An unworthy commemoration of a regressive flick called DDLJ4 min read . Updated: 01 Nov 2020, 09:30 PM IST
This blockbuster’s cringeworthy portrayal of women in the name of tradition deserves no honour
A few days ago, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ)—released on 20 October 1995—completed 25 years in global Indian cultural life. The Heart of London Business Alliance has announced a bronze statue of the film’s stars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol to be unveiled in London’s Leicester Square in 2021. This will be part of the film exhibit series, “Scenes in the Square", which features iconic film characters like Laurel and Hardy, Harry Potter and Mary Poppins.
One cannot deny that the impact of DDLJ has been massive. It is one of the most successful Hindi films ever made. More importantly, it opened up a huge non-resident Indian (NRI) market for Hindi films, with its mix of, as one critic wrote, “traditional Indian sentiments and modern sensibilities". It directly spawned what is now known as the “Karan Johar school of film-making". Johar himself was one of the film’s assistant directors and played a small role as a buddy of Khan’s character.
Yet, I find it sad that Hindi—and Indian—cinema will be represented by DDLJ at the heart of London, through which millions of tourists to the city pass every year. When I watched the film in 1995, I cringed at its regressive, chauvinistic and patriarchal values (“traditional Indian sentiments"). Last week, I watched it again, and cringed once more.
Raj and Simran, born and brought up in London, meet on an Eurail tour of the continent and fall in love. But Simran’s father has already fixed her marriage to the son of an old friend in his native Punjab, and Raj will not marry her unless her father willingly gives her daughter’s hand to him.
The philosophy and subtext of the film is amazingly regressive. Raj woos Simran by systematically humiliating her, often publicly. He presents her with a joke flower, which squirts water into her face. He drops her on the floor after a dance he has physically forced her to have with him in a crowded ballroom and walks away. Stranded in Switzerland, they get drunk, and when Simran wakes up in the morning, she can’t remember what happened the night before. Raj gives the impression that they had had sex by revealing his chest covered with lipstick kiss marks, and when Simran is aghast, he explains it’s a joke and then turns self-righteous: “I am an Indian man and I know what honour means to an Indian woman." There is no allusion to the fact that he appeared to have pressed an unconscious Simran’s lips on his chest.
When she is boarding a train as he waits on the platform, he keeps muttering “Turn! Turn! Turn!"—if she turns to look at him as she gets on the train, it would be proof that she loves him. Of course, she does that. Yet, later, Simran tells her mother that when they returned from their holiday and parted at a London station, “I wanted him to look back at me, I craved for that, but he just walked away. I realized then that I was in love." The concept of the unequal and submissive woman is taken to new heights.
Simran comes to Punjab to get married as per her father’s wishes, and Raj follows, to cozy up to her father and get his approval. As the big fat Punjabi wedding nears, she repeatedly begs him to take her away, but he turns profound: “We run away from strangers, not our own. We have no right to make our parents unhappy for our own happiness." In fact, when her father comes to know the truth about them, he tells him: “I give back what is yours. You, better than anyone else, know what’s good for Simran." The girl has no agency at all, and Raj is not about to give her any. Just compare this to the portrayal of women in 1958’s Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (https://bit.ly/34G2bl2). Of course there is a happy ending, and the film ends with the line “Come… Fall in love", but if this is how men are ideally supposed to love, maybe Indian women are better off as spinsters.
DDLJ took one of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated tropes—rebellious lovers—and neutered it. When Raj decides to leave without a fight for his love, it was the ultimate—and heroic—surrender to sanskar (tradition), as director Aditya Chopra may deludedly have imagined it. My US-based friend and film buff Raza Mir puts it perfectly: “A new generation of lovers and youngsters was created, who do not question the intra-family status quo, and for whom the approbation of adults is an altar upon which passion must be sacrificed." The rest is history. Karan Johar and a few others had found their pious and anti-modern formula.
The Indian diaspora lapped it up. If an immigrant’s dream can be described as an “eternally postponed return", this brand of cinema has cynically fed that dream. Many domestic audiences were very happy too—the men had guiltlessly got a good dose of mini-skirted NRI female characters, the women had had their bucketful of tears, and the family went home singing “Jai Jagadisha hare". Few bothered that what was being portrayed as ideal Indian culture was medieval, chauvinistic and wrong.
If anything, DDLJ and its many offspring, which show Indian society as plain weird by any modern (or ancient Indic) standards, has harmed India’s image and damaged Indian minds. It is sad that this is now being institutionalized at Leicester Square.