Readers Write In #419: In Defense of DDLJ

Posted on November 1, 2021

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(by Aman Basha)

A thought experiment in text, to find out who the bigger hack is; Adi Chopra for making this dishonest film? Or this author, for crafting a disingenuous defense?

“I am the peddler of dreams”

The Self-introduced Shah Rukh Khan, to an audience abroad. 

He was lucky that it was 2017, for if he were to utter the same words anytime today, His Honor Goswami would have cried “Mujhe drugs do” in front of Mannat all day.

There have been many outsiders who have made it to the top, yet none have been able to peddle themselves as a dream to their audiences as successfully as SRK has. Perhaps it was because he came to the right place and the right space with the skills to achieve. For the audience watching him from Fauji, he represented the trajectory of success that they wished to see themselves on, he was the mascot of their hopes and aspirations after liberalization. Through characters like Raju and Rahul, he reflected the middle class’ zeal for success laced with a tinge of fear and worry that they’d sold themselves and their traditions to the big, bad West.

***

Perhaps, I’m on a tangent. No, I am only skirting around the elephant in the room. For a boy who found himself in Toronto from Ponnur, this little love story of a hammy Raj and a stoic Simran was a sanctuary. Thinking from the lens of patriarchy, misogyny and political correctness made me creep in fear about the demolition of a beloved childhood memory. Yet to talk about the peddler of dreams and not the biggest, grandest dream he sold would be a disservice.

To begin with, DDLJ comprises all the negative elements it is accused of; patriarchy, misogyny, immorality, hypocrisy, all of which are crucial parts of its package, yet it still stands as a powerful and memorable classic. This is, not despite having such elements, but because it has all of these elements as crucial plot points.

Raj and Simran, like all Indians,are both heavily influenced and are what they are because of their households, both seemingly of first generation Punjaban immigrants settled abroad. Yet they couldn’t have been far more dissimilar in temperament and behavior. Simran the stoic, reserved girl who seems to crawl like a caterpillar without a spine. While on the other hand,, Raj, an obnoxious, entitled bum going about like a kite without a tether. Yet they are similar, owing to their parents. Raj’s father wishes that his son enjoy the wild youth that he always wished he had, but could not due to certain responsibilities and obligations entitled by a patriarchal society that deems men to be the breadwinner. Simran’s mother wishes for her daughter to live life as freely as she wished to, on her own terms and unlike her own life, again dictated by a patriarchal society that deems women to be subservient servants to the whims of men.

There is no better representation of the patriarchal system and its consequences than through Baldev Singh. He, who prides himself on never compromising on his rulebook, takes pride in retaining what he thinks is his “Indianness” even in the heart of London. A person, who values the means in itself rather than even think about the consequences in the end. The terrifying effect that Amrish Puri lends with his glare-of-God’s-eyes genuinely makes one afraid of what it would result in. 

Like most people, he still loves his family and dotes on his elder daughter. It is only his sheer longing for his homeland that makes him obsessed with culture, tradition and honor to the highest degree. Bauji is someone who feeds pigeons in Trafalgar Square but only to relive the experience of being in the khets of Punjab again. He is as much in a limbo as Umber Singh in Qissa.

Like Umber Singh, Baldev’s obsessions have a great effect on his daughter’s personality; she cannot do a thing without his consent or permission, truly a caterpillar without a spine.

There exists a cocoon within Simran which begins to grow as soon as she’s away from Bauji’s oppressive glare, aboard a train to Europe. Immediately, the girl who’d scribbled poems of longing for the man of her dreams only for her to see, comes face to face with an obnoxious, entitled, idiot of a brat named Raj. An absolute man child possibly fostered with his father’s passive encouragement, possessing a juvenile humor, repeating the same lame cheesy lines to every woman he lays his eyes on. It’s a sight common to many women, to be saddled with such men, finally relieved while complaining about the sheer horror to their friends, while the brat would further go on cockily describing to his friends how this girl simply wouldn’t let him go.

