Vague Visages’ The Romantics review contains minor spoilers. Smriti Mundhra’s 2023 Netflix documentary features Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor. Check out the VV home page for more TV reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The enduring relevance of Yash Raj Films (YRF) — one of Hindi cinema’s biggest family-run production houses — is on display at theaters across India right now. Released less than three weeks back, Pathaan (2022), the stable’s latest record-breaking outing, is running to packed houses alongside Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the blockbuster film that set the lexicon for romance in a newly-liberalized India. Both films, released almost three decades apart, signal a production house on the precipice of reinvention. If anything, they offer a suitable context for The Romantics, a four-episode Netflix documentary series that charts the illustrious YRF legacy, examining it as essential Hindi cinema canon.
Directed by Oscar-nominated Indian-American filmmaker Smriti Mundhra (A Suitable Girl, Indian Matchmaking), The Romantics is, at its core, a starry-eyed vehicle for fan-service. Interspersed with archival footage, film montages and a jaw-dropping roster of over 35 celebrity interviews, the series celebrates the escapist language of YRF filmmaking with breathless abandon. At its best, The Romantics manages to transform itself into a generational portrait of artistry, locating the independence and integrity of a veteran filmmaker and a loving father as the foundation for a future film empire. The troubling part of The Romantics, however, is what the series represents at its worst: a surface-level, self-congratulatory exercise that is dated and selective in its portraiture, so enamored by the YRF brand of filmmaking that it eschews confronting uncomfortable truths about its storytelling.
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In that sense, The Romantics is the most intriguing when it focuses itself on the making of a homegrown film empire, contrasting YRF’s modest origins — architected by the vision, gumption and rebellion of late filmmaker Yash Chopra (who founded it in 1970) — with the company’s current corporate makeover that has been single handedly spearheaded by older son Aditya Chopra. In the illuminating first two episodes, Mundhra dissects the filmmaking ethos of Yash Chopra, drawing a worthy parallel between his artistic fixations/anxieties and the political turmoil accompanying a newly-independent country.
Born in undivided Punjab, the filmmaker’s introduction to Hindi cinema was through the work of his older brother BR Chopra, a noted filmmaker and producer. Yash Chopra made his directorial debut with Dhool Ka Phool (1959), a film that sensitively tackled the Hindi-Muslim divide in newly-partitioned India. His sophomore effort Dharmaputra (1961), was an even more direct take on the ills of Hindu fundamentalism and the trauma of Partition. In fact, his early films, including the opulent Waqt (1965), signaled Yash Chopra’s inherent poetic disposition as a storyteller, ultimately culminating into the inception of his eponymous production house.
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As Mundhra diligently allows viewers to witness the middle-aged Yash Chopra coming into his own as an artist — doubling up as a filmmaker and producer with YRF Films — these two episodes end up acting as a crucial record of film history. There’s considerable insight into the significance of Deewar (1975), an action film in which the filmmaker leaned into the collective anti-establishment sentiment of the nation, cementing Amitabh Bachchan as the proverbial “angry young man” and a bonafide superstar. The Romantics also suggests that Yash Chopra’s filmography didn’t just reflect the times but were also considerably ahead of their time. The string of films (Kabhie Kabhie, Silsila, Lamhe, Chandni) that laid down the imprint for the YRF romantic idiom saw him challenge conventional and conservative notions of love and desire.
Yash Chopra recasts the masculine Hindi film hero as a vulnerable, gentle lover, and also explores the weighty themes of polygamy and infidelity from a woman’s perspective. To that end, the director does an excellent job of acknowledging the contributions of Pamela Chopra, the subject’s wife who is credited for bringing forth an awareness of female desire in his films. In the masterful second episode, Mundhra takes her inquiry into Yash Chopra’s unassuming artistry even further by securing an appearance from YRF heir Aditya Chopra. By now, his reticence has become something of a joke — the last time he agreed to give an interview was in 1995. The Romantics marks Aditya Chopra’s first video interview and it’s nothing short of a revelation. As an interview subject, the 51-year-old filmmaker-producer is relaxed and perceptive, conveying in his own words the extent of his astute business sense that enabled him to ambitiously steer YRF to newer directions.
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An undeniable highlight of The Romantics is how Mundhra frames the divergent filmmaking beliefs of the aspiring filmmaker and filmmaker father. Mundhra argues that their styles didn’t clash, rather it complemented the long-standing success of YRF. To illustrate her point, she takes the example of DDLJ, which marked Aditya Chopra’s directorial debut. It was the first YRF film to have been bankrolled by Yash Chopra — until then, he was content with operating on a profit-sharing model, seeing his production house somewhat as a means to an end. The tenacious Aditya Chopra, on the other hand, knew very early on that he wanted complete ownership of his films. And when DDLJ opened to packed houses, it transformed the family’s fortunes almost overnight.
Even though The Romantics benefits from Aditya Chopra’s perspective, the last two episodes belabors its point about the excellence embedded within YRF. The fervent reverence is expected considering YRF commissioned the series, but in refusing to go beyond being a nostalgia-inducing PR exercise, Mundhra certainly dilutes the purpose of revisiting a legacy. For one, The Romantics is shorn of any scrutiny, as the filmmaker doesn’t discuss YRF’s debacles, in particularThugs of Hindostan (2018) — its most expensive misfire. The absence of any objections against YRF operating as a factory-churning film machine — mounting movies on unnecessarily inflated budgets or facing a crisis of identity — is telling. As is Mundhra taking the curious decision to depict YRF’s standing in the Hindi film industry in isolation and in pole position. Without context of competition or peers, the gambles of any film studio will be easy to root for.
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There’s also the matter of how dated The Romantics sounds that takes away from its efficiency. Although that’s in part due to the series being shot before the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem extends to the accuracy of the commentary as well. Similar to Indian Matchmaking, Mundhra’s own distance from the very country she sets out to encapsulate creates an unsatisfactory chasm between the machinations of the Hindi film industry and its summarization. It is most visible in the juvenile counters that the series offers to the stronghold of nepotism in the industry.
At a time when some of the most inventive image-making is happening in Indian documentaries, The Romantics sticks out for its unimaginative glossiness. The series is formally dull — Mundhra constructs the four episodes with very little visual flair, curating it primarily as an extravaganza of talking heads (a splitscreen of Ranveer Singh reenacting the famous Deewar monologue and the actual moment in the film is a rare inspired choice). In fact, Mundhra enlisting three generations of A-listers for the project comes across only as a statement, considering very few of the voices are actually instructive. Still, it’s worth noting that The Romantics reserves a significant amount of screen time for male actors — the actresses barely get enough time to sneak in more than two sentences, a worrying variation of the kind of sexism usually prevalent in the Hindi film industry.
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In that, two things become clear by the time the narrative nears its end — The Romantics justifies its existence, making a case for Yash Chopra as one of the all-time greats. And two: the series isn’t really interested in being much more than a rose-tinted explainer of YRF’s biggest hits.
All four episodes of The Romantics are now streaming on Netflix.
Poulomi Das (@PouloCruelo) is a film critic and programmer based in India. She writes about movies at the intersection of gender, identity and sociopolitical commentary.
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