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Something that confounded me about Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge when I first watched it—Savitri Cinema, Delhi, 1995, at the serendipitously ideal viewing age of 14—was how Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj knew all about the man Kajol’s Simran had always dreamt of.

This movie where a boy flirted by shoving his head on to a harrumphing girl’s lap (while she tries to read a book upside down) may not have been aiming to make much sense, certainly, but the fact that Raj—after spending the night undressing drunk Simran and changing her clothes, an idea that in those naive Bollywood days smelt of scandal—was quoting specific stuff she had sung about earlier in the film, using uncommon (and decidedly unRaj-like) turns of phrase like “andekha anjaana sa", always seemed a bit off. “Here comes the plot-twist," teen-me thought. This is where we find out Raj is a crazy stalker gunning for revenge against the patriotic, pigeon-feeding shopkeeper.

An odd instinct, I agree—and we’re all fortunate film-maker Aditya Chopra made different storytelling choices—but that was what we expected from Khan. He had played a vengeful killer in Baazigar, a stalker in Darr, a maniac in Anjaam. Even in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, where he essentially played Archie Andrews, Khan was manipulative and dishonest. The idea of him as a straight-up lover seemed, in context, extreme. Kajol, meanwhile, came to the film after a slew of romances and remakes, most notably Yeh Dillagi, an overblown take on Sabrina in which she stood head and shoulders above leading men Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan.

In a recent video made to celebrate 20 years of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge—and to plug the forthcoming Kajol-Shah Rukh Khan starrer Dilwale, a December release directed by box-office conqueror Rohit Shetty that sees the duo reunited after five years—the actors sit on a bench and cutely bicker about the movie that made Khan who he is. Khan kids around and points to his other hits but Kajol, in an accusatory you-forgot-our-anniversary tone, pouts till he gets the answer right. It’s a pleasant enough snippet, but the irony here is that DDLJ is not Khan’s legacy—even though it may well be the glitziest yacht in his marina—but it is, without a doubt, the one film that Kajol will always be remembered by. It’s more her anniversary than his.

A still from ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’
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A still from ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’

That wasn’t how the world was angled back in 1995. He was a plain-looking but insanely magnetic performer, an incandescent actor taking on directors like Ketan Mehta and Mani Kaul, and, even when he did embrace the mainstream, he did so with bizarre, psychotic roles. He came from nowhere, a self-made star propelled by ego and charisma, and was significantly rough around the edges. In another life, he would have been a character actor. She came from fine film stock and owned every film she was in, stealing scenes from helpless leading men with her fiery-eyed pluckiness and her un-girlish, no-nonsense bravura. In another life, she would have ruled the roost for many a decade instead of half a dozen years.

In this life, however, we had Kajol and Khan, the lady and the tramp, just two hounds out on the town, sharing a plate of spaghetti and making it look tastier than it was to audiences everywhere. Their chemistry, akin to that of a firecracker, is explosive and deafening and wonderfully messy and always, always born out of friction—and unpredictability.

The first time I remember being struck by them was a Karan Arjun song—Jaati Hoon Main—where Kajol, clad in a bewildering blue outfit, yanks Khan’s head on to her heaving bosom to show him how hard her heart beats. It is a preposterous moment not because Khan suddenly manages to round second base (another Hindi film rarity) but because, despite its obvious intimacy, the moment is ridiculously, hilariously free of sexual frisson. It’s just two kids monkeying around without worrying about how goofy they look. That, in many ways, is key to their on-screen dynamic: the way they always play for the moment and not for themselves; each already aware the other’s going to make them look good.

One of the most crucial romantic weapons in Khan’s arsenal is the way he bubbles up to a boil during an argument before he explodes. The girl will complain and complain and complain and Khan, usually looking down, will try to interject a couple of times but let the girl steamroll him with her rant before, finally, after those first few false-starts, erupting with a stern shout, eyes ablaze—followed by a brief, tersely delivered lecture correcting her of many a misapprehension while telling the audience everything they need to know about his character. It’s a Khan staple, almost as much as the iconic arms-wide-open pose, the kind of thing that makes so many members of the audience fall in love with the man.

Nobody plays off that moment better than Kajol. Nobody is as searingly indignant as when she lets fly, shrill and shouty and so damned self-righteous, and nobody—absolutely nobody—changes gears as effectively as when she goes from warpath to whimper. Within an instant (wherein the two appear to have melded minds via his furious glance), she is suddenly overwhelmed with empathy, her eyes dripping with apologetic understanding. Before Khan even rallies about his motives and his intent and his complete upright-Indian-leading-man innocence, she already knows. Because Kajol gets him.

A still from ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’
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A still from ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’

They haven’t worked nearly enough together, but they’ve been madly memorable, making it appear like they’ve done it all. Lip-synced to Anu Malik songs about black-black eyes, made love in stables, been basketball-playing BFFs, ticked off big daddy Amitabh Bachchan. She’s cut his hair, he’s helped her on to a train or two. They have each other’s back, and they let us see it.

It’s all in those eyes. Kohl suits the king.

Raja Sen is a film critic, columnist and screenwriter. His directorial debut X, an experimental film by 11 directors, will be in theatres on 20 November.

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