Netflix’s new documentary series “The Romantics” has captivated South Asian movie lovers all over the world since its release this week. Packed with interviews with Hindi cinema stars ranging from icons of the 80s to global sensations of the 2000s and 2010s, the four-part series chronicles the history of Bollywood through its love stories.
While tracing the legacy of the Chopras, one of the biggest filmmaking families in India, director Smriti Mundhra also dissects some of the problems plaguing the industry in the modern day.
Nepotism is chief among them.
In the doc, some of Bollywood’s most famous names detail their startlingly similar paths into the industry.
“My mother was in movies in the '60s and '70s,” actor Saif Ali Khan told Mundhra.
“My mother, my grandmother, my aunt…” said actress Kajol.
“I grew up on film sets, both my parents were actors,” actor Abhishek Bachchan said.
Over the last few years, social media has put a name to this phenomenon, granting children of the rich and famous a new title: nepo babies.
“Nepotism,” sighed legendary director Aditya Chopra, who gave his first-ever on-camera interview in “The Romantics.” His father, director Yash Chopra, pioneered the genre of Hindi romance movies. “I think about 20, 25, 30 years back, the industry was definitely smaller, and because of that it was just very natural for a child to aspire to do the same business as the parent.”
Chopra admits that the leg up he got from his famous dad is undeniable, but said the introduction of post-2010 actors with no family film ties seems to suggest the industry changing.
The conversation around nepotism in the Indian film industry has exploded over the last few years. In a reckoning that has brought up questions of colorism, nationalism and a lack of South Indian inclusion, audiences in India and the diaspora have been questioning what exactly “Bollywood” means today.
It’s something Mundhra told NBC News she kept in mind through the making of the star-studded project. She takes issue with the fact that Bollywood, a portmanteau of “Bombay” and “Hollywood,” got its name from the American film industry.
“It does feel kind of wrong that we define this industry that’s so robust and its own, through the framework of a totally different industry, and a Western one at that,” she said.
Mundhra interviewed 35 filmmakers, journalists and actors who all weighed in on these topics. Shah Rukh Khan, often hailed as the king of Bollywood, gave his two cents about the term and the dominance of Hindi-speaking, North Indian culture that’s come to define it over the years.
“The only thing I hold against it being called Bollywood is that it doesn’t include the rest of Indian cinema,” he said.
Mundhra, who is Indian American, said she grew up immersed in Hindi movies and, as a first-generation American, they played a particularly special role in her life.
“For those of us who were raised in the diaspora, the movies have a very unique and special place,” she said. “It’s definitely fandom but it’s also, for a lot of us, how we learned how to speak Hindi. It’s how we learned about our cultural traditions or what an Indian wedding looked like.”
While attending film school, she remembers studying the classics of world cinema. Indian movies were never viewed among those ranks.
“I realized that I was studying films from all over the world and studying the auteurs from Japan and from Korea and Europe but that kind of regard wasn’t really given to Hindi cinema or Indian cinema," Mundhra said. "There was a sort of broad perception of Bollywood and that for most people was like song and dance and weddings and color," she added. "But there wasn’t the rigorous look at Indian cinema as a piece of world cinema.”
Going into the three-year filming process for “The Romantics,” Mundhra said she was aiming to change that. Beyond the romanticism and nostalgia these movies evoke for South Asians, she wanted to introduce Western audiences to the self-sufficient Indian film landscape that has been captivating audiences for years.
“I hope people learn something,” she said. “But more than anything, I hope it reminds people what we love about the movies.”