At 25, Shah Rukh Khan’s DDLJ should be remembered as a voice of conservatism
DDLJ’s Raj Malhotra is Hindi cinema’s most powerful representative voice of conservatism: he embodies a combination of the market as an NRI, and tradition, as a patriarchal family man.
Twenty-five years ago, I watched the film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) starring film star Shah Rukh Khan in a theatre in Jaipur.
The iconic movie - with a host of problematic social messages that are often not discussed - turned 25 on Tuesday.
The hall was packed, but the profile of the audience was interesting, as it marked a break with the usual pattern in pre-multiplex India. Young women constituted almost half the audience, and there were many families out to see this saga of ‘clean’ love enacted globally.
DDLJ remains Khan’s greatest hit, and was a landmark movie: it marked the coming of age of conservatism as a theme in newly globalised India.
The film has impressed men and women alike. However, at its core, it was a patriarchal film. Of course, it attracted young aspirational people the most. They, in fact, saw it as liberating and progressive.
It is one of the most important movies of Hindi cinema because it inadvertently captured the direction the Indian middle classes were taking as India globalised.
The movie’s protagonist Raj Malhotra is a non-resident Indian who is progressive in form but conservative in worldview. He looks suave. He is global. But his worldview comes across in the manner his character evolves between the first and second halves.
The first half is about him wooing, and flirting with, the female lead Simran, played by Kajol. Here, he seems to be a man who isn’t encumbered by traditional or progressive-modern norms of behaviour towards women. He also flirts with her friends sometimes.
Ironically, his careless behaviour changes the moment the girl falls in love with him. In a break with the common theme of previous love stories like Bobby, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya – all pre-globalisation super-hits – Raj Malhotra does not elope with the woman to marry her, only to be hounded by conservative social forces. Rather, he suddenly becomes the voice of tradition, tutoring the girl that her father is right – Babuji theek kehte hain – and taking the unilateral decision that he would marry her only if her father, played by Amrish Puri, agrees.
Raj Malhotra thus comes across as Hindi cinema’s most powerful representative voice of conservatism: he embodies a combination of the market, as an NRI, and tradition, as a patriarchal family man.
Cinema often speaks the changing language of society. Or, at least, that kind of cinema does well at a given point of time which is in sync with changing social norms.
The 1990s’ break
It would be interesting to compare the metrosexual man Shah Rukh Khan as a rising superstar in the early- and mid-90s with Amitabh Bachchan, the superstar of the 1970s and 80s. Bachchan came across as hyper-masculine in representation. He made full use of his deep baritone. It seemed he overtly spoke like a man in a gendered world. By contrast, a superficial analysis of Shah Rukh Khan in the 1990s would suggest he represented a break with toxic patriarchy.
However, nothing could be farther from the truth.
The Bachchan of Deewaar and other movies came across as hyper-masculine but had streaks of non-conformism. He was anti-establishment, was sometimes an atheist, and his family relations were often messed up. He was as much the struggling, sometimes tragic, hero as the patriarch.
In fact, in his early movies, most themes related to the hierarchies and exclusions in the larger social world, against which he was shown as standing as a lone voice of rebellion – the angry young man. Superstar Bachchan was political in the sense of the public sphere, though his politics was often one of turning the world upside down, rather than the more reasoned socialist politics of the Raj Kapoor era.
The female lead was just an appendage to most Bachchan movies, which were essentially stories of an excluded man’s struggle with the system.
The 1990s – and DDLJ in particular – had a different kind of politics. It is blind to the public sphere, per se, and teases out the patriarchal politics of the private sphere. This politics first treats the woman as someone to be pursued, underlining the entitled man’s agency. Yet, when the woman expresses her agency in reaching out to the man, the man denies her all agency and emphasizes that her life choices are essentially about her father’s whims.
Raj Malhotra is not the patriarch who is what he is because of lack of exposure. He has seen the world and is cosmopolitan to look at. But deep inside, he is the globe-trotting conservative looking to uphold and restore the patriarchal order.
If Amitabh Bachchan of the 1970s was a symbol of a time when the politics of being anti-establishment was on the ascendant – these were times of the JP movement in India – Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ and some movies that came after it was a representative of a globalised India where the public sphere should be emptied of politics, which should shift to the realm of the family to restore tradition as the defining feature of a globalised India.
Women were less visible in Bachchan movies. They were visible but passive in DDLJ.
The rise of Shah Rukh Khan was that of a romantic star, but many of his movies in the 1990s saw him as a stalker oblivious of the woman’s consent, or a patriarch directing the woman to subjugate her consent and will to patriarchal values.
With Mohabbatein and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Khan took up roles where the will of the woman mattered, but these movies restored patriarchal order through the towering figure of an ageing Amitabh Bachchan, who had now transformed into the new role of the accomplished patriarch. In the latter movie, Bachchan is the tycoon who is cosmopolitan in form but deeply traditional in worldview.
The 1990s indeed heralded conservatism – upholding both tradition and the market – as the dominant theme of Hindi cinema, and DDLJ should be seen as the most influential movie upholding conservative values.