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MUBI Podcast Expanded: “Tradition and Modernity, Fear and Comfort,” an excerpt from "DDLJ: A Modern Classic"

A more in-depth look at the long-lasting and far-reaching impact of Aditya Chopra's "DDLJ."
Notebook
The MUBI Podcast returns with a look at the longest-running film in Bollywood history, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (aka DDLJ). The episode features an exclusive interview with critic Anupama Chopra—who literally wrote the book on this classic rom-com. We’re happy to share an excerpt from said book, DDLJ: A Modern Classic.
To listen to the episode and subscribe on your preferred podcast app, click here.
Six
"Tradition and Modernity, Fear and Comfort"
DDLJ was a fortuitous meeting of talent and timing. In a complicated age, it offered uncomplicated solutions. In the 1990s, India underwent vertiginous rushes of change. Children interacted with foreign cultures and values as never before, and some of them put on Harley-Davidson jackets and affected a language of cool that was incomprehensible to their parents. The family faced the added pressures of both parents having to work, of the dissatisfactions of women and their desire for autonomy, of divorce.
Sexuality was pulled out from its musty Indian closet. There was a proliferation of sleek, semi-clad bodies: magazines (even ‘respectable’ ones like Filmfare and Femina), music videos and films pushed the limits of what was acceptable. Middle-class Indians were seen discussing their kinks and longings in print and on television. Television soaps, watched by housewives across India, told stories of premarital sex and adultery. Indians now seemed to be willing to recognize – at least on the small screen and in the print media – that they were having sex, and that much of it was not of the married variety. Certainly, a generation of urban teenagers in the great metropolitan cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata engaged in sexual activity with the same gusto that their counterparts in New York or Paris might.
All of these movements and shifts were paralleled by the rise of various fundamentalisms, in particular the rise of a muscular Hindu right wing, which has attempted to define ‘Indian culture’ in particularly narrow terms. The debate over what is properly Indian and what constitutes a foreign invasion or neo-colonialism has been a constant feature of public discourse in recent years. Much of this debate has been focused on women and their bodies, on what constitutes a Bhartiya nari or virtuous Indian woman.
The nation state of India itself is often incarnated as Bharat Mata, or Mother India, who is usually white-clad and quite completely virtuous. Politicians often tell the populace that the virtue and honour of Bharat Mata must be protected. This modern Bharat Mata is quite unlike other, older goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, many of whom are quite unambiguously sexual and autonomous in their actions. They are independent beings, and are sometimes terrifying in their power. They need no protection, and in fact are often the ones who protect the male gods from some demon or other.
The conflict in DDLJ hinges on Simran, on what is to be her fate. The film presents a poignant understanding of the frustrations and longings of its female characters. But it determinedly and artfully refuses to accord Simran any agency, any ability to act on her own. After her first impulse to run away, she waits quietly for the struggle between her father and her lover to decide her fortunes, and at the end is released from one male to the custody of another. In the second half of the film, she becomes curiously still; the camera often finds her sitting, not moving, as the wedding and the machinations of Raj whirl about her. She becomes increasingly passive as the story unfolds. And she remains, to the end of the film, virginal.
The conversation between tradition and modernity in India (and in London) is an ongoing one. Indians do not want to jettison the past altogether, and they do want the modern, the new; they are creative in their techniques for combining the two, but the process is not without pain, failure and loss. The real-life versions of Raj and Simran engage in this struggle every day, and they create new solutions and compromises to deal with these questions of autonomy, sexuality and selfhood. Indians are of course Indian in many different ways; a nation of a billion people, which holds together dozens of languages and dozens of ethnicities and cultures, cannot hold to any simple and narrow definition of national character. As DDLJ recognizes, an Indian in a Harley-Davidson jacket can be as Indian as one in a dhoti. As the song has it, it is the dil (heart) that counts, not the Japanese shoes. But the dil that faces these questions must indeed be brave, capable of enormous generosity and enormous change, even as it maintains its own integrity.
DDLJ deals with these urgent questions, and the answers it offers are startlingly conservative, especially in its notions of what a woman should want, or expect. The film’s Simran is a Bhartiya nari who does not threaten anyone, least of all the structures that keep her firmly in her place. The film seems to suggest that these great struggles of redefinition – of Indianness, of individual selves, of the nation state – can and will be easily resolved if women are properly controlled, if their sexuality is constrained. The paradox, of course, is that Indian women are now more unwilling than ever to be controlled or constrained.76
