Dilwale tells the story of Simran and Raj, both non-resident Indians (NRIs) from London, who meet each other during a European vacation in the early 1990s. While Raj comes from an upper-class family, Simran belongs to a traditional middle-class conservative family. The romance in Europe shatters everything for Simran as her enraged father, Baldev insists that the family move back to Punjab for Simran’s marriage to his childhood friend’s son, Kuljeet. A heartbroken Simran is left with no choice but to leave London with her family. When Raj discovers the family has left for their homeland, he is encouraged by his father to follow with a mission to get his love back. Simran’s mother, Lajjo feels empathy for her daughter and at one point tells her to elope with Raj. After a series of twists, conflicts, comic moments and high drama, the couple is reunited with the blessings of both families. The last shot of the film shows the couple board a train to leave the small town of Punjab. Dilwale was shot in India, London and Switzerland and is one of the first films of the 1990s geared to appeal to the Indian diaspora by typically reinventing the NRI as a new figure of national identity.
Dilwale’s success both outside India and in the domestic market made it a trendsetter for lavishly mounted family films of the 1990s that moved across the world. The presence of NRIs and a narrative quest to define ‘Indianness’ irrespective of geographical location ensured that the film received considerable scholarly and journalistic attention for the way it reframed ideas of nationhood and tradition for a globalised Indian context. Unlike earlier films where the NRI was portrayed as a debauched and decadent figure, Dilwale is the first of the 1990s films ‘that turned Bollywood’s NRI stereotype on its head’ (Chopra 2002: 11–12). The typical family melodrama of an earlier period had social duties, love of nation and kinship bonds as the driving force overwhelming individual choice and desire (Thomas 1995). By contrast, the 1990s melodrama created a space for personal desires but in these films the heroine performed a symbolic function as the figure through whom the boundaries of ‘Indianness’ could be defined (Sharpe 2005: 64). In her reading of Dilwale, Patricia Uberoi has argued that ‘at every turning point in the film narrative, and with every existential crisis the protagonists pause to remind themselves and each other of what it means to be Indian’ (ibid: 309). Dilwale has also been viewed as the first film of the 1990s to set the template for the ‘Bollywoodisation’ of Indian cinema, a trend where a series of consumption practices began to coalesce around popular film culture, globally (Rajadhyaksha 2003). These readings are all justified and insightful but despite the conservative family values present in the film, Dilwale needs to be seen as an ambivalent text that struggles to come to terms with the cultural processes of globalisation by trying to maintain a balance between ideas of ‘tradition’, modern cosmopolitanism and a yearning for the fulfilment of individual desire.
In the various accounts of the film, few have commented on the way Dilwale draws its central premise from a tradition of 1960s romance films set in hill stations. Those films often saw families opposed to the romantic liaison of the protagonists; the couple had to go through intense opposition and crisis before they were legitimately accepted by both sides. Songs, travel, fashion and scenic sites were the hallmark of these 1960s films. Dilwale retains the core thread of these films but the location of the romance moves to Europe and the unfolding of family conflict, drama and reconciliation takes place in the North Indian State of Punjab. The train, a recurring feature in the 1960s films is replaced in Dilwale by the Euro-rail. It is in this careful orchestration of the films mise en scène that we see shifts in themes, art direction, costume, music and dance numbers, all geared to appeal to an Indian diaspora while at the same time also draw in an Indian audience wanting to be ‘modern’ and yet very ‘Indian’.
Raj and Simran belong to different class backgrounds. Raj is all set to leave for a holiday in Europe with his other rich friends. Simran is keen to go with her girlfriends but knows that her father will not permit her to. In a poignant scene, Simran addresses her father and says she wants only one month’s freedom and following that she will do everything that he expects of her, including an arranged marriage in Punjab with someone she has never met. Simran says she wants to experience her entire life’s dreams and aspirations in that one month. The father is moved by the intensity of Simran’s desire to travel with her friends and relents. It is this month-long travel across Europe that changes Simran and Raj’s life.
The Europe segment of the film is a breezy collation of comic interludes, popular song sequences, and display of commodities, fashion and transportation. The landscape is picturesque. Instead of the typical hill station of 1960s cinema, we are moving across typical tourist sites of Europe by Euro-rail, expensive cars and by foot. Simran and Raj get separated from their friends and end up spending considerable time with each other. The journey from here on is centred on the development of a romance in which matters related to arranged marriages, sexual intimacy and traditional values are discussed by the two. It is in this landscape away from home that the two experience the full force and power of romantic desire. In a particular sequence, Simran gets drunk and becomes obsessed with a red dress she spots in a shop window in Switzerland. There is a sudden transition as Simran now wearing the red dress dances in the snow with Raj to a popular song. The couple is shown moving across diverse landscapes wearing different clothes. While such fantasy linked to fashion is now common in many films, Dilwale foregrounded the fantasy world of song sequences of the 1990s by allowing a drunken woman to experience her most immediate desires (Mazumdar 2007: 99–100). The song ends with the couple spending the night in a hotel room without having sex. Boundaries are maintained and never crossed, but there is transgression hovering just round the corner yet contained in line with the demands of a typical Hindi film.
