The Romantics and Beyond: An Ode to Yash Chopra and His Cinematic Legacy Past the Chiffon and Snow
The Romantics and Beyond: An Ode to Yash Chopra and His Cinematic Legacy Past the Chiffon and Snow

Indian-American filmmaker, Smriti Mundhra talks about her docu-series on YRF and what keeps this 53-year-old production house forever young

The Romantics, a docu-series directed by Indian-American filmmaker Smriti Mundhra celebrates Yash Chopra’s rich cinematic legacy of 50 years. It highlights the impact the maverick filmmaker and Yash Raj Films continues to have on Indian cinema. With anecdotal interviews of the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, the late Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, Rani Mukherjee, Abhishekh Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Ayushmann Khurrana, Anushka Sharma, Bhumi Pednekar and family members like Pamela Chopra, Uday Chopra, and of course the near-mythical Aditya Chopra, interspersed with archival footage of old interviews of Yash Chopra as well as BTS clips, it is a much-needed documentation of not only the legacy of Yash Chopra but also of the evolution of Hindi cinema.


Mundhra’s 4-part docu-series traces how Deewar’s Angry Young Man, Amitabh Bachchan, transformed into a romantic hero in Kabhie Kabhie, how Chandni brought audiences back to the theatres after the VHS cassettes got the affluent into the habit of watching movies at home (you can’t help but draw parallel to the current situation where YRF’s Pathaan has almost repeated history and brought audiences back to the theatres after a deep lull induced by the rise of the OTTs during the Covid lockdowns), how it also broke the stint of action films and South kitsch and brought romantic films back in vogue, how DDLJ connected the NRIs to their roots and created a genre of ‘NRI films’, how the movie set new standards for a Bollywood romance and for cinema at the box office, and much more.


Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, 1995


“I wanted to do a deep dive into Hindi cinema that highlights not only the industry but also projects it as a serious contributor to the canon of global cinema. I wanted to tell the world that Hindi cinema is not just song and dance and spectacle and it is not a derivative of other cinema traditions and cultures. The best filmmaker to tell that story of Hindi cinema is through the movies of Yash Chopra. His story and the story of the studio arc alongside so many of the big cultural shifts of India since the country was born in its present geographical form,” says Mundhra as we sit down to chat about Hindi cinema and the storied legacy of Yash Raj Films. For her, it is exciting to take this story on Hindi cinema and YRF across the world.


”I don’t want it to be limited to the Indian diaspora abroad. I hope this can be a starter kit to Hindi cinema for cinephiles across the globe,” she continues. “Cinema is one of our biggest contributions to the world.We can’t let the history get lost in time. We need to document the stories behind the stories, the social and cultural impact of our movies. Other countries, other cinema cultures have historically made more robust efforts to protect and preserve their history. I want to be part of this documentation process for our cinema. There are historians and archivists who are already doing that but for me this is my medium and this is my way to go about it.”


Apart from the nostalgia and the insights, what makes the series such a delicious watch is Mundhra’s unique gaze. Being the daughter of filmmaker Jagmohan Mundhra, she was well-versed with the Hindi film industry and being an NRI kid, she had a very different relationship with Hindi movies. “For us diaspora kids, we cling to Bollywood films because it is our connection to our roots to our homeland, and it was more so in the 80s and 90s when travelling to India wasn’t this easy. For many of us it is how we learnt Hindi, we learnt how the different festivals are celebrated. It bonded us as a community. For us NRIs, Bollywood movies were sacred.” 


However, as a kid growing up in the US, Mundhra usually watched Hollywood films, and went on to work with the likes of Coen Brothers and Spike Jonze. Today, she helms a production company, Meralta Films, which specialises in documentaries and non-fiction content. “It was helpful to have this half-insider-half-outsider perspective,” she explains. “I had spent much time in India, my father was a filmmaker and I had grown up watching these movies, so I knew enough to ask the right questions. Then, as a student of cinema and as a filmmaker, I have studied a lot about cinema culture. I wanted people from other cultures to know about our cinema and its global impact. I wanted to do this series not just as a delirious nostalgic trip, but to talk about Yash Chopra’s cinema, dissect it and explore his work’s cultural and social impact. I wanted to have conversations around his cinema the way we discuss films of international auteurs. I also wanted people from other cultures to know that Bollywood is not just about song and dance and the ‘exotic’, I wanted to talk about our rich cinema tradition and the auteurs of Hindi cinema specifically.”


