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‘Indian Matchmaking’ director explores Bollywood legacy with new Netflix series — and hints at ‘Jewish Matchmaking’

As a cinematic style, Bollywood has always struggled to find global recognition — and filmmaker Smriti Mundhra set out to change that

SHARE ‘Indian Matchmaking’ director explores Bollywood legacy with new Netflix series — and hints at ‘Jewish Matchmaking’
A poster for “The Romantic.”

A poster for “The Romantic.”

Netflix

The story of a famous Bollywood film, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” is mostly straightforward — the rebellious Raj, dressed in a black Harley Davidson leather jacket, and the Miss Goody-two-shoes Simran cross paths in Europe, and after a few mishaps, they fall in love.

Before you know it, Simran is running through the mustard fields and into Raj’s arms. The two hope to marry, but Raj has a big task in front of him: to convince Simran’s intimidating father with a hostile stare to give his blessing. But there’s a plot twist — Her parents have arranged her marriage with someone else.

It’s safe to that “D.D.L.J.” left an impression on the audience, enough for it to become India’s longest-running film, going on year 27 in theaters, and inspiring generations of viewers. Now, Netflix’s latest documentary, “The Romantics,” uncovers these legacies within the world of Bollywood.

The Hindi film industry is very separate from Hollywood, even though it sounds derivative of the latter. As a cinematic style, it has always struggled to find global recognition. Filmmaker Smriti Mundhra set out to change that, she said in an interview with Deseret News.

Growing up, she divided her time between Los Angeles and Mumbai, and her transnational identity reflects in her work, whether it’s her directorial work in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” her Oscar-nominated documentary “St. Louis Superman” with Sami Khan or an Emmy nomination for “Indian Matchmaking.”

‘The Romantics’ puts Bollywood on a global platform

Her latest project features 35 interviews that propel forward the impact of Yash Raj Films — a 50-year-old production house regarded as the Warner Bros. of Bollywood — while looking at famous films over the decades.

“Hindi cinema is something that’s really shaped my life in so many ways, especially as an NRI (or non-resident Indian) kid, as someone who’s from the diaspora, it was really my only connection to my roots and the only medium that didn’t require me to assimilate,” Mundhra said.

Apart from this personal connection, her time studying filmmaking revealed the lack of Indian representation in textbooks that mentioned all the “greats or auteurs from around the world.”

Hindi films hold artistic visions that go beyond the tropes of song and dance. “And Yash Chopra, (who founded Yash Raj Films) really felt like the perfect entry point to explore all of that, because his films were really the archetype of what we think of when we think of Bollywood?” Mundhra said. The late filmmaker didn’t just direct films, he created a “school of cinema” by dipping his toes into any genre — from romance to action. The founder died in 2012 after suffering from dengue, a mosquito-born disease. He was working on a film, “Jab Tak Hai Jaan,” or “Till I Have Life in Me,” in his last days and never got to see the final edit.

Battles behind the scenes

Once the studio and the Chopra family gave their blessing for this Netflix show, the work began. Mundhra said “The Romantics” took “over two years to edit because we had so much material to work with.” That included a hundred hours’ worth of interview footage and access to the Yash Raj Films archive vault.

While A-listers like actor Shah Rukh Khan and director Karan Johar happily participated, convincing the camera-shy Aditya Chopra, 51 — who took over Yash Raj Films from his late father Yash Chopra — proved tough, even though his brother, Uday, mother, Adira, and wife, Rani Mukerji, joined the project.

Aditya Chopra’s last interview took place over 25 years ago, so Mundhra had a daunting task in front of her. Her pitch went something like this: “If you’re ever going to ever speak, this is the time to do it. Ultimately, this series is going to be on Netflix — broadcasted to the entire world — and it’s going to be taken as sort of the definitive legacy of your father and your work. So, let’s do it and make sure that it feels complete.”

Plus, showing him that the film wouldn’t work without his voice convinced him to say yes, as Chopra isn’t the kind to get in the way of creativity.

The series weaves political history — like the India-Pakistan partition in 1947 and the state of emergency from 1975 to 1977 — while examining earlier Yash Raj Films works as well as Aditya Chopra’s debut work, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (1995) that jump-launched his lengthy career.

Bollywood is synonymous with romance but during the ’80s, people thought that trend was dead. Action films took over, reflecting the constitutional havoc at the time. But Yash Raj Films’ “Chandani” (“Moonlight”) hit the big screen and reversed the mainstream conversation quickly.

“The Romantics” also gives voice to actors who launched under the Yash Raj Films label in the early 2000s, like former model Anushka Sharma’s acting debut in “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi” (“A Match Made By God”).

“Everything was under wraps. Nobody knew about it,” Sharma said, dressed in a beige gown, in the series. “And Adi did not want anybody to know that I was the lead actor. Adi literally said to me, ‘You can’t tell anybody. You cannot even tell your parents.’ I said, ‘Huh?’”

Chopra also launched former copywriter Ranveer Sigh through “Band Baaja Baaraat” (“Band, Music and Revelry”). It’s worth noting that Sigh has now become one of the biggest names in the industry while forging an international identity — consider his recent attendance at Salt Lake City’s NBA All-Star game this year as the India ambassador.

Out of all the conversations, talking to the late actor Rishi Kapoor, who played the quintessential hero in social dramas that emerged in the ’50s and ’60s, served as a highlight of Mundhra’s professional career.

“You know, it was a great interview, and it also was his last interview that he did on camera. So, I feel very lucky that I got the opportunity to do that,” she confessed. Kapoor died of leukemia in 2020.

What’s next for Director Smriti Mundhra?

Mundhra hopes viewers who aren’t familiar with Indian culture or cinematic history realize that Hindi cinema is “a facsimile of Hollywood, that it’s its own very robust industry, deserves a place in the global cinema canon” alongside French and Japanese New Wave cinema.

This isn’t her first project that effectively serves snippets of the Indian culture to a Western audience. Her previous project is the Netflix hit series “Indian Matchmaking,” a reality TV show that accurately mirrors actual conversations on the topic of marriage. The show drew inspiration from her documentary film “A Suitable Girl.” Meanwhile, her work in the Netflix drama “Never Have I Ever” follows an Indian American girl tackling high school.

Although the blooming director “would love to continue” to analyze the world of Bollywood and its history, work is currently underway for “Jewish Matchmaking,” for which she is attached as an executive producer.

“I think the idea of navigating tradition and a modern world, when it comes to marriage and relationships, is not unique to India,” she said, without revealing too much about the new Netflix show with an unknown release date. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to explore what that looks like in other countries, cultures, and traditions. ‘Jewish Matchmaking’ is an example of taking the same idea and looking at it through a different cultural lens.”

“The Romantics” is rated TV-14 for language.