India’s Love Story With a Movie Still on the Big Screen After 27 Years
Well past the film’s intermission, the crowd keeps trickling in. Some pay at the ticketing window with a couple of taps on their phone; others dump fistfuls of coins. They are students and office clerks, prostitutes from the waning red-light district nearby, day laborers still chasing dreams in India’s “maximum city,” and the homeless with dreams long deferred.
India’s film industry puts about 1,500 stories on the screen annually. But the audience that files every morning into the Maratha Mandir cinema in Mumbai is here for a movie that premiered 27 years ago — and has resonated so intensely that this once-grand 1,100-seat theater has played it every day since, save for a pandemic hiatus.
The film, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” — which translates as “The Big-Hearted Will Take the Bride” and is known as “D.D.L.J.” — is a boy-meets-girl story set against the backdrop of a moment of immense change and unbridled possibility in India.
The Indian economy had just opened up, bringing new opportunities, new technologies and new exposure to a rising middle class. But it has also brought new strains, as the choices afforded by economic opportunity — to decide your own love and your own life — ran up against the protective traditions of old.
In many ways, the India of today looks like the India reflected in the movie. The economy is still on the rise, and it is now about 10 times the size it was in the mid-1990s. A technological revolution, this one digital, has opened new worlds. Women are seeking more freedom in a male-dominated society. And the forces of modernity and conservatism remain in tension as an ascendant political right wing appoints itself the enforcer of conventional values.
The sense of unlimited possibility, however, has receded. As the early rewards of liberalization peaked and economic inequities deepened, aspirations of mobility have diminished. For those left behind, the world of “D.D.L.J.” — its story and stars, its music and dialogue — is an escape. For those still striving, it is an inspiration. And for those who have made it, it is a time capsule, the starting point of India’s transformation.
Moviegoers at the Maratha Mandir cinema in Mumbai.
“It grew and grew and grew and went on to, you know, become an heirloom,” said the actress Kajol, 48, who played the female lead, Simran, in the film. “I have had so many people who told me that, you know, we have made our children sit down and watch ‘D.D.L.J.,’ we have made our grandchildren sit down and watch — and I was like, there are grandchildren now?”
She burst out laughing. “Children I am fine with. But grandchildren?”
When the pandemic closed theaters for a year, many speculated that “D.D.L.J.’s” record run would end. But the film is back on for its 11:30 a.m. slot at Maratha Mandir, often drawing crowds larger than those at afternoon screenings of the latest releases.
Some of those who show up have watched it here so many times that they have lost count — 50, 100, hundreds.
A taxi driver who was in the line outside the theater one morning this fall had seen it six times, a welder about a dozen. A gray-bearded merchant of secondhand goods claimed about 50 viewings, the same for a 33-year-old delivery worker.
Then there were the regular regulars, those who trek here nearly every day. Madhu Sudan Varma, a 68-year-old homeless man who has a part-time job feeding neighborhood cats, comes about 20 mornings a month.
The woman with her head wrapped in a plastic bag?
“I come every day,” she said. “I like it every day.”
No one knows her real name — it may be Jaspim, but even she is unsure. It doesn’t matter, because everyone calls her by the name she prefers: Simran, just like the star on the screen.
Lying at night in the room she keeps as a prostitute in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district, she sometimes dreams of the film’s scenes, she says. In the morning, she makes sure she doesn’t miss the show — not even on this day when the henna she used to dye her graying hair hadn’t yet dried. She would rather come wearing a plastic bag than not make it.
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“I don’t see any other films, just this one,” she said. “I feel great when I come here. I get lost in the songs and dance.”
‘Live Your Life’
“D.D.L.J.” is a love story. But it is also about compromise.
Kajol’s character, Simran Singh, is brought up in London, though her father uses the income from the family’s corner store to raise his children in the traditions of India.
On a European trip with friends, Simran meets Raj Malhotra, played by Shah Rukh Khan, a wealthy young man raised by a single father. The rest of the film’s three hours are spent on the couple’s efforts to persuade Simran’s conservative father to let go of the arranged marriage he had planned for his daughter and bless their union.
“Go, Simran, go,” the father declares at the end, after the film barrels through tears, bloody fistfights and many songs of longing. “Live your life.”
Kajol said that the movie’s middle path had broken new ground. Before “D.D.L.J.,” she said, “we only had films that talked about either this way or that — either we had films that celebrated marriages and everybody was involved from uncles to aunties, or it was ‘us against the world, we will fight it out, we will live together, die together.’ I think ‘D.D.L.J.’ came up with a very simple thought — to say that maybe we can walk a line.”
When the movie was released in 1995, Kajol and Mr. Khan were both relative newcomers. Kajol went on to become one of the most successful actresses in Hindi cinema. Mr. Khan, 57, found even greater fame, becoming one of India’s most recognizable faces.
Both actors benefited from an Indian entertainment industry that was itself in transition, as money flooded in with the country’s economic liberalization.
Now, the country has over 200 million households with televisions, up from 50 million then. Many more people can afford cinema tickets. And India, which recently became the world’s fifth-largest economy, is expected to have one billion smartphone users by 2026.
Film stars have become permanent fixtures on billboards and on television commercials. India is a huge market — it is projected to soon pass China as the world’s most populous country — and a star’s simple post of sponsored content on platforms like Instagram can be lucrative. Actors who would once perform in different films in the same change of clothes now find themselves with unfathomable wealth.
