On this day in 1995, actors Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan swept Bollywood movie lovers off their feet with their stirring romance ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ (‘DDLJ’).
Twenty five years ago, their characters, Raj and Simran, played modern lovers who dressed Western, but were proudly Indian and conservative at heart. How else would you explain a Britain-bred Indian dreamboat Raj flying down to a village in Punjab to convince his girlfriend’s strict, conservative father that he’s a suitable boy for his already-engaged daughter? He was the kind of hero who, after being slapped by his girlfriend’s father for daring to love his precious daughter, launches into a teary monologue about ‘respecting your elders and parents’ wishes’ in the movie’s climax. I am not making this up.
Currently, we live in a time where dating apps match you to profiles that can be filtered according to how close they live to you. Proximity to your potential Mr/Ms Right Now can often lure you to swipe right. Translation? The disenchanted lot looking for love on their devices can’t even be bothered to embark on an intercity commute in their quest for a soulmate.
So, the big question remains. Would a romance like ‘DDLJ’ be acceptable today? Does the impish central hero Raj — who wins over his girlfriend’s entire household with oodles of wit and charm — seem like a dinosaur in today’s times of instant gratification and proud millennials who are convinced of their own collective greatness? Let’s be honest, even swiping right to find the right partner feels cumbersome.
Directed by the consummate filmmaker Aditya Chopra, the canonised ‘DDLJ’, which won 10 Filmfare Awards and cemented Khan’s label as ‘the king of Bollywood romance’ — attempted to straddle modern lovers and their conservative, borderline-arrogant parents who thought they knew what’s best for their kids.
When you revisit this classic today, you are faintly disappointed by its supporting characters. Amrish Puri’s immigrant character — who earned his livelihood in Britain as a store owner but rejects Western culture and clings to his Indian roots — comes across as deeply exploitative. While the film tries to capture the disorientation or isolation felt by a first-generation immigrant struggling to make peace with the culture they inherited vs the foreign culture that is thrust upon them, the movie is painfully dismissive of Western culture. At the slightest nudge, Puri’s supercilious character goes off on a tirade about how Indian culture and traditions are morally superior than any other.
Agreeing to marry off his young daughter to his best friend’s son in India — without even checking out the groom — seems like irresponsible parenting. The scene in which Kajol’s character Simran reads out a letter from her father’s friend about how the two best mates had sworn to marry off their kids to each other like they are a pair of cows seems problematic on so many levels. Did romanticising child marriage and arranged marriages seem OK back then?
The film — although in brilliant in parts and dubbed as soul food for romantics out there — also seems to be obsessed about the idea that there’s only one soulmate for each person in this world. History has taught us that ‘happily never after’ is equally real as ‘happily ever after’ endings in a relationship.
Representation of women
While the women in this film are collectively cute and lovable, they seem to have very little agency. In front of her authoritarian, undemocratic father, a Westernised, educated Simran seems to be putty in his hands. She is rebellious in spurts, but barely puts up a good fight when instructed by her father to marry a stranger.
Her tepid resolve and lack of control over her own life is scary and disturbing to see today. Her dialogues where she quietly resigns herself to her fate seem tinny and shrill today. As a mother of twin boys and a young daughter, I can safely say that the ‘parents know best’ mantra rarely works with kids these days. Trust me, even getting them to eat their daily dose of veggies is tough, so forget dictating whom they should partner with for their play dates or adult life.
Another problematic bend in ‘DDLJ’ is when Simran panics thinking that she had a tumble in the hay with Raj while inebriated. Here, Raj comforts her saying that he’s Indian at heart and that he would never take advantage of her
‘I know what you think of me. You think I’m a wastrel. But I am not scum, Simran. I am a Hindustani and I know what honour means for the Hindustani [Indian] woman. Not even in my dreams can I imagine doing that to you,” said Khan, looking deep into Kajol’s eyes.
Back in 1995, that popular scene felt romantic with Raj coming off as impossibly chivalrous and patriotic, but in today’s climate where consent and intent is king, his actions and words seem a tad creepy and even racist.
While it isn’t wholly fair to scrutinise a dazzling romance that charmed us more than two decades ago, there’s no denying that the sheen has somehow worn off this iconic romance. Does the movie now sweep you off your feet, or is it on a slippery slope? You’ll have to decide for yourself.