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February 14, 2019

A Legacy Of Love: Why DDLJ Continues To Be A Hit With Millennials

Text by Huzan Tata. Images courtesy: Yash Raj Films Pvt. Ltd

It’s the canonical Bollywood romance that established a new cinematic template for modern, multicultural love when it first hit the screens in 1995. Natashja Rathore demystifies the timeless appeal of Yash Raj Films’ Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in her documentary, Still Rolling — The DDLJ Story (2016)

The sound of a cowbell. The sight of a sarson ka khet — a field of bright yellow mustard flowers. The strumming of a mandolin. The snow-capped mountains and green plains of Switzerland. For many lovers of romantic Bollywood fare, these might conjure up the same image; Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) — one hand outstretched, helping Simran (Kajol) catch the Eurail train she was about to miss. And that was the beginning of a love story that’s been playing daily at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir single-screen cinema hall for a little over 23 consecutive years — about 1215 weeks and counting as of the time of this issue going to press. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, or DDLJ as millions know it, released on October 20th 1995, turning the two lead actors into superstars overnight. A landmark in Indian cinema’s history, DDLJ’s release was also a key cultural moment in the post-liberalisation decade, with the movie’s influence still apparent in the work of directors today. Director Aditya Chopra reshaped the tropes of Bollywood romance and introduced audiences to the ‘NRI (non-resident Indian) film’, which was defined by its new-age patriotism.

I was only five years old when I watched the movie in the theatre with my family that year (1995), and my cousin still remembers that I had wanted to dance to each song or jump into the screen to be serenaded by the hero every time Raj brandished his trademark dimpled smile. My mother, too, probably hasn’t ever forgiven me for making her miss Zara sa jhoom loon main thanks to my having to use the loo right when Asha Bhosle started crooning the fun number. And while I’ve definitely grown up since then and learnt that love and longing aren’t as music-filled and dramatic as the movies make them out to be, I continue to have a soft spot for DDLJ and will watch it any time it’s on TV. Such is also the case for 28-year-old filmmaker, visual communicator and creative strategist Natashja Rathore. She attempted to demystify the inner world of the movie and the secret of its unending run with her documentary Still Rolling — The DDLJ Story, completed three years ago for her graduation project as a student at The London Film School.

What is it about Simran’s and Raj’s story that made youngsters yearn for the same kind of love? Why does the mere mention of the mushy hero still make women go weak in the knees? While certain aspects of the film’s gender dynamics might appear regressive today, its position as a cult classic remains steady not only because of the cinematic turning point it signified in the ’90s, but also thanks to an obsessive fan following that is sustained by the cultural cachet of warm and fuzzy nostalgia. “It painted a really rosy picture of romance that doesn’t really exist, but I guess that’s what films are all about,” believes Rathore. And the sound of a cowbell will continue to take fans back to visions of a sarson ka khet with the refrain of Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam playing in the background.

In a conversation with Verve, Rathore speaks about her documentary and the movie that inspired it.

Changing Impressions
I watched the film for the first time in Singapore, where I lived as a child. I didn’t understand much, but I laughed, sang and danced through it. Over the years, I’ve watched it over 50 times. My understanding of the subtleties and nuances of the relationship between Raj and Simran has also evolved, and I’d say it’s something that has been crafted beautifully — for example, not once in the film do they say “I love you”, but you know and see it, especially in that moment when they’re parting at the train station and she says she’ll invite him to her wedding, but he replies with “Main nahi aaunga”.

Despite all its rosiness, I do think the movie gave us a somewhat realistic picture of the struggles that Indian couples face. At the same time, it also had Raj, whose utopic love for Simran was the kind that almost every girl fantasised about. As I grew up, I realised that the movie was a bit far-fetched, but I don’t have a problem with that. It’s why we watch romantic movies — to escape the otherwise painful trials and tribulations of real life relationships.

The Start Of Still Rolling…
In my lifetime, I had not seen or heard of any movie that’s run in cinemas for so long — in 2014, it had been 19 years. At that time, there was a huge buzz about DDLJ completing 1000 weeks — it was on the news one day, and it occurred to me then that we have had a movie that’s been playing in a theatre for one-fifth of the 100 years of Indian cinema. As a film student, I know this movie has none of the qualities that we look for nowadays in ‘award-winning’ films, but it still had the power to win a billion hearts — which is bigger than any award. For me, that was fascinating. The purpose of cinema is to touch hearts and transform beliefs, and I think it did a lot for lovers who were grappling with parental approval, even as adults.

Shooting Stars
I’d like to think it was Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam that turned Shah Rukh and Kajol into movie stars overnight. It was the ultimate music video of the ’90s — it had a khet, it had a hero and heroine, the couple running in slow motion, and stupendous music. The true legacy of the movie is the music. You may or may not have watched the film, but every Indian has definitely heard a song or two and hummed it at some point.

