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A Place in the Zeitgeist: A Conversation With Smriti Mundhra, the Creator of Netflix’s ‘The Romantics’

A Place in the Zeitgeist: A Conversation With Smriti Mundhra, the Creator of Netflix’s ‘The Romantics’

  • “I wanted to make something that took a deep dive into the craftsmanship and intention and language of Hindi cinema, and put it in its rightful place in the global cinema canon.”

Last month, creator, producer and director Smriti Mundhra, who is best known for her hit series “Indian Matchmaking,” released another docu-series with Netflix titled “The Romantics.” The four-part series is an immediate eye-catcher as you see some of Bollywood’s most beloved actors being interviewed, including Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Hrithik Roshan, Rani Mukherji, Ranveer Singh. For those versed in Bollywood, the series will take you down a nostalgic path, providing keen insight on the hows and whys. For the Bolly-curious, you will come out with a new perspective on a nation that has built the largest film industry in the world. 

Mundhra is a good friend of mine. In the past few years, I have hardly gotten to see her, due to the pandemic, coupled with the demanding schedules of her Hollywood life. My bi-annual interviews with her (check out my interview of her on “Indian Matchmaking”) become an opportunity for us to talk shop if nothing else.

Antara: I believe this is your first Bollywood project. Tell us a little about your connection to Bollywood and why this particular project. 

Smriti: Yes, it’s my first project to touch on the subject of Bollywood, though it’s not a Bollywood movie. I grew up around Hindi cinema. My parents operated an old movie theater in Culver City, Meralta Cinema, which became the first exhibitors of Hindi films in the United States (1976-1980). Meralta (also the namesake of Mundhra’s production company) hosted many film premiers, including Yash Chopra’s “Kabhi Kabhi,” which Amitabh attended. Yash ji came at a later date as well to visit my parents in Los Angeles. 

Antara: As you are mentioning this, I am reminded that the first Hindi movie to play at a theater in the Bay Area was Yash Chopra’s “Chandni” (Naz Cinema, original single-screen location). But back to your story…

Smriti: My father (Jagmohan Mundhra) became a filmmaker, and I grew up watching him work on set, several of which were Indian movies. So, I grew up with an appreciation for Hindi cinema. 

As I progressed in my career and went to film school, I noticed there really wasn’t a dialogue around Hindi cinema the way that we have around other global cinema — where we look at its auteurs, its influences, the cinematic language, and the cultural impact. I wanted to make something that took a deep dive into the craftsmanship and intention and language of Hindi cinema and put it in its rightful place in the global cinema canon.

Antara: How did this specific project come about? Did you pitch this to YRF? 

Smriti: Yes, I approached YRF for this project. When I was thinking about this project, there were several incredible filmmakers, production houses and studios from the Hindi film industry came to mind. But there are a few filmmakers whose careers have had the longevity of Yash Chopra, and more significantly, the cultural impact and influence we still see today. This made Yash Chopra’s story so rare, and the perfect lens to tell the story. I pitched it as a 4-part series to them, and thankfully, they were very much on board.

Meralta Cinema in Culver City operated by Smriti Mundhra’s parents.

Antara: How involved was YRF in the making of this series?  

Smriti: Very minimally actually. They helped facilitate access to the materials – archival, behind-the-scenes, wedding material – it was such a treat to see that. I had many off-the-record conversations with everyone in the family before getting them all to speak on camera. I was pleasantly surprised at how helpful they all were and brought in no creative oversight whatsoever. 

Antara: here is a very big deal made about getting Aditya Chopra to do an interview. Was there any pushback from him on this? 

It has been surprising to see what an emotional connection people had with the series. How people cried, and it tapped into something they didn’t know what was missing.

Smriti: (laughs). There was huge pushback. He hadn’t given an interview in 25 years! Most people in the industry think he’s a myth — like the wizard behind the curtain. Initially, it was a hard no. But as the project progressed, it became clear that if he was ever going to speak publicly in his life, this would be the time to do it. This would be the definitive tribute to his father and his legacy. Plus, by this point, everyone under the sun was talking to me, and it would be really weird that he wouldn’t, so he agreed.  

Antara: Speaking of everyone under the sun, how did you narrow down who to interview and which films to highlight? 

Smriti: There was so much story to tell, and so challenging to condense it into 4 one-hour episodes. I would have loved to interview 100 more people, but we had to be Conscious of the real estate of the series, and scheduling realities. Ultimately, the intention wasn’t just to make a highlight reel of the most beloved and iconic films, it was to tell a larger story of Yash Chopra’s career and his influences, and how his filmography wove through the larger story of India. We were also told the story of the studio, and the role it played in an evolving, corporatized India. All the films we chose and people were chosen to speak specifically to that larger story. Certain iconic and beloved films like “Veer Zaara” (one of my personal favorites) weren’t focused on, because at that point in the YRF’s chronological continuum, we’re telling a different part of the YRF story. At that point, we’re talking about Aditya pushing the envelope as a producer and taking over the family business. So, less iconic films like “Mujhse Dosti Karoge” and “Hum Tum” are more relevant to the story. 