What follows after they miss the train is a classic battle of the opposites, between Raj and Simran. Raj himself oscillates wildly between the superficial guy Simran finds him to be and something more that Simran is surprised to see. The man and the child are constantly in conflict to Simran’s confusion and comedic effect. Why these moments are so memorable is because of how cleverly they repeat, the entire conversation in the car with that famous line about small events in large countries comes with a bit of subversion in the barn. There is of course the very first time they meet and the famed climax scene.

The worst comes up when he, for a joke, makes her believe she slept with him. When he sees how stupid his joke really is, his speech to Simran is him affirming his identity as an Indian, affirming his understanding of the social strictures binding her and that cause her to burst into tears over the thought of pre marital sex. 

The moment that is more important than the dialogue Raj gives to Simran is when they have an instinctive hug; perhaps both experience genuine intimacy for the first time. Simran moves away as she feels she overstepped her boundaries as does Raj, yet still unable to perceive or perhaps unwilling to accept that this is different, more genuine than his usual silly affairs with senoritas, this was Simran and this could be love.

From then on, Raj is actively seen in conflict, from the peevish imp who’d play around in a church to a loving man who’d pray for his beloved in front of Christ. He confesses to Simran about how he loves her, yet can’t help but revert to his usual duplicitous self, because he is afraid of this pyar-vaar. The conflict is too much for him to handle, and like some of us in times of stress, he resorts to chance and fate hoping that he’d make his lady love palat.

Simran’s point of view then simply narrowed down to explore Europe for a month and then spend the rest of her life, a caterpillar enslaved to her Bauji’s choice and wish. She is not prepared to perceive how at odds she is with what she feels and tries her best to walk away from the possibility that Raj presents to her. Yet after bidding adieu, she is in turmoil, as is Raj.

Simran’s declaration of love shakes up Baldev, who is simply unable to process that he seems to have failed in his objectives, that the honor he holds dear is dear to none but him. Simran’s love challenges his authority trying to hold it as the ill effect from the foreign land from where she had been, rather than her feelings within. He decides to pack her off to India against her wish.

***

Ironically, it is in his home turf that Baldev faces the biggest challenge against his beliefs as Simran suddenly runs into a sarson ka khet, coming in front of a cow wearing a bell, hearing the strumming of a mandolin as she runs into Raj’s arms spread wide. The refrain “Tujhe Dekha Toh yeh Jaana Sanam” playing in the background. Indeed it is after they reunie, they turn into their better selves and take us back through the sites of the obnoxious Europe trip, the eve teasing, the disgusting joke. Yet they are now so clearly in love, wiping out the entire bad aftertaste from the earlier times. Aamir fans constantly complain of how he was robbed of the awards. True patriots know we were denied an even greater international honor, as Shah Rukh and Kajol truly deserved the Nobel Prize in Chemistry that year.

More than anything else, it was what Shah Rukh and Kajol did to change the definition and myth of a hero and heroine simply by their presence which is unconventional yet uniquely charismatic, which added to the greater halo anointed on them.

It is at this point that DDLJ makes the most significant departure from the time’s convention, of eloping away, to live life on one’s own terms without heed to the strictures of society and patriarchy. Despite Simran pleading with Raj to take her away, he disagrees.  What one might see as bowing down to tradition is also passive confrontation with the deep seated state of patriarchy. India is a country where truly “marriages are not only between two individuals, but two families” (it is another debate whether it is good or bad). Simran eloping would have only confirmed Baldev’s worst fears, fed into his insecurities. From the flawed man he was, that single event could have turned him into an utter monster. It’s scary to even imagine how that would bode for Lajjo or Chutki.

The greatest irony is how Baldev, with his dislike for the West, is confronted by the same weapon that Gandhi used against the British, passive resistance. They never confront Bauji, but silently suffer his tyranny, showing the other cheek to his slap willingly. It isn’t just confronting his actions, but questioning the very moral correctness and intention of his decisions and thoughts. Even Raj’s justification to Simran’s mother comes off like a Gandhian sermon, about the right and wrong paths. It may be an unnecessary process for both India and Simran, but such was the charm of the Mahatma and such is the charm of Shah Rukh Khan.

