"The Romantics," a new Netflix documentary about Indian filmmaker Yash Chopra's legacy, there's one word you'll rarely hear: "Bollywood."
The Hindi-language film industry was named as a portmanteau of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hollywood, but its main players have always resisted being defined by the West. At one point, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Smriti Mundhra asks her interview subjects — a slew of Hindi film A-listers, including Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, and Chopra's own wife Pamela — how they feel about the term.
Ranbir Kapoor apologises while taking a sip of his drink.
The Hindi film industry — and the rest of India by extension — have shaped entertainment culture in ways that no one who mashes up the words "Bombay" and "Hollywood" could ever have imagined. This is a world filled with mesmerizing music, captivating dancing, heart-stopping action, and tear-jerking stories.
It's a genre-defying and-defining film, which deserves its own name.
Mundhra told IndieWire over Zoom that no one celebrates better than Desi [South Asian] people do, and no one loves harder than Desi people do. “I think the reason we do it best is that every plane of our lives is interconnected... that creates this fantastic petri dish for big emotions, big drama, and great films,” she said.
Mundhra analyzes Hindi cinema in a way that little else has ever seen, from Chopra's early work through to his sons' Aditya and Uday's years in the 1990s and 2000s, through to the shifting sensibilities of the industry and the consequences of Chopra's death in 2012.
No one knew what would happen when the director of "St. Louis Superman" met with Chopra's production company, Yash Raj Films. The company was approaching its fifty-year anniversary, and Mundhra's path became clear.
"I said, what else do you have?" she said. "I want to dive into that archive, the scripts, the behind the scenes stuff, whatever you have, and record a documentary about Yash Chopra and YRF's history. It's such a fascinating story, and it's so emblematic of major cultural shifts in India.
YRF has partnered with Netflix on "The Romantics," claiming that she has no obligations or limitations to play in the archives. For avid Bollywood fans, however, it is nothing short of breathtaking. From old photographs to home videos, Aditya Chopra, 23, casually describing one of the most famous scenes in Indian film history, there has never been anything like it.
Mundhra said a lot of people who we interviewed were planning to respond to the 50th anniversary of Yashji and YRF and Adi, but that was partly by design.'
"The Romantics" depicts the elite of Hindi cinema — nay, royalty — in a way they've never seen before. Most Indian actors press only to promote their latest film, seldom anything as candid or introspective as the conversations in this series. There's a sense that many of them have long wanted to elaborate on this topic but weren't asked the appropriate questions at the appropriate time or context.
Mundhra said the participants are eager to discuss their point of view and their knowledge and expertise. “I was really looking at each participant, not just as the big celebrity, but as a historian of their own journey and their own history, also carrying a piece of Indian cinema history. I tried to tap into that.”
The most anticipated interview of the series comes in Episode 2, which focuses on Aditya Chopra, who became the longest-running Indian film ever. He studied filmmaking in the kind of master class few will ever get to see until his last — and only — publication in 1995, the year "DDLJ" was published.
"Aditya" is similar to George Lucas in terms of skill and vision, and has developed this juggernaut that has fundamentally altered Hindi cinema as an industry. He's very intelligent and obviously very knowledgeable, and has a lot of great wisdom, so once we got him in the chair and started talking, he had a lot to say."
Mundhra presented the interview as a low-stakes affair, the kind of content he could add to the archive and show anyone or no one (“You may stick it in a vault for someone to discover 100 years from now,” says the author, but something for him to commemorate his father, family, and legacy.
She then added his footage to the edit without asking.
“I learned one thing from Aditya Chopra during my time as a series producer and in talking with him for this interview,” Mundhra said. “He is not only a producer, executive, or studio manager, but also a filmmaker, so when he sees something that is truly working, he will climb mountains to fulfill it.”
"I exploited that," she said with a laugh. "I would show him when we had a rough cut.... Once he saw it, and he saw how important it was and how beneficial it was, he agreed. I give him a lot of credit because it's not a typical activity for him to do."
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Even as the issue flows directly to Hollywood, Indian cinema has always been a family business — referred to by many inside and outside the organization as the "film fraternity." There's no denying that the Chopras' influence on Hindi films
"I think Aditya Chopra" talks about it very openly. "He was given enormous advantages to begin his career, but then he took that platform and opened up to others who didn't."
The death of Yash Chopra was a critical time for his sons Aditya and Uday, the studio, and the changing tides of Indian cinema (Aditya Chopra took over as chairman and chief executive immediately following his father), and the subsequent political turmoil in India.
"Suddenly the West was looking in and was looking at India," Mundhra said. "It became "Oh, this is where it's at," she added, adding that "everyone is going to celebrate their own traditions, our own culture, and our own values," according to the filmmaker.
"The Romantics" premieres at a time when Indian cinema is at another critical crossroads, this time under increasing pressure 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 faith that Indian cinema can and will exemplify what the country and its art can be.
"What I hope people will be reminded of when they see the series, what I was reminded of when I made it, is that Hindi cinema at a time reflected our best ideals and the finest version of who we have become as a nation," she said. "Our best cinema came from that."
Netflix is now streaming 'The Romantics.'