When Yash Raj Films released the docu-series on the legacy of Yash Chopra, the audience expected it to be just another vanity project. But The Romantics, helmed by Indian-American documentarian Smriti Mundhra (whose notable works include St. Louis Superman and A Suitable Girl), is more than just a vanity project. While most people involved have very little to contribute to the documentary, there’s a clear insight into the workings of an industry, be it financial or creative decisions made.
On the other hand, Vice Studios brings an original documentary – Cinema Marte Dum Tak – focusing on low-budget flicks full of sleaze and raunch that ruled the single-screen cinemas in the 90s. This isn’t the first time Vice Studios has taken up projects with subjects that might create public controversies. The Dark Side of the Ring ran for three seasons before venturing into spin-offs like The Dark Side of Football and The Dark Side of the 90s. With Cinema Marte Dum Tak, the studio makes it clear that they present the documentary with the intention “not to judge, but to understand.”
There is no one better than Vasan Bala (director of Monica, Oh My Darling, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, and more) to be the driving force behind this project. Mr Bala’s movies are more or less odes to the cinema of the past century. It was without a doubt the right choice to bring him on board to envision the story of four directors from the forgotten era of forgotten movies, often referred to as “B-grade movies,” and the plight of these directors, actors, producers, and everyone else involved in the process.
The Romantics features an ensemble and interviews with over 35 celebrities, including people close to the Yash Chopra family or those who have worked at Yash Raj Films. This includes Shahrukh Khan, Kajol, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Abhishek Bachan, Hrithik Roshan, Rishi and Neetu Kapoor (before the former’s death), and much more. But most importantly, it features Aditya Chopra, the man behind some of the most beloved romantic dramas made in the country, like DDLJ and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. This is the only interview with the director-producer in the last ten years. The Romantics is the story of what made Hindi cinema, or Bollywood. The influence of YRF in shaping Hindi cinema should be discussed more often.
The recent success of RRR, specifically its Oscar-winning original song Naatu Naatu, vividly describes how Indian cinema is perceived abroad. As Anurag Kashyap describes in his interview with Bharadwaj Rangan, “RRR is more of a festivity for the Americans.” They don’t watch the entire movie, but portions of it, maybe after a long night’s work or a party at the club. That’s the image of Indian cinema globally.
There was indeed a time when the parallel cinema movement gained widespread acclaim, which is why Satyajit Ray is widely considered one of the masters of the medium, alongside other great filmmakers. But over time, there has been a shift in trends. Yash Chopra’s films celebrated the uniqueness of Indian cinema with grandeur and poetry. There is a sense of affection in Yash Chopra’s romance. That being said, Yash Chopra isn’t a director restricted to romance. It’s just that his depiction of romance has more influence than other genres he worked on. The first episode discusses Yash Chopra’s rise from the shadows of his elder brother and fatherly figure B R Chopra (the man behind Ramayan and Mahabharat serials on National Television) to being a filmmaker who makes what he thinks is right, irrespective of the trends in the industry. The EP follows the influence of Pam Chopra in Yash’s works, most significantly in Kabhie Kabhie.
Cinema Marte‘s focus in its pilot and a few subsequent episodes is rather on the four filmmakers it champions: Kishan Shah, Dilip Gulati, J. Neelam, and Vinod Talwar. Their story is told between their hopes of making another movie after all these years. And surprisingly, their dreams come true. The crew follows the sets of all four directors through different stages of production, from writing to dubbing. Their legacy in the industry is rather dark in contrast to how Bollywood defines itself. It is way darker, from horror being considered merely a genre beyond cheap thrills to distributors forcing the creators to add “bit” portions in films during screenings without the censor board’s approval. They have their definition of bold. In a way, these films are “Desi equivalents” to the slashers of Hollywood in the 1980s. But unlike slashers, these films don’t seem to have the choice to update themselves and create a cult following, as the slashers did. It is the dark side of escapism, while mainstream Hindi cinema of the 20th century can be considered a far brighter side, even after acknowledging all its problems.
The Romantics discuss the varying styles of Adi and Yash Chopra, the making of DDLJ, Uday Chopra’s short-lived acting career paralleling the nepotism debate, and the transition of YRF from a production house to a studio. Cinema Marte Dum Tak enters further into the contrasting opinions of actors, directors, distributors, or anyone involved. Unlike The Romantics, Cinema Marte‘s “lesser known ensemble” is actively involved in the discussions. Some of these actors seem familiar, even if you don’t remember their names.
While The Romantics has a straightforward approach to its legacy celebration, Cinema Marte ends up in a complex spiral of problems. There’s no nepotism talk, but there is indeed the problem of everyone associated with the “lower-grade” cinemas not being recognised or respected.
Both documentaries shed light on similar instances. The entry of Hollywood studios into the Indian market, unaware of what works and what does not, in the pursuit of making the whole process a corporate trade, can be somehow compared with distributors manipulating creators to sell their films irrespective of what the plot had to offer or how relevant or irrelevant it was.
To conclude, both these documentaries end on a high note. one with the happiness that it has successfully explored the legacy of an institution for 50 years and is still standing tall in its glory. The other is the joy that it has given these filmmakers a medium to make the kind of films that once ruled rural India and single-screen cinemas.
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