For such a revolt against patriarchy, it seems natural that Raj would find greater companionship among the women of the household. It is pertinent to note that no other male character in the film or in earlier films, was found so constantly in domains of work and space traditionally associated with women. It was perhaps from here that the boundaries of on screen masculinity would change, a theme constant in all the characters SRK would go on to play. Ali had a predecessor in Aditya Chopra whose hero grew in the presence of the heroine, not anymore the obnoxious man child with stupid lines, Raj is now a much more charming, affable, assured presence, every woman’s dream man and every mother’s ideal son that many remember him to be.

The Indian wedding is something that Hum Aapke Hain Koun had earlier portrayed, in fact to such an extent, that it was dismissed as a wedding video in some quarters. The same occurs in DDLJ too, but with a crucial difference. Where HAHK celebrates tradition, DDLJ subverts it. Raj in the Mogambo household is only a candy floss version of Ingrid Bergman with the Nazis in Notorious, there is an undeniable thrill to the portions where all the traditional ceremonies like Karwa Chauth take place, but you expect Raj and Simran to be together every step of the way, most rousingly in Mehendi Laga Ke Rakhna, where in Simran’s wedding sangeet, Simran sings to Raj and Raj sings to Simran with everyone around. It does a Maine Pyar Kiya in a QSQT setting in some ways.

Even “Mehendi Lagake” has Raj cross over into the women’s space, wearing a pallu and dancing with Farida Jalal or even keeping a fast along with Simran on karwa chauth.  Raj’s actions blur the lines traditionally drawn between men and women and gradually weaken the patriarchal resolve in Bauji and loosen him up enough to croon Ae Meri Zohrajabeen to his wife and hold her in genuine affection.

It is often argued whether Raj would have even tried to take Simran if Bauji had disagreed, as the final speech he gives to Simran indicates that he has willingly lost Simran and condemned her to the wedding against her wishes. Reminiscent in tone of Shakespeare’s famous ‘Friends, Romans and Countrymen” speech, he accepts all that Bauji has said about him; that he is a deceitful cheat, the means he adopted to ingratiate himself in the household were wrong. But the end was always for Bauji’s daughter’s happiness. Much like the Romans, Bauji begins to have a change of heart. And much like the Mahatma, Raj himself is still persistent even at the station, even as the train is going away, that Bauji would give Simran away. It is only appropriately grand that this happens at the final moment with the greatest tension and drama there could be, as Bauji utters, “jaa jee le apni zindagi” and yet again, Simran runs behind a train and Raj pulls her in, into his arms as the family celebrates.

DDLJ is a film that tries to be many things to many people, accommodates Swiss Alps, Punjab mustard fields, and greatly succeeds. It tries to respect tradition, with slight subversions to only retain their greater value while joyously embracing modernity. I do not need to cite its run in the Maratha Mandir to attest its influence. The DDLJ thought train still keeps running through our shared artistic consciousness, in the Telugu films 100% Love, (where arguing cousins set aside their differences by trying to be Shah Rukh-Kajol), Mirapakay, Govindudu Andarivadile or the innumerable films with the hero in the second half trying to charm the family whose home he resides and has the girl he loves. Even Dangal shows the start of the daughter moving away from her father’s values by getting a crush on ‘Shah Rukh Khan’.

DDLJ runs so well even today simply powered by Khan’s charisma, skill and charm. They make the rather ordinary album classic and the problematic parts sing like magic. After stealing the hearts of women all over the world as Raj and Rahul, the fragrance of romance is still stuck onto Shah Rukh, no matter how many different roles he tries (unlike Bhai, on whom neither controversy nor shirts seem to stick, truly the Teflon star). The sight of him standing with his arms far wide open is perhaps the closest rival to the heart design as a symbol for love, at least in Indian Cinema.