Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which opened to huge popular acclaim in 1995, has since become the longest-running film in the history of Indian cinema. Directed by first-time filmmaker Aditya Chopra, DDLJ was one of the earliest contemporary Hindi films to focus on Indian residents abroad. The film is a heady cocktail of European locations, flashy cars, gorgeous mansions and the hearty, rustic traditions of Punjab. It has spawned numerous imitations and epitomises popular Indian cinema today.
But, as (author) Anupama Chopra points out (in her book, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: The Film That Changed The Face Of Bollywood), it's a surprising film in that it upholds old-fashioned values of pre-marital chastity and family authority. Whereas the lovers of a previous generation might have attempted to flee from their interfering families, DDLJ's lovers need the approval of their elders. The film this affirms the idea that westernisation need not affect an essentially Indian identity.
After establishing their parallel lives and the vast oppositions that will obstruct a relationship, (director) Aditya (Chopra) puts Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) on a train together. As Simran scrambles to get on the train, Raj puts out his hand and pulls her in, and we see a close-up of their clasped hands. The shot is repeated again at the end when Raj pulls her up on another train -- this one taking them away from the Punjab village and back to London and a life together. Raj alone can yank Simran out of her straitjacketed life. He literally pulls her into another world. He is the modern-day knight in shining armour who saves the princess from many dragons, including her own father and a dreary, loveless life with her dull fiancé, Kuljeet (Parmeet Sethi).
Unlike many Bollywood lovers, Raj and Simran don't fall in love at first sight. There are no shy, stolen glances or poetic realisations of love. Instead Raj flirts, mocks and teases. He picks up her bra that has fallen out when her suitcase opened and embarrasses her with it. They are stuck in the area between compartments, so he paraphrases a line from a popular romantic song from (Raj Kapoor's film) Bobby, singing, 'Hum tum ek dibbe main band ho [You and I are shut in a box]'.
While Simran finds Raj's flirting irritating, her friend Sheena (Anaita Shroff) is quite willing to flirt back. Later, during the club sequence in Paris, Simran and her friends are getting bored with the tedious opera singing. When the men enter the room, Sheena says, 'Girls, dekho [look], boys.' The women check them out enthusiastically. There is no coyness or apology. When Simran tells Sheena not to call them to their table, Sheena says, 'Come on, Simran, grow up.' The interaction between the men and the women is casual and modern. The fact that they are interested in boys doesn't make them bad girls. It just means that the hormones are kicking in. The banter and flirting is youthful and, for Hindi movies, quite revolutionary.
Sooraj Barjatya's Maine Pyar Kiya (I Have Fallen in Love, 1989) was one of the early films to show a girl and boy progressing from friendship to love. To underline the relationship, the boy, Prem (Salman Khan), even gave the girl Suman (Bhagyashree) a baseball cap with 'FRIEND' written on it. But their interaction is curiously puritanical. Though Prem has been educated in America (his room is papered with posters of Samantha Fox and Michael Jackson), he is, as a buxom seductress says, 'old-fashioned'. So when Prem must apply medicine to Suman's sprained calf, he closes his eyes because her ankles are exposed. He cannot violate her, even with his gaze.
DDLJ has a more relaxed attitude toward sexuality. The laxity applies only to the men -- Hindi movie heroines are nearly always virgins, and DDLJ is not the kind of film in which a transgression of that rule is possible, or even thinkable. But Raj and Simran discuss relationships without awkwardness. Raj tells her that while he's had many affairs, he's never fallen in love. Their interaction feels realistically spontaneous and natural; there is no melodrama. Rai is constantly ribbing Simran. At the end of the song Ruk ja, he abruptly drops her on the floor. He makes her miss the train and even manages to tear her blouse by mistake. Again there is a glimpse of a bra, but the scene is comical, not sensual.
This is of course a strictly sanitized view of the lives of second-generation NRIs. Other films like Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Srinivas Krishna's Masala (1991) have painted more searing portrait of immigrant life. In these films, the characters are homosexuals or heroin addicts, and sometimes indulge in sexual pranks out of plain boredom. In Laundrette, a Pakistani girl flashes her breasts at a party just for a lark. But DDLJ acknowledges none of the angst of being outsiders. Raj, Simran and their friends are improbably wholesome and uncomplicated. The outside universe doesn't impinge on them. Sex, drug and alcohol haven't touched their lives. The worst thing Raj can do is spray water at Simran with a trick flower.
In this carefully constructed, sunlit world, love is destined. Early in the film, Simran and Raj pass each other on a street. Both are talking to their own friends about the upcoming Eurail trip. When they pass, the film shifts to slow motion, freezing the moment. Aditya skilfully teases the viewers, who know that in the coming scenes these strangers will fall in love. Later, when Raj is talking to Simran about his dream lover, his words echo her poetry.
He too speaks of an unseen stranger who calls him from behind the clouds. Despite their differences, Raj and Simran speak the same language. They also, as it turns out, share the same values.
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This text was first published within the book DDLJ (BFI Modern Classics) published by BFI Publishing, London, 2002. It is available in North and South America and Asia (except India) from the University of California Press.
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