In Netflix’s “The Romantics,” a new docuseries about the legacy of Indian director Yash Chopra, there’s one word you’ll barely hear: “Bollywood.”
The Hindi-language film industry was so named as a portmanteau of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hollywood, but its key players have always hated being defined by the West. At one point, Oscar-nominated director Smriti Mundhra asks her interview subjects — a jaw-dropping lineup of Hindi film A-listers, including Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, and Chopra’s own wife Pamela — how they feel about the term; none of them responds positively.
“Hate it,” Ranbir Kapoor says while taking a sipping of his drink.
In its century of existence, the Hindi film industry — and the rest of India by extension — have catalyzed entertainment culture in ways that no one mashing up the words “Bombay” and “Hollywood” could ever have imagined. This is a world defined by mesmerizing music, dazzling dancing, heart-stopping action, and tear-jerking stories.
It’s genre-defying and -defining cinema, and it deserves its own name.
“No one celebrates better than Desi [South Asian] people do, no one loves harder than Desi people do,” Mundhra told IndieWire over Zoom. “We feel so much and I think the reason we do it best is that every plane of our lives is interconnected … that creates this amazing petri dish for big feelings and big drama and high stakes, and those are all the things that make great movies.”
Over the course of four episodes, Mundhra covers Hindi cinema in a way that almost no one ever has, from Chopra’s early work to the rise of his sons Aditya and Uday in the ’90s and 2000s, to the shifting sensibilities of the industry and effects of Chopra’s death in 2012. The project was born out of Mundhra’s own love of Hindi cinema and documentary expertise, and a realization that she had never seen a film retrospective about the culture and movies that raised her.
When the “St. Louis Superman” director met with Chopra’s production company, Yash Raj Films, no one knew what would come of it. The company was approaching its fiftieth anniversary and had never done anything in the documentary space before, so Mundhra’s path became clear.
“You have all these films … so, I said, what else do you have?” she recalled. “That’s what I want to get my hands into, I want to just dive into that vault of archive, the scripts, the films, the behind the scenes stuff, whatever you have, and make a documentary about the history of Yash Chopra and YRF. It’s such a fascinating story, it’s so emblematic of the big, cultural shifts in India. It’s rare to find so many films under one roof that are not only culturally iconic but also historically significant.”
YRF partnered with Netflix on “The Romantics,” giving Mundhra carte blanche to play in the archives, “no mandates, no restrictions.” Footage shared in the series will fascinate and entertain the uninitiated — but for lifelong Bollywood fans (sorry), it is nothing short of revelatory. From old photographs to home videos to a breathtaking clip of 23-year-old Aditya Chopra casually describing one of the most famous shots in Indian film history, there has never been anything like it. She spoke with over 30 key players from various professions, including acting, direction, production, costuming, and more.
“A lot of the people that we interviewed were expecting to say a few words about Yashji and YRF and Adi, to commemorate the 50th anniversary — and that was a little bit by design,” Mundhra said. “I thought: ‘Let me get them in the room and then we can dive in.'”
“The Romantics” presents Hindi cinema’s elite — nay, royalty — in a way they’ve rarely been seen before. Most Indian actors do press only to promote their latest project, rarely anything as candid or introspective as the conversations in this series. There’s a sense that many of them have been itching to speak on this but were never asked the right questions in the right time or setting.
“They get excited to share their point of view and their knowledge and their expertise,” Mundhra said. “That’s kind of how I approached each of these interviews, was really looking at each participant, not just [as] the big celebrity, but a historian of their own journey and their own story, also holding a piece of Indian cinema history. I tried to tap into that.”
But perhaps the most anticipated interview of the series comes in Episode 2, which zeroes in on the famously reclusive Aditya Chopra, whose debut feature “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” became the longest-running Indian film ever. He grew up on the elder Chopra’s film sets, studying filmmaking in the kind of master class few will ever get. His last — and only — interview to date was for a print publication in 1995, the year “DDLJ” premiered.
“[Aditya] is like India’s George Lucas,” Mundhra said. “He’s brilliant, both as a director and a producer, and has built this juggernaut that’s really changed Hindi cinema as an industry. He’s very erudite and obviously very informed and has a lot of very great perspective, so once we got him in the chair and started talking, he had a lot to say.”
To get him in the chair, Mundhra presented the interview as extremely low-stakes; the kind of content he could add to the archive and show anyone or no one (“You can stick it in a vault for someone to discover 100 years from now if you want”), but something for him to commemorate 50 years of YRF and the history of his father, family, and legacy.
Then she added his footage to the edit without asking.
“In the time that I was making the series and in talking to him for this interview, I learned one thing about Aditya Chopra: his Achilles heel, his weakness, is the creative,” Mundhra said. “He’s not just a producer, executive, studio boss — he’s a filmmaker, so when he sees something is really working creatively, he will move mountains to make it happen.”
“So I exploited that,” she said with a laugh. “We had an agreement that I would show him when we had a rough cut … once he saw it, and he saw how important it was and how additive it was, he agreed. I give him a lot of credit because it’s not a typical thing for him to do.”
Indian cinema is no stranger to nepotism, even as the issue makes its way freshly to Hollywood. From the Chopras themselves to the Kapoor dynasty to interview subjects Karan Johar, Saif Ali Khan, and many, many more, this has always been a family business — referred to by many in and outside of it as the “film fraternity.” There’s no escaping those reminders in “The Romantics,” which devotes time to the subject, but there’s also no denying the Chopras’ impact on Hindi films.
“[Aditya Chopra] talks about it very candidly,” Mundhra said. “He was given tremendous advantages to launch his career, but then he took that platform and he opened up to others who didn’t. He was like, ‘For me, it’s about finding the best talent wherever they come from, and I have to look beyond my own circle to find it.’ I think that YRF has been very successful at that.”
Yash Chopra’s death was a critical moment of reckoning for sons Aditya and Uday, the studio, and the shifting tides of Indian cinema (Aditya Chopra took over as chairman and chief executive immediately following his father). “How do you deal with failure and how you uphold legacy when the person on whom everything is built is gone?,” Mundhra asked. “The Romantics” charts cultural shifts in India throughout the decades of cinema; the early independence and post-Partition nation building, the political turmoil that followed, ‘90s-era liberalism and encroaching Western influence, technology and introspection.
“Suddenly the shift came where people weren’t looking to the West as much anymore, and suddenly the West was looking in, was looking at India,” Mundhra said. “That was really interesting to me to explore and see how that was reflected in the cinema of the time. It became ‘Oh, this is where it’s at actually, and we’re gonna celebrate our own traditions, our own culture, our own values, as opposed to everything being about exporting.”
“The Romantics” premieres at a time when Indian cinema is at another critical crossroads, this time under increasing influence from Hindu nationalists. It’s not a topic Mundhra addressed directly — and many who have spoken on it have been silenced or punished — but the filmmaker has optimism that Indian cinema can and will exemplify what the nation and its artistry can be.
“What I hope people will be reminded of when they see the series, what I was reminded of in making it, is that Hindi cinema at a time reflected our best ideals and the best version of who we have been as a nation,” she said. “Our best, most moving, most impactful, most fun — our best cinema came from out of that.”
“The Romantics” is now streaming on Netflix.