A Foreign Affair
I definitely think that it was the doses of patriotism and the locations together that appealed to the Indian diaspora. But it wasn’t only that — the film did pay a lot of attention to costumes, props and accessories, too, which added to the authenticity of Indians living abroad. They weren’t caricatured.

Perceptions Of Patriarchy
On the one hand, what some characters were saying was quite progressive — as Karan Johar rightly mentioned, in my film, Simran’s mother Lajjo (Farida Jalal) tells her, “I don’t want you to be who I was”, but at the same time she advises her to run away and not confront the deep-seated patriarchy. There’s a group of girlfriends having a wild time on a trip to Europe, but it took a lot of convincing their parents for that to happen. The movie showcases women working in the kitchen while men are having a good time drinking and playing chess; but we also have an aunt telling Raj and his father Dharamvir (Anupam Kher) to serve the guests at the wedding. I can see why a lot of what is in the film would be a problem today when we speak of equality. But the film’s existence within this duality was probably necessary for that time, when men were still secure in their egotistical, authoritarian shells. Change is a gradual process, and cinema has a huge role to play; I think DDLJ did what it had to do and showcased what would be socially acceptable at that time for it to be a success.

Towards Freedom
The iconic line “Jaa Simran jaa” has always stayed with me. Some hardcore activists would probably see it as a total exhibition of patriarchy in the context of the film — that the father is giving his daughter permission to go live her life. But surprisingly, it worked — it’s almost like a trick on the Indian psyche. The man feels like he’s giving permission, but, in fact, he’s paved the way for equality. It’s a brilliant trick, in my opinion. I think it was pretty progressive for its time. If released today, DDLJ may not have found the success it did in 1995, but I still believe that it’s a feel-good film that would have done well at the box office either way.

Defining An Era

Nasreen Munni Kabir, author, Aditya Chopra Relives…Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (2014)

When it first came out, did you imagine that the immediate reaction to DDLJ among film folk and regular audiences would result in the cult status it has today?
The film was a far cry from the hackneyed and violent action movies of the 1980s — its arrival in 1995 can be seen as the icing on the cake initially baked by QSQT (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, 1988) and Maine Pyar Kiya (1989). But it’s only over time that one can truly measure the impact of a film — time curates classics. DDLJ came as a breath of fresh air in the mid-1990s when India was going through all kinds of social transformations. And the movie was well in sync with this changing India.

You’ve said in Still Rolling… that what worked for DDLJ is that it was a throwback to the melodramas of earlier decades. What else contributed to making it work?
Romance that reverts to tradition when it comes to marriage is a key element. You can be westernised, but your heart will always be Indian and you’ll end up following family traditions. DDLJ is an old story of boy-meets-girl, with the obstacle being the strict father who must be won over, but it tells this story in an entirely youthful way. Not only does the father agree to Simran marrying Raj, but tells her she must live her life according to her wishes. It was a declaration that young people will now decide their own fate, albeit with the blessings of their parents.

While working on your book, was there anything you uncovered that fascinated you?
I was very impressed with Aditya’s clarity of vision. He was only 23 when he made the film, but he knew exactly what he wanted, how to get natural performances from his actors, how to use locations and how to give us a new take on an old theme. Though he worked with Javed Siddiqui for the dialogue, here was a young director who wrote and directed his own screenplay. For some decades, most directors were not writing their own material, while Aditya had a flair for screenplay-writing and how to tell his story cinematically.

What do you think DDLJ will most be remembered for?
With Mansoor Khan and Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra started a school of filmmaking in the 1990s that lasted for almost two decades. It provided entertainment for a far wider audience — particularly for Indians settled abroad. Earlier films, especially the melodramas, were embarrassing to the diaspora, while films like DDLJ that were filmed in Europe looked big-budget, starred younger actors and showed a certain reality — you may live in London or Toronto, but it’s your parents’ wishes that must be respected. In terms of cinematic treatment, you can see the movie’s influence on the work of many later directors. Filmmakers like Karan Johar and Farah Khan, who both worked on DDLJ, learned the ropes of filmmaking on the sets of the movie, besides making close ties with SRK — they further developed his ‘romantic hero’ screen persona. I think of the characters the Khans played in the ’90s as the grandsons of Shammi Kapoor whose films ran on simple storylines — first convince the girl she loves him, then convince her family to accept them as a couple. These movies made sure there was enough banter, good locations, trendy sets and costume design, light-heartedness and excellent musical numbers to keep everyone happy. DDLJ creates a world of romance where good people end up in a good place.

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