Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge turns 25: On the act of looking back at tradition, love and rebellion
Aditya Chopra's iconic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge turns 25 at a time when the world is as conflicted as it was when the film originally released — between the past and the future.
Aditya Chopra's iconic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge turns 25 at an interesting time: The world is at a standstill because of the coronavirus pandemic. This includes the iconic movie theatre Maratha Mandir in Mumbai, where the Kajol- and Shah Rukh Khan-starrer was exhibited in a record, almost-uninterrupted streak since its release on 20 October, 1995.
As uncertainty about the future looms large and countries scramble to find a vaccine, people are increasingly looking to the past. Some have waxed nostalgic, while others have considered this as an opportune time for introspection. Others still have rediscovered gratitude. A lot of us, like this writer, got a chance to reconnect with their roots, parents, hometowns. And those who are living by themselves have found a lot of 'me time', to reconfigure their plans and priorities.
DDLJ addressed all these questions when it released in the mid-'90s; at that time, India was in the midst of a structural transformation of another kind. The country opened its gates to the rest of the world as a newly liberalised economy, and choice became the governing principle of its citizens — an element that seeped into their personal lives, too.
DDLJ emerged as the defining film of that India, by offering viewers the best of both worlds — embracing their individual choice, but not at the cost of forfeiting family ties.
Looking back at DDLJ, one realises that though it captured the Indian zeitgeist of the '90s, the central conflict of the film remains one that Indians continue to grapple with. Looking back at your roots is largely a rosy, nostalgic affair, until you begin to consider certain alternate, constructive deviations that could have shaped the individual you became. It is important to look back at the chances you had, and whether you acted upon them when the time was right. It is also about taking another shot at what-could-have-been — the things that went against tradition.
Looking back cannot always be an exercise obsessed with ancestry and heritage. It should also be a tool to build one's legacy. One has to look back while moving forward. It's a lot like the motif of the 'palat' in the film.
In the first half of DDLJ, when Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) insists that Simran (Kajol) stay in Switzerland with him after the two missed the train to London, she looks back when the engine hoots and says, "I don't want to miss the train again." As she walks back to board, Raj says to her in his head, "Palat!" (turn around). After a few steps ahead, Simran looks back as she gets on the train and smiles. Raj grins back, reassuring himself that while this is the end of the first chapter, their journey together is bound to continue.
This act of looking back was as integral a part of their respective lives even before they crossed paths. When Simran is introduced at the start of the film, she is seen lost in the thoughts of her dream, ideal man. Her eyes turn alarmed when she hears her mother read out her thoughts on secret desire, from her diary. The lines are never erotic, but are steeped in romantic fantasy.
When Simran starts dancing to 'Mere Khwabon Mei Jo Aaye' in a white towel, we see her back turned to us as she playfully spreads out her towel (like Raj famously spreads out his hands to embrace Simran later in the film). She instantly wraps herself in the towel while lip-syncing to "Aa ke mujhe chhed jaye." She will neither let in the audience to her desire for this imaginary man, nor to her own body.
On the other hand, while Simran is lost in thought, we see Raj speed by a woman, looking for a lift, on his motorbike — till the next stop, where we see him stop a little ahead and turn around with a mild yet confident smile, holding his round-rimmed sunglasses. He is introduced as the flamboyant man, not likely to turn down any girl's request. But a little later in the film, he turns around again while boarding the train, to see Simran rushing to catch the same train as it departs the station. He holds out his hand, she grabs it, he pulls her inside as the gate closes.
To him, Simran is the archetypal Indian girl-next-door, a rather conventional woman who gives in to the parental pressures of an arranged marriage to an Indian-born, Punjabi-bred man. And to Simran, Raj is merely a rich, spoilt brat whose morality is shaky because he has been raised in London.
For an iconic love story, DDLJ does not subscribe to love at first sight. The girl and the boy turn around several times to have another look at each other before actually falling in love.
Simran does so when she publicly invites Raj to an event to play the piano after overhearing him flirt with her friend Sheena; he boasts about his ability to play the instrument. Simran is confident he is bluffing, to impress Sheena. But when Raj actually displays his prowess at the piano, Simran turns around pleasantly surprised, realising the man has more to him than his constant flirting.
Raj also does a palat when the two visit a church, and he witnesses Simran kneel and pray before the Jesus statuette. Raj learns that she is not a London-bred woman just putting on the Indian-girl act. She holds deep, genuine beliefs. He asks her to carry on, before turning around, kneeling down, and nervously praying to Jesus that Simran's wish be granted.
When Raj and Simran part ways in London after their Europe trip ends, she bids him goodbye and turns to leave, only to look back again and invite him to her impending wedding. "Tum aaoge na?" "Main nahi aaunga," he says, with a smile and moist eyes, before turning around to leave. This unceremonial end leaves Simran confused, asking for more. Like a girl lost at a crowded station, she turns back, looking for the right direction.
