A woman in a billowing white dress runs through a bright green and yellow field, her long hair flowing behind her as she reunites with the man she loves in “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” one of the most successful Indian films of all time.
‘DDLJ’ was produced by the late Yash Chopra, a man often referred to as Bollywood’s ‘Father of Romance’. It also marked his son Aditya Chopra’s directorial debut. Together, they have been responsible for some of Bollywood’s most famous romance films, with top-notch songs and striking visuals that redefined the tropes of modern Indian cinema.
“The cinema that Yashji gave us is a cinema of aspiration, a cinema of hope,” Indian film critic and director of the Mumbai Film Festival, Anupama Chopra (no relation), says in one episode. “It’s a cinema that just makes you feel like you can dream.”
The documentary’s Indian American director, Smriti Mundhra, said she chose to focus on the Chopras because their films have been instrumental in creating the image of Bollywood today.
“I had long wanted to do something about the history and impact of Hindi cinema,” she told CNN in a phone interview. “And when I thought about what lens to look at that very big broad subject (through), the first thing that came to mind was Yash Chopra as a filmmaker and his career and his influence and legacy.”
“The archetype of the image of Bollywood or Hindi cinema that the world really has came from Yash Chopra,” she added, describing several of his films as “way ahead of their time.”
“DDLJ” cemented the stardom of Shah Rukh Khan, who plays Raj to Kajol’s Simran. Credit: Award from Yash Raj Films
Take “DDLJ”, which tells the story of Simran and Raj – both of Indian origin but born in London – who meet while traveling around Europe with their respective friends. Usually Bollywood romances focused on Indians in India, but “DDLJ” broke the mold by telling the love story of two foreign Indians and by merging Western and Indian cultures.
The film also changed the values that traditionally drove Indian love stories. In those days, for example, if the protagonists’ families did not approve of a romance, the couple often ran away. But in “DDLJ,” the male protagonist refuses to be with the woman he loves without his family’s blessing (although some critics of the film found this message regressive).
In the film’s final scene, Simran is seen begging her father to let her be with Raj, who has just boarded a train. At the last moment, Simran’s father gives his grip on her arm and tells her to live her life, and she runs to catch up with Raj who pulls her onto the moving train. It is as dramatic as it is iconic.
Filmmaker Karan Johar said in “The Romantics” that this narrative decision “opened up the film to not only youngsters but also families,” adding that it “started a new era.”
A “bridge” to Indian cinema
The series also points out instances where the Chopras’ romances challenged industry expectations. Women, Mundhra argued, were shown in a more “progressive” light with more nuanced characters and plot lines. For example, Bhumi Pednekar, who starred in the docu-series “Dum Laga Ke Haisha”, said that her casting as an “overweight heroine” was “unheard of in India”. She added that although her body shape was not typical of the average female lead in Bollywood, her character was written to be “very confident” just like “all the other YRF heroines.”
While the Chopras built the foundation of their film empire on romance, they have also produced a string of action films that continue to dominate the Hindi film industry over a decade after Yash’s death, from “Dhoom” to “Pathaan,” which is currently the highest-grossing Indian film of 2023. But with “The Romantics”, Mundhra aims not only to showcase the breadth of the studio’s output, but also the depth of the Hindi film industry in general.
“Dhoom”, which YRF released in 2004, spawned a multi-film franchise. Credit: Courtesy of Yash Raj Films
The director told CNN that she hopes the series will resonate with Bollywood enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Audiences already familiar with the titles in “The Romantics” can, she said, “learn something about the genesis and context of the movies they grew up loving.” For those new to the genre, the series aims to show that “they are not just formula films with song and dance”.
“They are not just derivatives of Hollywood movies,” she added. “There is a robust cinematic language and a robust auteur culture in Bollywood and Hindi films. I hope the takeaway is clear.”
Director Smriti Mundhra says the stories she tells in “The Romantics” are “deeply personal and deeply familiar”. Credit: Netflix India
Mundhra, who also created Netflix’s hit reality TV show “Indian Matchmaking” and has directed two episodes of Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever,” is no stranger to producing content that simultaneously appeals to Indians and the diaspora.
“I think every non-Indian person should be able to find a foothold in Indian cinema,” she continued. “As long as I can help provide that bridge, I don’t see why something like (‘The Romantics’) couldn’t work for both audiences. It doesn’t have to betray one to entice the other.”