Hindi cinema and love are closely intertwined; the romance genre is integral to the industry, the backbone of some of the more unmistakably popular movies emerging out of India. Across musicals, mythological epics, and modern classics, the message of love has reigned for decades. Anyone who has even dabbled in Bollywood can conjure an image of a couple against the mountains of Switzerland: she, in a pastel sari, he, playing a melodic tune to express his devotion.
This distinctive visual is the creation of one filmmaker, Yash Raj Chopra, the arguable force synergizing Indian cinema and romance — and today, the subject of Netflix's The Romantics.
What is Netflix's The Romantics about?
The docuseries, fittingly released on Valentine's Day, is an homage to Chopra, his studio, and his dedication to portraying love onscreen. Directed by Smriti Mundhra, the Oscar-nominated creative who also made Indian Matchmaking, The Romantics is a four-part, in-depth examination of Chopra's legacy, his penchant for romantic films, but also the mammoth-like Indian film industry as a whole.
"So much of what we know and what comes to mind when we think of ‘Bollywood’ and ‘Hindi cinema’ was architected by Yash Chopra and his films. His career, felt to me, the perfect lens to examine the evolution of the Hindi film industry," Mundhra tells Mashable in an interview.
For The Romantics, the director and her team spoke to 35 leading Indian actors, spanning three generations, over the course of three and a half years. In addition, producers, artists, journalists, and writers were approached to add their own stories to the conversation. The project was inherently "intricate and research-heavy," Mundhra says, which accounted for the docuseries' lengthy production timeline.
Tracing Yash Chopra's legacy
Interspersed with these personal accounts is archival footage of the many films developed by Chopra, his son Aditya, and Yash Raj Films. In the first episode "The Boy from Jalandhar," viewers are taken through Chopra's beginnings as an auteur, from his debut Dhool Ka Phool (1959) to the commercial success of Deewaar (1975), through to romantic-drama-musical conceptions Kabhi Kabhie (1976) and Silsila (1981). Many of these works examined the "complexities of marriage" and the "nuances" of love, Mundhra says: "[Chopra] was so ahead in that regard."
Simultaneously, we see Chopra's appreciation for love, poetry, theatre, and fashion, all of which underscore his often grand and starry-eyed productions. Many of the actors interviewed say they watched Chopra's films as fans first, working with him later. Anil Kapoor, who frequented Chopra's productions as an actor, says his films were always "glossy and frothy"; director Karan Johar says he was "transfixed" by the beauty present in Chopra's movies.
The series seamlessly entwines Chopra's career trajectory — both his triumphs and failures — with a broader story of India itself, touching upon the arc of the country from colonial rule to partition to economic development. These historical facets elevate the docuseries, adding context for viewers inclined to learn about why India is so fascinated by its films.
"One thing that really emerged, as I was talking to people, was how closely the trends in the Hindi film industry mirrored the big cultural, political, social and economic movements of the country itself. That added a layer to the narrative that I found really interesting," Mundhra says. "India, in the last 75 years, has gone through so much change. The films reflected that and you only really see this when you take a step back."
The onset of modern Hindi rom-coms
The purveyor of present-day romantic films, Aditya Chopra himself appears in a rare interview in the series. This development has been the source of much tabloid anticipation in India in the weeks leading up to Netflix's release. The director, who worked alongside his father but is known to have heightened the family's productions, last spoke to the press in 1995. Mundhra says Aditya agreed to the project swiftly, but the interview itself "took a lot of convincing".
"I pitched the vision to Aditya initially and he was on board pretty quickly," she says. "He and the studio gave me access to the films, archives, music, and anyone I needed to talk to. I feel very grateful they trusted me with this story, because it felt so personal to them."
His interview appears in the second episode, "Prodigal Son", which brings the audience into the '90s and twenty-first century and the development of the family's signature studio. In the interview, Aditya says, "I was privileged that I was already given a huge start by my father. My father was so successful, he literally gave me everything on a platter. I was so lucky. Now if I do not take this head start and make something out of it, I would actually not be doing justice to the opportunity. So that was my drive. How do I put Yash Raj Films on the map of the world?"
The director did so with the release of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the romantic movie touted as the turning point for Bollywood. Starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, the film reached an unprecedented level of fervor, still playing 27 years later at a theater in Mumbai.
Here, the pace of the Netflix series picks up, and The Romantics' key idea comes into focus. Viewers are not confined to a documentary about a single character, but are rather shown how Chopra was an integral part of the fabric of Bollywood. Snippets of each star present a deep-rooted love for India and filmmaking; their dedication to the industry is clearly apparent, as is their nostalgia for the movies of the past. We are witness to Khan's meteoric rise via his metamorphosis from villain to hero, and get insight into Amitabh Bachchan's stardom and his son Abhishek's childhood on the sets.
A broader picture of Bollywood and its people
Like many of Chopra's films and the works under the Yash Raj banner, The Romantics veers into painting an aspirational, rose-tinted image of the industry and its stars. But conversations about nepotism, privilege, successes, and failures arise in episode 3, "The Guard," which more holistically approaches the industry by honing in on its realities. Each of these fragments encapsulates the greater picture of Bollywood, its movies, and specifically, its fans.
"Our connection to Hindi cinema is so specific and profound."
Mundhra rightfully never strays too far from placing emphasis on fans, the spine of the industry and for whom this series is really for. As an Indian-American, Mundhra says she is excited for the diaspora to engage with the show.
"Our connection to Hindi cinema is so specific and profound," she says, emphasizing that for many South Asians abroad, the movies "brought the community together" and were "the only connection to the homeland".
"It's not as simple as entertainment," she says, and this is clearly evident in The Romantics, a dedicated testament to what Bollywood and its renditions of love have signified over decades. Many have suggested that India's romantic genre has waned in the past few years, eclipsed by action flicks that reduce love to a secondary thematic device. For fans of Hindi cinema, both domestic and international, the series will serve as a necessary reminder of the romantic storytelling that became synonymous with Bollywood for a reason. It's a scrapbook of sorts: a nostalgic, potent reminder of the gravity these movies have held for so many.
The Romantics is now streaming on Netflix.
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