Indian-American filmmaker Smriti Mundhra is again collaborating with Netflix on docu-series The Romantics, which looks back on 50 years of iconic Indian film studio Yash Raj Films (YRF) and its late founder Yash Chopra.
The four-part series is streaming globally from today (February 14), deliberately coinciding with Valentine’s Day, as Chopra was known for directing romantic films such as Kabhi Kabhie, Veer-Zaara, Chandni and Lamhe.
Mundhra has filmed interviews with 35 figures of the Hindi-language film industry, from major stars including all three ‘Khans’, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, to producers, writers, critics, journalists, and costume designers.
But the real coup was getting Chopra’s famously reclusive son, Aditya Chopra, to talk on camera. A filmmaker in his own right, Chopra directed the longest-running Hindi film ever, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (known colloquially as DDLJ), and took over the reins of the studio following his father’s death in 2012, but hasn’t given an interview in any form since 1995.
Mundhra, who also created reality series Indian Matchmaking for Netflix, grew up mostly in the U.S. but says YRF films were “part of the fabric of my upbringing”. Her parents ran a movie theatre in Los Angeles, which was one of the first U.S. venues to show Hindi films and held a premiere for Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie in the 1970s.
She says that for most NRI (non-resident Indian) kids growing up in the U.S., the YRF films played a big role in how they learned to speak Hindi. “Especially in the ‘90s when we came of age and the films became more accessible to us, they started to take on a new resonance. DDLJ was a great example of that. It was the first time we weren’t just watching our parents’ films; it was speaking to our experiences as Third Culture kids directly. It was just so exciting to see your types of families, your types of people and weddings on the screen.”
When she approached YRF’s Los Angeles office about making the series, they gave her the keys to the archives, their blessing and every kind of support that was necessary. Except for one thing. Aditya Chopra wasn’t going to talk.
But being the hard-hitting journalist she is, Mundhra refused to give up. She suggested he speak on background, then got him to agree to being on camera, “just so you’ll have this record for the archives”, and inch by inch convinced him to let her keep his input in the finished series. “It was a bit risky because we were editing his interviews into the series, and he might never have agreed, and we’d have to start editing all over again.”
“But any filmmaker who’s worked with Aditya Chopra knows that his Achilles’ heel is creative integrity, and he will move mountains, if it’s for the creative integrity of a project,” Mundhra continues. “And when I showed him the series, fully edited with his interview, I think it became clear to him how important his presence and his voice were in the series. I said, look this is your family legacy and the definitive story of your family and your father and the studio that you built. So your voice should be a part of it. And he thankfully agreed.”
In addition to footage of Yash Chopra and interviews with his son and wife, playback singer Pamela Chopra, the series features one of the last interviews with Rishi Kapoor, who died in 2020. Other stars featured, in addition to the Khans, include Amitabh Bachchan, Juhi Chawla, Rani Mukerji, Madhuri Dixit, Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Hrithik Roshan. Karan Johar, who started his career assisting his cousin Aditya Chopra on DDLJ and is now a major producer-director in his own right, is also interviewed extensively.
Apart from being a fun, nostalgia-filled look back at the history of Hindi cinema, Mundhra says the series has deeper resonance. “As I was working on the series, I realized it’s not just the story of this iconic studio, the films are tied to the story of India itself – from partition, all the way to the present day. They reflected on a lot of the major trends, not just in filmmaking and cinema, but also the big cultural shifts, the political and socio-economic shifts that were happening in the country over the decades.”
As the series was completed last year, it doesn’t feature the latest development in YRF’s history, the fact that the studio has just produced the second biggest Hindi film ever, Pathaan, starring Shah Rukh Khan, which opened on January 25 and has grossed more than $100m globally. India’s film industry has changed substantially over the past half century, but Pathaan’s success suggests that its studios, stars, and of course its audiences, are still hopeless romantics.
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