25 years ago, DDLJ set a mainstream precedent of love and desire. Has Bollywood unlearned it?
For all its attempts at hinting otherwise, DDLJ ends up serving a conservative outlook toward love more than acting as a departure from it. If you take the sugar-coating off, the film’s happily-ever-after is after all, a compromise.
In the last 25 years, the cult of Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) has transcended being a mere film. It’s been a refuge for an entire generation, the bible of romance for a population of over one billion, an icebreaker between Indian tradition and modernity, the template for Hindi film courtship, the inventor of the language of wanderlust, and more importantly, a film institution in itself.
Today 25 years later, it is also a 21st century cottage industry. Not a year goes by without Hindi filmmakers adapting, subverting, or modifying DDLJ in one form or the other in their own storylines. Multiple careers have been made, cemented, and immortalised because of the film’s mere existence. Its dialogue, plot, and songs have been collectively memorised and repeated to such an extent that it feels like an extension of life itself. Even when the country remains divided over the idea of Bollywood, there’s no film that can unite us like DDLJ. (It’s worth noting that DDLJ’s run at Maratha Mandir where it has played since 1995 was halted because of a global pandemic and not because of a change in the audience’s taste.)
The appeals of DDLJ are manifold, but none of them are as effective as how the film manages to cater to opposing tenets of Indian society: the young and the old; progression and convention; family values and individual happiness. It’s a film steeped in Indian conservatism, a familiar strain in almost every Hindi film in the 90s’ but at the same time, it also discourages the stronghold of tradition. Chopra acknowledges convention (the purity of virginity, parental approval on individual happiness, and the idea of female sacrifice) before slyly breaking them. For one, it takes an oft-repeated, aspirational narrative that Indians are perennially fixated with: a boy and a girl falling in love. Yet, it embellishes that same tale with inventiveness: The entirety of the love story unfolds in a foreign land away from the prying eyes of Indian society, effectively stripping an Indian courtship off any external baggage. In many ways, DDLJ’s enduring popularity can be distilled down to one essential fact: it was one of the first Hindi films that articulated the struggles of being a young and restless Indian in a post-liberalisation world.
Yet for all its attempts at hinting that it is indeed possible for submission and rebellion to co-exist, DDLJ does end up serving a conservative outlook toward love more than acting as a departure from it. If you take the sugar-coating off, the film’s happily-ever-after is after all, a compromise: parental validation is still the last word on matters of love and marriage. Its gaze on desires, both fulfilled and unfulfilled is similarly held back.
For instance, one of the film’s most fascinating departures from the usual romantic narratives in Hindi cinema is in its articulation of unfulfilled desires and priming it as the price of adhering to family values without questioning them. Simran’s mother urging her to elope with Raj instead of spending the rest of her life with someone her father chose for her is her way of confessing her own unhappiness at not being able to realise her dreams. It’s not that Simran’s mother is particularly unhappy in the life that was built for her, it’s just she was never given the opportunity to find out what her own version of happiness might be, an injustice she doesn’t want repeated with her own daughter. Similarly, Raj’s father is particularly indulgent with Raj despite his son’s failings to make up for not being able to live a life of carefree abandon; a life of making mistakes without worrying about consequences, responsibilities, or struggle. The contours of their unfulfilled desires shape the ones that Raj and Simran crave – predominantly, a life on their own terms.
More than anything, it’s this precise thread of autonomy that has inarguably shaped every Hindi romance that has come after it. Ultimately in DDLJ, even though Raj and Simran get to live a life on their own terms, there’s a disparity in how it is attained, in that, the power rests solely with the men in the film to decide, in a way, whether Simran’s desires are actualised. As Raj goes about convincing Baldev Singh of his worth, Simran remains in the background, waiting it out with ambiguity: whether she marries the guy she loves or the guy she will have to learn to love isn’t really upto her. In doing so, Chopra does bow down to the prevailing gender dynamics, where even modernity is imbued with a language of female submission.
