By Parul Bhandari
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), one of Indian cinema’s most iconic movies, has been running uninterrupted at Maratha Mandir in Mumbai for nearly 20 years now. DDLJ’s blockbuster status and cross-generational appeal is as puzzling as it is exciting. The movie’s resonance with the 1990s generation is astounding. The main reason for its success and continued popularity is that it captures the essence of a post-liberalisation generation: economic liberalism within the framework of social conformism. Young India, perhaps, identifies with the juxtaposition of these two narratives of an Indian identity.
Sociologist Patricia Uberoi, in a seminal essay, “The Diaspora Comes Home: Disciplining Desire in DDLJ” (2006), discussed the inherent conservatism of DDLJ noting that this movie “endorse[s] glamorous lifestyles, and effortless and guiltless consumption”. The first half of the movie is set in London and continental Europe, transporting viewers to a global world away from India, but one that can be within easy reach of Indians. Promoting an aspirational upward mobility, the love story is set in the space of leisure (as opposed to the space of education, such as a university, previously the backdrop of Indian romance). The protagonists meet while travelling across Europe with friends. After providing a sensory consumption of the foreign land to Indian viewers and depicting a relatable cultural milieu to the NRIs, the movie underscores that obeying family values is the primary mode to reify an Indian identity. DDLJ’s narrative is strongly situated in the framework of marital conformism, which continues to be relevant.
One of the movie’s pivotal scenes is when Simran (played by Kajol) urges Raj (played by Shah Rukh Khan) to elope with her. Raj explains to Simran that though born in London, he is a true Indian, and therefore will not bring “shame” to her family by eloping with her; instead, he will convince her family of their alliance. The second half of the movie then showcases the many ways in which Raj attempts to win over Simran’s family. During the climax, Raj boards a train to leave, while Simran begs her father, Baldev Singh (played by Amrish Puri), to let her go with Raj. Baldev Singh lets loose his grip on Simran’s wrist and permits her to be with him. Baldev Singh is moved by Raj’s willingness to sacrifice love for the honour of their family, and is finally convinced that he is an appropriate match. These scenes, and many others in the movie, reiterate the importance of familial consent to a marital union and reinforce the centrality of “honour” in marriage alliances — a norm that continues to be central to marriage practices of many Indians.
In another iconic scene, Simran’s mother explains to her the ideal roles and expectations of a woman. Drawing from her own life, she explains that it is always the woman who needs to make sacrifices to carry on the honour and tradition (“parampara”) of the family. She recognises the patriarchal nature of society to be unjust but urges Simran to follow its norms by forgetting Raj and marrying the man chosen by her father
DDLJ also portrayed strong conservatism regarding premarital intimacy. This, however, seems to be rejected, at least rhetorically, by contemporary youth, as is evident in their political and social activism and the popularity of Bollywood movies that boldly depict premarital sex and intimacy. However, the challenge to the narrative of DDLJ seems to halt here, for with marriage, historically socialised norms take precedence with little negotiation and much less rebellion. This template of marriage was conspicuous in my research, which revealed that middle-class elites had clear preferences for intra-caste or intra-regional community marriages, principles of isogamy (marriage between equal caste or class status) and hypergamy (girl marrying “up” in caste and class), and an aversion to the idea of elopement.
DDLJ presented us with an appropriate prism to understand and define Indian society in the 1990s. It bridged the gap between the diaspora and resident Indians by making the family a primary locus of an Indian identity while encouraging an aspirational world in
the realm of economic mobility. The teenagers who watched DDLJ in the 1990s have grown up to follow this template well.
The writer is postdoctoral fellow at the Centre of Social Sciences and Humanities, New Delhi