Dil Toh Paagal Hai, 1997


For the LA-born Oscar nominee, Chandni was her introduction to YRF movies. “I was probably eight years old. I don’t think I even blinked. I didn’t understand half of it back then, but still I was absolutely dazzled and transfixed. The songs were incredible and Sridevi was a vision in white. It was all so beautiful. I have watched it multiple times since then — in fact, it is my most-watched movie. In different stages of my life it has revealed a newer aspect, and I have related to Chandni in a different way. The themes and the complexity of the characters, especially that of Chandni, really resonated with me,” she shares.


While Chandni is a gorgeous film, it is also a love story mostly from the woman’s perspective — a rarity in even in today’s era of fist-thumping feminism. Chandni is about the idea of romance from the woman’s angle; Chandni is about Chandni and Sridevi as Chandni. In Lamhe, a movie that failed to lure the audience when it had released but is today considered as classic and a milestone in Hindi cinema, he celebrated female agency. Here the two heroines (the mother and the daughter, both played by the indomitable Sridevi again) are not reduced to just objects of desire but they follow their desire and the story follows the consequences. A love story spanning across generations and continents was too dangerous and too bold for the time.  


But even before Lamhe and Chandni, came Silsila. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bhaduri and Rekha, Silsila dealt with taboo topics like adultery and infidelity with a stunning level of poise and nuance, while also exploring upper-class society’s reactions to the same. Years later, YRF would also make Salaam Namaste. Directed by Siddharth Anand and starring Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta it explores the complexities of live-in relationships (a theme also dealt with in Shuddh Desi Romance) and talks unabashedly about pre-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock.


That is the essence of Yash Chopra romances. He stuns you with the chiffon sarees, snow-capped mountains, and the sheer beauty of the frames, but beyond the visual spectacle lays a nuanced exploration of complex characters and relationship dynamics. “It is entertaining and beautiful, but a YRF film is not just a thing of beauty,” Mundhra explains. “He would have the biggest stars, the most stunning of locations, the most melodious of songs, the most beautiful costumes and aesthetics, enough bait to bring the masses to the theatres. But then give them something a little bit complex to think about, to introspect and evaluate their own value systems. That’s Yash Chopra and that’s the legacy YRF has carried forward.” 


Veer-Zaara, 2004


Indeed, under the layers of chiffon and snow these movies carry a soul that speaks of serious issues reflecting an ever-changing society. But more importantly, they often talk about unconventional relationship dynamics which are often considered a taboo in the contemporary society. Yash Chopra’s first directorial (also his debut as a producer) under the YRF banner was the Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore and Rakhee-starrer Daag: A Poem of Love — a movie that spoke about polyamory, a concept that is being explored today with much gusto, under the garb of a frothy romance accentuated by melodious songs, all the way back in 1973. The triumph of Chopra was in the fact that although he dealt with an explosive concept that was way ahead of its time, he developed the story and the characters in such a way that instead of inviting backlash and censorship, it turned out to be a massive hit and got seven Filmfare award nominations, winning two of them.


To talk about Yash Raj Films only in the context of love stories would be almost like limiting Satyajit Ray’s works only to Pather Panchali or Akira Kurosawa’s to Rashomon, for YRF is as much about sprawling romances as it is about action films like Trishul and of course Deewaar — a movie that was instrumental in building Amitabh Bachchan’s image as ‘The Angry Young Man’. In these films, Yash Chopra throws away his rose-tinted glass and instead of an affluent leading man, here we have working class heroes. YRF’s first action venture, Kaala Patthar, was based on the 1975 Chasnala mining disaster and is among Yash Chopra’s grittier works.


“Deewar is so different from what you usually associate Yash Chopra to. But when you go through his filmography and watch the movies chronologically from start to finish, you actually start to see him in it,” adds Mundhra. “You realise that Deewar is essentially about relationships, it is about maternal and filial love. Although it is known for the Angry Young Man archetype, but there is a lot of poetry in Deewar as well. It is one of the best Hindi films ever made; it should be studied in film schools.”


