By Manik Sharma Oct. 20, 2020
Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which turns 25 today, was as formulaic as any of its romantic predecessors. For most of India, it is a love story, but for many small-towners like me it was and remains the story of two fatherly figures: One that I had but could not change, and the one that I wished for.
The ’90s Bollywood love story is told in three acts – persuasion, persistence, and purge. In the first you dream, often through the application of predatory methods; in the second you clash reality cast as a villain (often a conservative or greedy father) or things he believes in. The third is the purge, an unrealistic catharsis, often choreographed through violence, because the film wants you to leave with a sense of hope, even victory. Aditya Chopra’s 1995 film, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ), which turns 25 today, was all of these things.
Structurally, it was as formulaic as any of its romantic predecessors. For most of India, it is a love story, but for many small-towners like me it was and remains the story of two fatherly figures: One that I had but could not change, and the one that I wished for, but would never have.
DDLJ is popular the world over for creating academic records, like its unprecedented run at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir. It is, after all, a patriotic story, cheekily wrapped in the manoeuvres of emigrant families, where Raj and Simran often serve as a mere cog in the larger narrative of “longing for one’s soil”.
To small-town India, however, the film signified certain progressive firsts. I watched DDLJ in a decrepit theatre in Shimla with my mother. My father, a second-generation workaholic, did not care for the fictional worlds of cinema. He was and still is about specifics, of time, space, work, and wellness. For that, he isn’t entirely to blame.
Lower-middle-class families, especially their male breadwinners, back then had to choose between watching a film every other weekend and saving for a new scooter or a refrigerator. Leisure had to be earned, as much as it had to be assessed against the inhibitions of a socially conservative society. Was watching films about love and abandon, for example, sinful? Would it hurt our economic prospects, this recklessness with money?
Not so daddy cool
Chopra’s film began with Chaudhry Baldev Singh daydreaming about his home back in India. Played with typical wide-eyed authority, Amrish Puri brought a sternness, an etiquette to the patriarch that most of us were familiar with. My father never quite eyeballed me with the same authoritativeness but he never conveyed any concessions either. It all depends on the community, and its prescriptions on religion, gender, caste, and culture are cheerfully echoed and amplified, because imagining a life outside is impossible for most.
Baldev Singh’s character in DDLJ is not an anomaly, as articles panning the film for being sexist or regressive might seem to suggest.
In a way, fathers act as the community’s lawyers, when not acting as its judges. Naturally, candid conversations are a hard-sell with them. After all, in a poor country, the currency of societal approval counts for a lot more than it would in a rich one. DDLJ ’s Baldev Singh may not have been poor, but his heart, the film tells us, regrets the isolation that success brings.
Baldev Singh’s character in DDLJ is not an anomaly, as articles panning the film for being sexist or regressive might seem to suggest. Because cinema is illusive, a lot of viewers also expect it to be corrective – but it’s also a reflection of reality. Singh, for example, is a man incapable of self-doubt, almost unaffected by modernity despite its poaching of people around him. My father has, similarly, dealt with life in black and white, because those are the only options that have made sense to him. Just like Baldev Singh, my father invented for himself a home in the village that he yearns for and a home in the city, he can never wait to leave.
Which brings me to the other father figure in DDLJ , Anupam Kher’s jocular and over-the-top Dharamvir. To me Dharamvir did not exist, his charm, his ability to diminish himself, his vulnerability were qualities Indian fathers did not possess. At least to me, they were cosmetic inventions, added to contrast with the stentorian behaviour of Baldev Singh. To deceive you into believing that there was within the world of the film itself, another patriarch who could say to his son, with inelegant abandon, “I missed you yaar”.
Dads who needn’t be feared
That kind of unsophisticated bonhomie between fathers and their children is often feared, for it may seed insubordination, and eventually rebellion – and in India, even rebellion is a rich man’s game.
In the film, Dharamvir shares a can of beer with his son. He also makes little noise about the fact that Raj fails graduation. Instead, he sends his son on a trip across Europe. Failure is of course a step in learning, but to people on different levels of the social and financial ladder, it teaches different things. To those free of financial pressures, it may just warrant some creativity, even abandon. Which makes it important to also acknowledge that while being Dharamvir may seem more enjoyable, it’s also the harder role, in reality, to attain. In a country like ours, it really has to be earned more than it can be adopted.
DDLJ teased me with the extremities of that spectrum, where frugality of emotion was contrasted by the low-guard spontaneity of a Dharamvir.
There is an unfortunate irony to this tale of two father figures, in that most Dharamvirs of middle- and lower-middle-class India have to act like Baldevs because they have to play both – the last level of approval and the first line of defense. That is not to say that mothers play any less a role, but most fathers have to contend with foregoing weaknesses so they lead the line. With little emotional change to spare, India’s fathers express through fixed deposits, property, and the promise of a tomorrow, something most of them could not inherit. It’s at least the language my father has spoken to me in.
Fathers are like contours that really must be interpreted, rather than assessed. DDLJ teased me with the extremities of that spectrum, where frugality of emotion was contrasted by the low-guard spontaneity of a Dharamvir. Maybe not with as much cinematic timing or anticipation, but DDLJ suggested that the Baldevs of this world carried within themselves the capacity to change, to see a perspective that was not their own.
The film’s story to me has been of that little, but significant step towards becoming Dharamvir. Neither of those two are perfect or without flaw, but perhaps the social upheaval we all desire will seem achievable if that journey can be made or at least believed in. Because if the world were full of Dharamvirs, a film like DDLJ wouldn’t even exist, it wouldn’t be required. But because Baldev is still seeking the Dharamvir in him, DDLJ lives on, as romantic assurance, that he can.