Dilwale sets up several conversation sequences across generations and for this reason remains one of the most intuitive films about the experience of lost youth for one generation and the burning desire for fulfilment for the next. Simran’s conversations with her mother both after the Europe trip and later in Punjab are loaded with sadness about the way women’s desires and dreams are never fulfilled. This constant yearning and projection of individual desire at one level and the powerful presence of social norms, rituals and expectations about marriage on the other made Dilwale a complex narrative about the memories of a generation, desperate to reverse their own lost youth and absence of romance through their children. Yet at the heart of Dilwale is also a utopian desire for reconciliation and belief in the values of the Indian family. Contemporary individual subjectivities are thus drawn into the narrative and arranged for a final climax where all differences are ironed out and the ‘great Indian family’ lives on with its commitment to marriage, rituals and ‘cultural purity’ as the hallmark of their identity.
If the first half of the film is set in Europe we have a dramatic journey homeward to Punjab in the second part of the film, the entry staged via a song played over images of mustard fields. It is in this second half where preparations are on for Simran’s engagement and marriage to Kuljeet that Raj enters as an outsider with a desire to claim his love. The stage is set now for a conflict but debutante director, Aditya Chopra, with the help of his dialogue writer, Javed Siddique, creates a tapestry of rich dialogues, song sequences, romantic yearning and comedy. As we move from moment to moment in the family home of Baldev, we are introduced to the joint Indian family, its rituals, its little traumas, and pleasures. It is in the second segment that Simran’s mother Lajjo (Farida Jalal) emerges as a figure who has made peace with her life, but there is lack of fulfilment written in her persona, expressed in conversations with her daughter. She first tells Simran that women don’t have the right to expect their dreams to come true, they don’t even have the right to dream. But when Lajjo sees her daughter with Raj, she begs them to run away. Lajjo is a critical figure in the film whose world, past and values are never fully explained and yet cast a shadow on the notion of the happy family. She is a ‘traditional’ mother but with a difference. She tells Simran that she wants her dream to not get squashed like others.
This constant play with the reality of unfulfilled desires and yearning for fulfilment runs through Dilwale. Raj’s father tells his son to live and enjoy his youth as much as he can since his own life was a struggle and he never had the time to experience the flush of youthful abundance. It is the structure of the narrative and its complex play with a range of characters jostling for their own voice in a world governed by social norms that makes easy ideological readings of the film difficult. This is a film of profound ambivalence, seeking a balance between tradition and modernity and creating a template for many such films in the future. What made the film unique was its clever work with the narrative and also the carefully worked out mise en scène that moved between London and Punjab.
Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge played a major role in the lives of several film professionals. It was Shahrukh Khan’s major vehicle for future stardom. Khan and Kajol became one of most popular screen couples after this film and it brought to prominence the work of fashion designer, Manish Malhotra, and production designer, Sharmistha Roy. Iconic gestures identified with the film have been deployed in other blockbusters that followed. The music for the film was a huge success worldwide. For the film’s publicity Aditya Chopra had for the first time created a documentary on the making of the film which was aired on television two days before the release of the film. The film’s success outside India and within the domestic market reflected the changed context of globalisation and the ways in which popular film narratives actively began to cater to diasporic audiences. The use of scenic sites of Switzerland played a major role in increasing the influx of Indian tourists to the country. In 2006, the Swiss government felicitated the Dilwale team for its role in promoting tourism. Dilwale has been the longest running film in the history of Indian cinema and is still going strong at Bombay’s Maratha Mandir theatre.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: India. Production Company: Yash Raj Films. Director: Aditya Chopra. Screenwriter: Aditya Chopra. Dialogue: Javed Siddiqui. Cinematographer: Manmohan Singh. Music: Jatin Pandit and Lalit Pandit. Editor: Keshav Naidu. Production Designer: Sharmistha Roy. Cast: Shahrukh Khan (Raj), Kajol (Simran), Amrish Puri (Baldev), Farida Jalal (Lajjo), Anupam Kher (Dharamvir), Satish Shah (Ajit), Parmeet Sethi (Kuljeet).]
Anupama Chopra, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: The Making of a Blockbuster (The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride), London, British Film Institute, 2002.
Ranjani Mazumdar, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City, Minneapolis, MN and London, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Aswin Punathambekar, ‘Bollywood in the Indian American Diaspora: Mediating a Transitive Logic of Cultural Citizenship’ in International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2005, pp. 151–73.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha, ‘The Bollywoodization of Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena’ in Inter Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2003, pp. 25–39.
Jenny Sharpe, ‘Gender, Nation and Globalization in Monsoon Wedding and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2005, pp. 58–81.
Rosie Thomas, ‘Melodrama and the Negotiation of Morality in Mainstream Hindi Film’ in Carol A. Breckenridge (ed.), Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in a South Asian World, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 157–82.
Patricia Uberoi, ‘The Diaspora Comes Home: Disciplining Desire in DDLJ’ in Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 2, November 1998, pp. 305–36.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.