In later years, elements of Kaala Patthar and Deewar formed echoes in YRF’s Arjun Kapoor-Ranveer Singh-Priyanka Chopra starrer, Gundey.  Also, let’s not forget that the sleekest and most successful action franchise of Bollywood, Dhoom, is also an YRF venture. It was YRF who created the two-film series, Mardaani, where we have a female cop taking the centre stage. There is something very satisfying about watching a woman kick some ass and her track not getting hijacked at the end by a macho ‘hero’.


Dhoom 2, 2006


And talking about action films and franchises, the fourth instalment in the YRF Spy Universe, Pathaan is on a spree of breaking box office records. “The message in Pathaan is that nationalism doesn’t belong to any particular group or religion. You can be patriotic without being radical or being exclusive. You have the same message in the earliest films of Yash Chopra such as Dhool Ka Phool and Dharmputra,” Mundhra points out. If Yash Chopra’s cinema reflected Nehruvian secularism, the same has now become the part of YRF’s weltanschauung.


“One can see the same focus on unity and secularism in films like Chak De! India. With Pathaan it is heartening to see that ethos carrying forward.  Also, its humongous box office success proves how much these values are still resonating with people. It gives you faith in India and its people. I live in a country that is more divided than ever along the political and ideological lines…. a movie like this and its success makes you feel hopeful,” she adds. In fact, the character of Pathaan is built of the same lines as the famous Dhool Ka Phool song, Tu Hindu Banega na Musalman Banega, Insaan Ki Aulad Hai Insaan Banega,” where the eponymous hero proclaims the he is neither a Hindu nor a Muslim. He was abandoned at a movie theatre by his biological parents and was brought up as an orphan. He considers himself Bharat ka beta (a son of India) and all he wants is to serve his country till his last breath. 


While his cinema can often be termed as aspirational and escapist, right from the beginning of his career, while he was directing films under the banner of his brother BR Chopra, he made it ample clear that his cinema is deeply rooted in the socio-economic issues of the country. Dhool ka Phool dealt with issues like pre-marital sexual relations and the guardianship of an ‘illegitimate’ child born as a result. Although considered taboo even today, while making the movie in 1959, Chopra kept a non-judgemental stance. Dharmputra, based on a novel by Acharya Chatursen Shastri, was about communal harmony in the backdrop of Partition. Aadmi aur Insan was about corruption at a dam construction site. He also experimented with different styles of filmmaking. While Waqt, the first ever multi-starrer in Hindi cinema, was a lavishly-mounted lost-and-found saga that created the blueprint of what was to become Yash Chopra signature style, he followed it up with the diametrically opposite Ittefaq, a suspense movie made on a shoe-string budget with zero songs, sans an interval. The entire story was about events that unfold in one single night. 


Ask her about her takeaways as a filmmaker from this deep-dive into the legacy and workings of one of the leading film production companies in the world and the biggest in India, and Mundhra says, “YRF movies teach you that you don’t have to choose between a message and an audience. His films and the films the studio makes are proof that you can entertain people and still say something about the world you are living in, that social commentary and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive. Not everyone can do this. Yash Chopra did it so deftly and he has passed it on to newer generations of filmmakers making movies under the YRF banner.”


“I think the idea of romance will always be at the core of Yash Raj Films but one has to evolve,” she continues. “To become a studio and to build on the legacy of what Yash Chopra had started, it is important that they expand the scope of what they are doing. I think romance will always be synonymous to YRF movies but the common thread that connects all YRF movies and is at the root of the YRF ethos lies in the deep respect they have towards the audience and an earnest desire to connect celluloid to audience. Whether it is a Dhoom, a Veer-Zaara or a Pathaan, they want to delight the audience and they have been brilliant in figuring out the right ways to do that,” says Mundhra. 


War, 2019


“The greatest lesson that I have taken from Yash Chopra as a filmmaker while making this documentary and diving deep into his life, cinema, and legacy is to always trust your instincts,” she concludes. “It is something you see consistently with Yash Chopra. He has gone against industry trends, gone against conventional wisdom, gone against advice from those who were closest to him, and tapped into what was inside him, listened to what his heart was saying, and believed that it will resonate with the people. And it has paid off.” 


Images: Yash Raj Films

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