This week marks the 25th anniversary of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or DDLJ — the longest-running movie in the history of Indian cinema, so of course, its cult dialogues and songs were shared all over our social media. But so were articles on how, in 2020 (hindsight, if you will), the movie hasn’t aged well, and is in fact cringeworthy, outdated and unwatchable.
Such articles have been written multiple times over the years, and honestly, it’s a little tiresome. Of course, the movie has its flaws. But even a flawed movie can be enjoyed, and DDLJ, for all its flaws, is still deeply enjoyable. It was a product of its time, and busted many stereotypes about the ‘Westernised’ NRI and the ‘obedient Indian wife’, that were prevalent in 1995. Most criticism of the film fails to acknowledge the many things it got right. And honestly, that tune lives in your mind rent-free.
So, dear woke Indians, please stop ruining DDLJ with your 2020 vision.
Criticism of the movie typically focuses on a few scenes. First, the one in which protagonists Raj Malhotra (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran Singh (Kajol) meet for the first time on a train in Europe. He persistently flirts with her, even though she makes it clear she isn’t interested. He then goes on to embarrass her by making a production of returning her bra that he had accidentally sat on after her suitcase had burst open, and gets too close for comfort.
The second contentious scene is the one in which Raj pretends he and Simran slept together after she got completely drunk one night, and she, horrified at the thought that she lost her virginity this way, starts to cry. He then tells her it was all a prank and that he merely put her to bed and nothing more happened, because he is a Hindustani boy, and knows the value of a Hindustani girl’s izzat and would never even dream of sleeping with her without her consent.
Both scenes are obviously unacceptable now (frankly, even my preteen self in 1995 was confused as to why an Indian girl’s izzat is located in her vagina and whether Raj implied that non-Indian girls have no izzat). His cruel prank was then followed by gaslighting her for having thought of him as a “ghatiya kism ka awara ladka (a crude, good-for-nothing loafer)”.
But naysayers do not recognise that while these scenes certainly do make one cringe, they are meant to paint flawed, but human characters. Raj is never meant to be perfect — he is a rake, a Casanova, and openly so. The two don’t fall in love immediately either, they grow to know one another, see each other’s quirks, flaws, often apologise for them.
Critics have also pointed out that the film bows down to patriarchy — centred as it is on waiting for Simran’s Bauji to give her hand in marriage to Raj, and Simran lacking the agency to do anything without being led or permitted by a man.
It’s worth remembering that this movie was made in the 1990s, so accusations about tone-deafness must be contextualised in that time period. This is not to say that other movies, even before it, did not address feminist issues in a much more direct and, I dare say, strong, manner. But DDLJ was a different beast. It was meant, above all, to be an entertainer, a purely commercial, mainstream Bollywood romance. And yet, within those limitations and tropes, director Aditya Chopra tweaked, moulded, bent, and busted stereotypes in his own way.
What does it mean to be an Indian?
The film was made at a time when Indian cinema was trying to return from the blood and gore of the 1980s to family-friendly dramas and romances. DDLJ, while adhering to many of these tropes, also showed that outright rebellion and alienating one’s family wasn’t the only way to make a point. One could do it smartly, nicely, in the ‘Indian’ way.
India was waking up to globalisation at the time, and grappling with a host of questions, at the forefront of which was: What does it mean to be an Indian?
With the opening up of markets and attitudes came the fear of forgetting one’s roots. Amrish Puri’s Bauji was meant equally to address that fear as well as the guilt of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) for having left their homeland in search of better lives. DDLJ is probably one of the earliest Hindi films, if not the first, to not demonise the NRI as ‘Westernised’, and therefore, a lesser Indian. In fact, the most ‘villainous’ character was the born-and-raised Punjabi gabru jawan Kuljeet (Parmeet Sethi), Simran’s fiancé who was shown as a lecherous boor.
Using the leitmotif of pigeons, the film makes an important point about not judging others by their appearance or by where they live. Bauji, who feeds pigeons every day in London, feels they don’t know him, even after 22 years, whereas with the pigeons in Punjab, he feels like he belongs. And Raj, trying to win him over, says that perhaps a pigeon flew from one place to the other and Bauji is unable to recognise it.
Also read: How much acting can Shah Rukh Khan do? Zero
Parents can surprise you
Bauji is an interesting guy, because despite his gruff exterior and strict rules, he is a loving, affectionate father and husband. He has spent 22 years making a life for himself and worrying that his daughters will be ‘corrupted’ by London, but he is not immune to their desires. When Simran wants to go on a month-long Eurail trip with her girlfriends, she and her mother are convinced he will say no. But one can tell from his face he was never going to say no – when he says “Europe?”, it is less out of disapproval and more out of interest, because it is something he has never had the chance to do.
Anupam Kher, as Raj’s father Dharamvir Malhotra, is the other kind of parent – a jovial, liberal high-school dropout, who failed his matriculation and went on to become a self-made millionaire. He pours Raj a glass of champagne when the latter has failed his college exams, and tells him formal education is useless and one must go see the world, live a little. Pretty revolutionary, especially for 25 years ago.
And upon rewatching the film, in fact, I found the appalling morning-after scene interesting, because it is followed by Raj and Simran going to pray in a church. So evidently, while one idea of Indianness (the woman’s izzat) is deeply problematic, the film tries also to make the point that Indianness is pluralistic. After this, in one of the many frank conversations Raj and Simran have (a refreshing change from coy glances and dialogue baazi about them being each other’s sun and moon), the film addresses Simran’s own discomfort with the fact that she is to marry a man she has never met.
Feminism comes in different shades
The film does make many concessions to patriarchy, but it also carves a space for women to have their own voice. Simran and her mother Lajjo (Farida Jalal), share a wonderfully close equation and talk openly about their dreams. One of the film’s most outstanding scenes is the one in which Lajjo begs Simran to forget about Raj. She talks about how her own father always used to pay lip service to gender equality, but didn’t practice it when it came to her, and how she promised herself, when Simran was born, that her baby would never have to sacrifice her happiness the way she’d had to. But she forgot that women don’t even have the right to make promises.
It is an incredibly powerful scene, for here, smack in the middle of a mainstream commercial Bollywood film with all its limitations, is a statement on women’s rights and agency.
Once he lands up in Punjab, Raj also spends a lot of time cultivating his relationships with the women of the house, in their domestic spaces. He peels carrots, serves lassi, clears plates and helps them choose saris — not something one saw in many leading men of the time. Of course, he’s doing it to win over her family, but that doesn’t take away from the novelty.
So yes, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge has its flaws, but it was an undeniable game-changer, and for good reason. And really, SRK saying the word ‘Palat’ should be enough to win anyone over.
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