Antara: When I watched the first episode, I absolutely LOVED it. Seeing a young Mumtaz and Shashi Kapoor attending Yash and Pam’s wedding — was priceless. But I am also one of the biggest Hindi cinema nerds out there. I really wondered — who would want to watch this series? Who was your primary audience? 

Smriti: That’s a very good question. The series was made primarily for an Indian and diaspora audience, for those already familiar with the cinematic language of Hindi films, and have a personal connection with a lot of these films. But I wanted it to have an entry point for a global audience that has maybe heard the term Bollywood but would be curious to learn more abt the history. It was a tricky balance – not to be too simplistic for the familiar audience, but keep a pace an unfamiliar audience can keep up with. 

Antara: I was surprised to see that the series transcended beyond film nerds. 

Smriti: It has been surprising to see what an emotional connection people had with the series. How people cried, and it tapped into something they didn’t know what was missing. 

(Check out Karan Johar’s IG post after binge-watching “The Romantics.” He raves about the series, and thanks Smriti for her brilliant work in weaving together a narrative out of the archives, and taking the audience through so many emotional beats in just four episodes.)

Antara: I’ve heard some criticism that episodes 1 and 2 are fantastic, but episodes 3 and 4 feel like a shameless YRF promo. Any thoughts?  

Smriti: Documentary storytelling like that of any other film – you choose a story to tell. Some folks think of documentary filmmaking as hard news journalism, or as an anthropological study. I chose to tell the story of this family and studio, of these two filmmakers and their profound influence. It’s not an expose, or survey of the Hindi film industry. It’s a story told through a very specific lens. The business story (of the studio) – its challenges and risks, is a big part of the story. At the end of the day, it is a positive story about an iconic studio that has done what very few other studios have been able to do – in terms of sustaining for so long and creating so many different types of films.

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Antara: I particularly loved that you devoted a significant portion of an episode to nepotism. Bollywood has been particularly known for being “an old boys’ club” – maybe even more than Hollywood’s reputation in the matter. How open was the Chopra family to that topic? 

Smriti: There were no limitations on what I could ask the family, and I asked for everything I wanted. I was expecting diplomatic answers, but they answered fully and honestly. In regards to Uday, I have a lot of respect for him. It’s tough to be in such a high-achieving family. He has a lot of self-awareness, and he allowed himself to be very vulnerable. I think it’s taken a lot of bravery on his part to be willing to acknowledge his limitations and failures. He was exploring something that didn’t work out, and admitting it himself, it takes the sting out of it.  

Antara: Shifting gears here … were you star-struck by anyone? 

Smriti: Definitely Shah Rukh Khan. You can NOT be star-struck by SRK. I feel like even if you don’t know who SRK is, you’ll be star-struck by his energy and presence. Hrithik Roshan was always a personal favorite growing up. Definitely Kajol. That was intimidating — she is very sharp. I wouldn’t say star-struck, but I was excited to meet Ayushmann Khurana, as he’s my favorite of the younger generation, and he had such an effervescent energy, as did Ranveer Singh. These are icons, the biggest stars you can possibly imagine – so, it’s hard not to be star-struck. A personal favorite interview of mine was that of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Kapoor. I learned later that it ended up being his last interview, as he was admitted to the hospital the day after. 

Antara: You have made a career in documentary film/series work. I don’t see you doing much narrative work, aside from the occasional directing (Smriti directed a few episodes of “Never Have I Ever” season 3). Why not? 

 Smriti: To me, documentaries feel more active – you have an idea one day, and you’re out the next day shooting it. With a scripted (narrative) series, there is less independence, as you need buy-in from a network before you can begin. At the end of the day, they probably take the same amount of time, but scripted work takes longer on the front end, while docs take longer on the back end. But Meralta is now doing a few scripted projects coming up with Netflix and HBO Max. I have started Directing more and more narratives on television.

Antara: You are always working in such a wide variety of work. What can we expect next from you? 

Smriti: (laughs). We joke that Meralta has projects ranging from Dating to Death Row. Most imminent is Indian Matchmaking Season 3, which will be out soon. We’re working to build our production company – bringing in talented directors to produce both scripted and documentary works. So you’ll be seeing a lot of various works from us in the coming months. 

Antara: Lastly, I remember your father would often talk about certain filmmakers who had the Midas touch. You have become one of those. Everything you have worked on has been so well received by audiences.

Smriti: (nervous laugh) Don’t jinx it! But it really is so gratifying when your work finds its place in the zeitgeist. But we have a saying in the industry, ‘You’re only as good as your next project,’ so I just keep my head down, and keep working away. 

Antara Bhardwaj is a Kathak artist and filmmaker based in Mountain View, California, where she lives with her husband and son. She runs a dance company and school by the name of Antara Asthaayi Dance. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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