'Cinema of aspiration': The romance filmmakers who redefined Bollywood's quintessential genre

Published 17th February 2023
Two lovers reunite in this scene from "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge," a classic Bollywood romance.
Credit: Courtesy Yash Raj Films
'Cinema of aspiration': The romance filmmakers who redefined Bollywood's quintessential genre
Written by Tara Subramaniam, CNN
A woman in a billowy white dress runs through a bright green and yellow field, her long hair streaming behind her as she reunites with the man she loves in "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge," one of the most successful Indian movies of all time.
It's a scene that has been played time and time again in theaters around India. In fact, nearly three decades after its release, the film known as "DDLJ" is India's longest running movie. It's still being shown at Mumbai's Maratha Mandir Theatre, which screened the movie every day from 1995 until 2020, when Covid-19 forced the venue to temporarily shut down.
"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 best-known romance films, with chart-topping songs and striking visuals that redefined the tropes of contemporary Indian cinema.
A new Netflix docuseries, "The Romantics," explores the Chopras' influence over the world's most prolific movie industry — and its quintessential genre. Created in collaboration with their studio, Yash Raj Films (YRF), the four-part series includes a rare on-camera interview with Aditya as it traces the history of Hindi moviemaking through YRF's beloved Bollywood classics.
"The cinema that Yashji gave us is a cinema of aspiration, a cinema of hope," says the Indian film critic and director of the Mumbai Film Festival, Anupama Chopra (no relation), in one episode. "It's a cinema that just sort of makes you feel like you can dream."
The docuseries' Indian American director, Smriti Mundhra, said she chose to focus on the Chopras because their films have been instrumental in crafting today's image of Bollywood.
"I had, for a long time, been wanting to make something on 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 topic (through), the first thing that came to mind was Yash Chopra as a filmmaker and his career and his impact and legacy."
"The archetype for the image of Bollywood or Hindi cinema that the world has really came from Yash Chopra," she added, describing several of his films as "far ahead of their time."
"DDLJ" cemented the stardom of Shah Rukh Khan, who plays the Raj to Kajol's Simran.
"DDLJ" cemented the stardom of Shah Rukh Khan, who plays the Raj to Kajol's Simran. Credit: Courstesy 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 across Europe with their respective friends. Typically, Bollywood romances focused on Indians in India, but "DDLJ" broke the mold by telling the love story of two overseas Indians and by merging Western and Indian cultures.
The film also shifted the values that traditionally drove Indian love stories. At the time, for instance, if lead characters' families didn't approve of a romance, the couple would often run away together. But in "DDLJ," the male protagonist refuses to be with the woman he loves without her family's blessing (though some critics of the film found this message to be regressive).
In the movie's final scene, Simran is seen pleading with her father to let her be with Raj, who has just boarded a train. At the last moment, Simran's father relinquishes his hold on her arm, telling her to go live her life, and she runs to catch up with Raj who pulls her onto the moving train. It's as dramatic as it is iconic.
Filmmaker Karan Johar said in the "The Romantics" that this narrative decision "opened the film up to not just youngsters but also families," adding that it "began a new era."
In "The Romantics," Bollywood megastar Ranbir Kapoor, who was 13 years old when the movie released, describes "DDLJ" as "the defining film of our generation," adding that it "influenced the way I dressed... the way I spoke to a girl (and) the way I was with my parents — everything."

A 'bridge' into 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 instance, Bhumi Pednekar, who played the lead in "Dum Laga Ke Haisha" said in the docuseries that her casting as an "overweight heroine" was "unheard of in India." She added that while her body shape wasn't typical of the average Bollywood female lead, her character was written to be "very confident" just like "all the other YRF heroines."
While the Chopras built the foundation of their movie empire on romance, they have also produced a slew of action blockbusters 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 the depth of the Hindi film industry at large.
"Dhoom," which YRF released in 2004, spawned a multi-film franchise.
"Dhoom," which YRF released in 2004, spawned a multi-film franchise. Credit: Courtesy Yash Raj Films
The director told CNN she hopes the series will resonate with Bollywood enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Audiences already familiar with the titles featured in "The Romantics" may, she said, "learn something about the making and the context of the films that they grew up loving." For those new to the genre, the series aims to show that "they're not just formula films with singing and dancing."
"They're not just derivatives of Hollywood films," she added. "There is a robust cinematic language and a robust auteur culture in Bollywood and Hindi films. I hope that takeaway is apparent."
Director Smriti Mundhra says the stories she tells in "The Romantics" are "deeply personal and deeply familiar."
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 any 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 in order to entice the other."