As she heads back home, she imagines Raj singing to himself the whole time, "Ho gaya hai tujh ko toh pyar sajna." Once she reaches home and is about to close the door, she sees him again, smiling at her. But once her family calls her back in, she snaps out of the dream, stops waving at nothing, and gently slams the door to these ominous lines, "Na jane mere dil ko kya ho gaya / Abhi toh yahin tha, abhi kho gaya."
After she confesses to her family that she is in love, her father Baldev (Amrish Puri) declares they are relocating to India, where she will get married to the boy of their choice. After crying out in rebellion, she tells her mother (Farida Jalal) that she should give up on her love since it is as imaginary as her idea of Prince Charming, that she does not even know if he loves her as much. Raj does, and when he realises that, he reaches Simran's home, only to learn that they have left for India. Disappointed, he turns around to leave, before he spots a bell that Simran bought during their trip, at the doorstep, as a symbol of her approval. With renewed confidence in his pursuit, Raj leaves for India.
Back in India, Simran keeps hearing a distant yet unrelenting tune ('Tujhe Dekha Toh Ye Jana Sanam'), a possible indicator of Raj's arrival. When she decides to chase the music, and the sound of the hanging bell, she finds herself in the midst of a mustard field, looking around. Until she spots Raj, wearing a black hat, turning around to face her, as though emerging out of thin air. This is eerily similar to how she visualised him, turning around, wearing the same hat, to present himself playing the same tune on the mandolin, back in London.
Simran rushes to embrace Raj as he spreads out his arms. But once she realises this reunion is forbidden fruit, she turns around to leave. Till Raj calls out again, singing, "Tujhe dekha toh ye jana sanam, pyar hota hai deewana sanam." Once the song ends, she asks him to elope with her, but he insists he will marry her only once her family approves of him. This resolution also falls in line with his realisation of Simran's core beliefs back in the church — of never compromising on her roots.
Throughout the rest of the film, Simran tries to convince Raj to elope because her family, particularly her father, will never relent. She even rebukes him for not doing so; of not objecting to her keeping a karva chauth fast for her prospective husband; of not objecting to her getting engaged. But since she takes these rituals far more seriously, she finds a way to circumvent them. On the eve of her wedding, they meet for what they suspect is the final time. They walk away before turning back one more time to embrace each other.
Before we get to the climax scene, it is important to see what is playing out parallelly. DDLJ starts with Baldev, as he is seen feeding pigeons in London, claiming that this exercise reminds him of his native land, where he used to feed pigeons at the farm. He claims that the pigeons, like migratory birds, are the only aspect of London that remind him of India, a land he had long abandoned for the sake of better financial prospects overseas.
Baldev here was a symbol of the NRI sentiment prevalent at the time of the film release. With India opening up, it was a sign for the NRIs to return to their homeland, a place they looked back at and craved for. For them, looking back was an escape into nostalgia, an effort to reconnect with one's roots. Consider the song sequence that opens the film and marks Baldev's return to India: "Ghar aaja pardesi tera des bulaye re", where women farmers dance across fields.
But as Raj and Simran's track demonstrates, DDLJ was as much about the personal ambition of the new generation as about the previous generation's attempt at consolidating and preserving their culture. Both generations had to realise their aspirations were never in conflict to begin with. As Raj explains to Baldev, sitting in a Punjab ka khet, when the latter chooses the pigeons of India over those of London, "Maybe a pigeon belonging to this land would've flown to London. Maybe it's the same pigeon that you feed there. Maybe it's just a matter of your perspective."
This sentiment holds more significance coming from Aditya Chopra, who made his directorial debut with the film. As young minds like him, Karan Johar, and Sooraj Barjatya took over the Hindi film scene in the post-liberalisation period, they did so respectfully by not walking over their respective fathers' legacies. DDLJ was a turning point for YRF for more than one reason as it also bifurcates the 50-year history of YRF, founded by Yash Chopra in 1970.
In the end, once Raj turns his back to a violent conflict with Simran's family and chooses to leave in a train instead, she chases him when the engine hoots (remember her declaration in London about not wanting to miss the train when the engine hooted?). But Baldev grabs hold of her. She pleads with him profusely, till he finally submits. He lets go of her hand, and Simran turns back to him for an explanation, shocked rather than elated. And he utters the famous line, "Jee le apni zindagi."
As verbose as that line may sound, at that time, it implied the approval, or acceptance, of the previous generation that their successors will lead the life they want to. They will not be subjected to the same limitations or lack of choice. As Simran runs and grabs hold of Raj's outstretched hand, and he pulls her into the train, the film comes full circle, to the juncture when they first met in London.
Life in India also came full circle. Both generations looked back, but did not retreat into obsolescence. Baldev looked back at what his parampara stood for, but also let go of archaic notions of patriarchy. Similarly, Simran and Raj looked back at desire, and the chance they got to act on it. But they also let go of the violent streak of rebellion that often comes attached with desire.
Both the generations looked back, but with consideration. They revisited their past only so that it informs and adds value to their future. They turned around, but only so that they could rush into each other's arms spread wide out in sarson ke khet.
All images are screenshots from Amazon Prime Video India.
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