fieriness. Yet, the movie gives us no glimpse into the aspects of Chandni that are not skin-deep. Her resilience, her willingness to make even an impossible relationship work, her readiness to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her paralysed fiancé, her ability to bounce back from a break-up and start afresh remain passing thoughts. Even Chandni’s pain over losing her love gets no screen time, perhaps because an angsty woman does not have the same place in a male fantasy. 

Through Chandni, Chopra posits beauty as both, a motivation, and the destination.

Even in her incomplete depiction, Chandni holds within her the essence of not just the male fantasy but also female aspiration. Chandni is the kind of woman who wears an anklet in the shower, writes letters next to a dimly-lit candle, dances in the rain, and even in her grief, allows herself to be framed next to a sunset. More than a woman, Chandni is an idea of perfection, the kind that an 11-year-old me wanted to replicate with my mother’s stolen dupattas in front of a mirror. Through Chandni, Chopra posits beauty as both, a motivation, and the destination. The issue isn’t that it is problematic – aspiring for beauty is a universal human condition. The flaw is that it is a reductive gaze: It remains so focused on romanticising physical beauty that the movie neglects to explore how Chandni thinks of her world and more importantly, of herself. 

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While it manages to steer away from blatant sexualisation, Chandni boasts of the same derivative patterns that most art, like paintings, literature, and poetry, made by men to service the idea of their female muses, have long exhibited.

Yash Raj Films

Three decades later, Chandni then, remains a persuasive evidence of the problems with men only treating women as their ultimate fantasy. While it manages to steer away from blatant sexualisation, it boasts of the same derivative patterns that most art, like paintings, literature, and poetry, made by men to service the idea of their female muses, have long exhibited. 

This brand of male fantasy art scrubs its women clean of all the mess that accompanies their humanity. It only focuses on the attractive parts, the parts that are pleasing and palatable, the parts that imagine women as these larger-than-life creatures who remain prim, proper, unflustered, and most importantly beautiful despite adversities. They don’t see women, they see the woman they want her to be. They cherry-pick, because it spares them, makes them feel safe, and keeps them insulated from the truth about their women’s humanity. Essentially, Chandni is a poem that happens to be a full-length movie. It’s Chandni’s biggest compliment and its biggest criticism. That in a nutshell is the film’s legacy.

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