दिलवाले दुल्हनिया ले जाएँगे
Dir. Aditya Chopra
Occasionally a film comes along that hits a powerful resonance with its audience. Such a film can be a trendsetter, making superstars of its cast, changing the direction of an industry, and even, to an extent, of a society. Dilwale dulhania le jayenge ("The brave-hearted one shall carry away the bride") is such a cinematic bellwether, striking a perfect chord at a particular crossroads of Indian society where foreign influence meets domestic traditionalism. It's a very important film, and it is also a reasonably enjoyable one.
Simran (Kajol) lives in London with her family, but she's been raised to be a seedhi-saadhi Punjabi ladki - a nice upstanding Punjabi girl. Relatively unaffected by the influence of her western setting, Simran understands her duty to her family - to her strict, serious father (Amrish Puri) particularly - and submits to her engagement to a boy selected for her at her birth, the son of her father's close friend in India. Before her marriage, though, she begs her father for one month to live life on her own terms, traveling through (continental) Europe on a tour with some of her school friends. Her impassioned request - combined with a lifetime of never once defying him - softens her father and he reluctantly agrees. Then she meets Raj (Shah Rukh Khan), another London-dwelling Indian who is brash, impulsive, and immature, but also apparently good-hearted - and love happens. When her father learns of this upon Simran's return, he whisks her away to India for immediate sealing of the marriage that was planned for her twenty years prior. Raj follows, and undertakes a systematic plan to win the hearts of Simran's family - even her unyielding father.
Dilwale dulhania le jayenge's message is one of balance between the hip, modern, foreign influence on the one hand, and respect for the traditional foundations of Indian society on the other, and at the time of its release, it inverted a number of prevalent filmi cliches. At the core of the film is Raj's refusal to run away with Simran, even when she begs him to elope; he is determined to win the approval of her father and will not marry her until he does so, even though failure would mean losing her forever. Elopement followed by tragic end was a common filmi theme at the time; in Dilwale dulhania le jayenge, Raj rejects the temptation of that course in favor of deference to tradition. In another twist on convention (as noted by crazyone on the BollyWHAT? forum), the foreign-raised Raj is the good guy, while Simran's homegrown, all-Indian fiance is cruel, promiscuous, and dishonest. I suspect that these twists lie at the heart of what gives this film purchase to be the industry-changing, enduring success that it has been, especially among Indians living outside of their homeland and therefore necessarily surrounded by the influential forces of foreign culture.
The film's message is undermined by the tactics chosen by Raj to win the approval of Simran's family. He engineers a deception to infiltrate the inner circle of the two families preparing for the wedding, and continues ingratiating himself to them with exaggerated kindness to the elder family members, sweetness to the girls, and chumminess with the guys. It is all a grand ruse and deception, however, and the film begins to fall apart if one thinks too hard about what it means that the guy who supposedly espouses traditional values is lying and cheating right and left in an attempt to demonstrate them. His act casts doubt on the veracity of the upstanding-Indian-boy persona itself; one cannot be sure that he isn't lying to Simran just as well as he lies to her family.
When such thoughts can be suppressed, though, the film is charming and engaging; the romance works, and I found myself rooting for the pairing despite the fact that I didn't particularly like either of the principals as individuals. The film's unquestionable greatest strength is that Raj and Simran do have some staunch allies among their parents; Raj's father (Anupam Kher) and Simran's mother (Farida Jalal) are determinedly on their side and do everything within their limited power to grease the wheels, and this prevents the film from devolving into the timeworn "us vs. them" intergenerational slugfest. But "limited power" is the key phrase. In the film's standout scene, Simran's mother delivers a heartbreaking speech in which she declares that while she promised herself she would secure autonomy and happiness for her daughter, the lot of an Indian girl is not within her power to change. She brought tears to my eyes with the wonderful line main to yeh bhuul gayi thi - ki aurat ko vaada karne ki bhi koi haq nahin hai - "I forgot this: that a woman has no right even to make a promise."
Finally, a word on the music of Dilwale dulhania le jayenge - this is a soundtrack I always want to like more than I do. It is packed with catchy tunes and hummable melodies, like "Ho gaya hai tujhko to pyar," and the mega-mega-hit "Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam." But the soundtrack grates despite its strengths, for one overwhelming reason: Lata Mangeshkar was far past her prime. She's warbly, shrill, and overdubbed, and doesn't always hit her pitch. I adore Lata ji's beautiful work through the 50s, 60s, and 70s - but Dilwale dulhania le jayenge is Exhibit A for why I think she should have retired after the 1980s.
(Post script: As usual, reading Philip Lutgendorf's commentary on his Philip's fil-ums website makes me wonder why I bother; in this case, his astute discussion of Dilwale dulhania le jayenge makes several outstanding and interesting points.)