And that, perhaps, is the great comfort that DDLJ offers. It offers, to both men and women, to everyone who faces the terrifying uncertainties of new freedoms and the unpredictable future, a vision of a present which combines both the stability of the old order and the enticing choices of the new. DDLJ fills us with a nostalgia for a possible present in which Baldev and Raj and Simran and Lajjo can exist together without anyone’s feelings being irretrievably hurt, without any hearts being broken, without any ruptures or bloodshed, and – especially – without anyone having unsanctioned sex.
That this golden present does not exist is precisely beside the point. The cinema of Aditya Chopra, and his fellow directors, Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar, presents life not as it is, but as it should be. Indian films are routinely accused of being ‘escapist’, but many Indian song-and-dance movies present a gritty reality full of violence, corruption and despair. But DDLJ and other films like it create a shining, perfect world that edits out heat, dust, crows, crowded streets.
These films delight in extraordinary riches, in beautiful and huge sets, in foreign locations; they are sometimes described as ‘epic’. They are ‘epic’ in the most cursory sense, in that they create larger-than-life characters who exist in idealized landscapes; but these films carefully avoid those essential aspects of the epic, that profound sense of tragedy and the shattering spectacle of individuals being overwhelmed by time and circumstances. Despite their magical motifs, the great old stories were realistic in the most unrelenting way. But the new generation of neo-conservative film-makers are not interested in that kind of epic realism. They offer the comfortable, fluffy belief – if only for a few hours – that all is well with India, and the world. And this, perhaps, is a belief we need right now, especially in India.
The irony is that these films are being made by young and intelligent men who are fully conversant with the reality of the streets that they have grown up in and with the complexities – social and sexual – of the lives they themselves lead. Prior generations of Hindi film directors made films that questioned at least some aspects of the status quo, that were critical of the political system, of the second-class status of women, of society at large. Some even grappled with issues of sexuality. Many of Yash Chopra’s early films like Dhool ka Phool, Kabhi Kabhie and Trishul (Trident, 1978) featured illegitimate children as protagonists. But in the dizzying climate of the 1990s, a slew of film-makers seemed to want to return to an India that never was. Perhaps this is exactly why their films are so successful.
At least on the large screen, within the ritual space of the cinema, Indian audiences all over the world seem to want a representation of culture and change that is warmly reassuring, soothing. In particular, Indian actresses are asked to portray virtuous Bhartiya naris on the screen. The irony is that popular film gossip magazines like Stardust regularly carry long articles about the deliciously unvirtuous activities of the members of the film industry, female and male. The readers of these magazines, across India and the globe, lead lives that are as messy and complicated as the lives of the ‘filmi types’ they read avidly about. At least for now, these readers are quite willing to pay terah ka tees, thirty rupees for a thirteen-rupee ticket, to participate in an enactment of simplicity. This is not quite ‘escapism’ – reality never goes away completely, not in an Indian theatre – but it is a necessary comfort, and a collective expression of hope. Besides, all of it is enormous fun.
Finally, however, no post-mortem can sufficiently explain why DDLJ still draws an audience, after so many years. It is a masterfully made film, which brings together a brilliant director with a talented cast. Its scenes are surprising and fresh, and the film is poignant, affecting and entertaining. The director of DDLJ is cinematically literate in the language of Indian movies, and uses the tropes of this cinema in a sophisticated and creative fashion. Aditya’s education in Indian cinema started as soon as he was able to see and listen, and in DDLJ he has shown himself to be an adept heir to his father and this entire tradition.
Shah Rukh Khan believes that DDLJ’s ‘magic’ cannot be analysed. On a poster of DDLJ that hangs in Aditya’s office, Shah Rukh has scribbled:
Dear Adi,

More than half my career ago, you gave me a dream to cherish all my life.
My kids will see it, my grand children will love it and I’m sure even in heaven they are playing our film – so my parents would have seen it too. Thanx for taking me to them and making me the star I’m today. Lots of love and come let’s make some more dreams together,

God bless,
Shah Rukh
Years later, DDLJ is still inviting people to ‘Come ... fall in love.’
Our grateful thanks to the author and to HarperCollins for permission to reprint the extract

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MUBI PodcastAditya ChopraBollywoodAnupama Chopra
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