In that sense, DDLJ is essentially one of the most celebrated examples of curtailed freedom, where an illusion of freedom is sold as the existence of freedom, a fate continually bestowed on female protagonists in innumerable Hindi love-stories. In movie after movie, women are given the freedom to fall in love with whoever they want to but obstacles are placed in their path in such a way that they are restricted from directly having a say in how their love-stories reaches a conclusion. The indignity of being a woman in love on the big screen is that your desires remain unfulfilled even when they are fulfilled.
Take Yash Chopra’s Dil To Pagal Hai for instance, which released two years after DDLJ. At its core, the premise of the film is about Pooja, a woman having to decide between two men who are in love with her. Except, Pooja isn’t doing much of the decision-making; she instead goes through the entire movie waiting for something to happen that makes the choice clear to her. That answer arrives in the film’s climax where her fiance Ajay is given the responsibility of making her realise her own feelings, which is that she is actually in love with Rahul. Similarly, in Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Anjali’s love-story becomes within reach for her not out of her own accord but triggered by a tragedy. Both these films, evidently inspired by the grammar of DDLJ, went on to become blockbusters, mainstreaming a way of life where it didn’t seem to matter whether a female protagonist had a say in her own life as long as love happened to her.
Even Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001) has an evident DDLJ hangover: Boy falls in love with girl, discovers that her marriage is already fixed by her family, and shows up at her wedding to remind her about her true feelings. Ofcourse, there is a happily-ever-after, but it’s crucial to note that it is once again that it is steered toward this destination solely by the male lead, while the female lead concerns herself with fulfilling familial expectations even when she’s in love with someone else. Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) is another evidence of a film employing the illusion of freedom in the same vein as DDLJ. It’s one of the few Hindi films that acknowledges that it is possible to love two people at the same time – in the film, its lead, Naina is in love with both Aman and Rohit. And yet, who she eventually ends up with is a decision made by the two male leads of the film and not Naina, who is instead tricked into choosing one of them.
That’s not to say that Hindi filmmakers didn’t work toward subverting the template of the waiting woman. Imtiaz Ali’s Socha Na Tha is a welcome departure, a movie where indecision isn’t just the refrain of the female lead but a burden equally shared by both the lovers. Like DDLJ, the film includes a roadtrip, arranged marriages, and Indian families upholding tradition and yet Ali finds a way to expand the boundaries of a love-story that can exist within these themes. It’s especially noteworthy given that Ali’s later outings (Tamasha, Love Aaj Kal) including the seminal Jab We Met are all guilty of romanticising the prototype of the romantic heroine who has the illusion of agency.
Naturally, for an industry so blindly influenced and informed by the legacy of love perpetuated by DDLJ, the idea of a romantic heroine having a semblance of agency is a recent realisation. In Ayan Mukherji’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), a DDLJ for millennials, submission is misconstrued as agency. In the film, Naina is secretly in love with Bunny who is very publicly in love with finding himself. So when the subdued Naina chooses to walk away from Bunny in the film’s first half, Mukherji primes it as a progressive move, where she chooses herself. Except, what the film fails to underline is that she never really had a choice in the first place. In a way, the subdued woman in love, noticed in movies like Kabir Singh and Aashiqui 2, is just another variant of DDLJ’s waiting woman in love: the script may change, but the noticeable lack of agency remains the same.
Anurag Kashyap’s inventive DevD (2009) and Maneesh Sharma’s underrated Band Baaja Baraat (2010) stand out for how they present their female leads. Granted that sex is used as a detour to underline both Paro and Shruti’s romantic autonomy – the former famously brings a mattress to the fields and the latter initiates a passionate drunk kiss. But crucially, these two films also understand the romantic power dynamics that exist between the two genders: Even when Shruti and Paro make decisions in their individual moments of rage, both these films allow for it to be their own decisions.
An image has been seared in my mind since I watched Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo (2020): a young promiscuous woman takes to the terrace of her building to indulge in romantic pursuits. Twenty five years ago, a young woman sat on another terrace all decked up, her head bowed down as she shyly sang about her desires to her lover during her pre-wedding festivities, as if it was their secret language. That it has taken over 25 years for Hindi films to realise that a woman’s desires deserve an uninhibited space of their own without the prying eyes of Indian families is also the legacy of DDLJ.
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Bhediya is presented by Jio Studios and Vijan's Maddock Films.