Every day, fans throng outside Mr. Khan’s seaside home in Mumbai, the heart of India’s film industry, hoping for a sighting. Buses passing the road in front of his house slow down so passengers can take selfies.
On his birthday, thousands gather, waiting and chanting for Mr. Khan — and he does not disappoint. He climbs up a caged platform,throwing kisses at the fans, before breaking into what has become his signature move: a leaned-back spread of the arms.
Bollywood has long favored those with legacy and family ties. Mr. Khan resonates as an outsider, a child of middle-class struggle in Delhi who lost both of his parents when he was young.
The towering residence he now occupies with his family “is a middle-class monument to a man who didn’t own property,” said the Indian economist Shrayana Bhattacharya. “He became this prism and this concept. He represents this idea of mobility.”
Ms. Bhattacharya wrote a book, “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh,” about how Mr. Khan symbolizes the possibilities that only India’s liberalized economy could produce, and what he has meant to young working women as he has challenged perceptions of masculinity in Indian cinema.
Taking advantage of new channels of information, he has built an image of an empathetic partner who listens, helps with household chores and shares the spotlight with female co-stars.
The power of this image, he said in one interview, has become such that he has become “an employee of the myth of Shah Rukh Khan.” It is so potent that young women, Ms. Bhattacharya said, “want to be him” rather than want to “marry him,” the emotion usually associated with older matinee idols.
To some women, Mr. Khan — or at least his persona — is a reminder of the ways Indian men have not changed. Surbhi Bhatia, a data and development researcher in Mumbai, said she often binge-watched his talks as an antidote to the restrictive male energy around her. If she is feeling low or uncertain, she strolls down to linger outside his seaside residence.
“You know when he spreads those arms,” she said about Mr. Khan’s signature move, “there is space to just go in.”
In many ways, women have yet to achieve the economic promise of the new India. Only about a quarter of women participate in the work force, less than half the rate of all other major economies.
For women who have found economic opportunity, society has been slow to accept their independence. Having their own incomes — or even just a smartphone — has translated into some new freedom. But when a husband comes into the picture, Ms. Bhatia said, it brings another layer of permission and the forfeiture of leisure hours to household chores.
“The phone has done so much to give access, but not solved the larger problem,” she said. “It’s making us more lonely.”
India is still trying to decide where to set the line that “D.D.L.J.” suggested it walk between conservatism and modernity. Added to the tension is a Hindu-first fervor under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with Muslims in particular becoming a target. Mr. Khan, despite his crosscutting appeal, has not been spared.
This month, right-wing groups vandalized cinemas promoting Mr. Khan’s latest film after a trailer showed its female star, Deepika Padukone, wearing a saffron bikini. The groups called the choice of saffron an offense to Hinduism, which is closely associated with the color.
Mr. Khan is a product of a secular India — a Muslim who attended a Christian school and married a Hindu. Faced with attacks like these, he has largely stopped commenting on the country’s political direction.
“I am a Muslim, my wife is a Hindu and my kids are Hindustan,” Mr. Khan said on a television show in 2020, using another word for India. “When they went to school, they had to write their religion. My daughter came to me once and asked, ‘What is our religion?’ I simply wrote in her form that we are Indian.”
‘Love Doesn’t End’
At the Maratha Mandir cinema, the logic of keeping one film running for nearly three decades is simple economics: New films could be hit or miss, but the crowd for “D.D.L.J.” is steady.
“This picture is evergreen,” said Manoj Desai, the cinema’s 72-year-old executive director, “because it tells the story of true love. Because love doesn’t end.”
The theater’s position near two transportation hubs ensures constant traffic. And it helps that the tickets are cheap: 30 rupees for downstairs seats and 40 for those in the balcony, or about 40 to 50 cents, a quarter of the price for admission to new releases.
“Three hours in air-conditioning, 40 rupees. Who will refuse that?” Mr. Desai said.
The interview with Mr. Desai was interrupted by frequent phone calls, including one from his wife. “Home minister,” he said as he picked up her call.
He and his wife, who are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, went through a caste-based love struggle of their own, though with a different ending from the one in “D.D.L.J.”
When her wealthy Jain parents refused Mr. Desai, a Gujarati Brahmin, they eloped and made their marriage official in a faraway temple. Her family kept looking for them for two years, trying to register her as a minor to charge Mr. Desai with kidnapping.
“Love has changed in the sense that breakups are easy,” Mr. Desai lamented.
As he spoke, reporters called to inquire about a recent storm Mr. Desai had kicked up. In a scathing video interview, he had called a rising star “arrogant” for talking about taking his films directly to streaming services. The star was sent by his father on a private jet to Mr. Desai’s office to touch his feet and apologize.
With Hindi cinema struggling to regain momentum after its pandemic lull, many producers and stars have opted to take their films directly to streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon.
To purists like Mr. Desai, the growing trend is blasphemy. “There is the money, but sirrrrr,” he said, stretching and rolling his “r.” “What about theater? What about the big screen?”
For the entire time that “D.D.L.J.” has been showing on Mr. Desai’s big screen, Jagjivan Maru has been the projectionist. He will soon retire after 50 years.
When he sets up the day’s show, staff downstairs change into their uniforms, prepare the popcorn and samosas in the dimly lit corner concession stand and mop the marble floor between the rows of worn-out seats.
“For 10 years, the hall would be full — there would queues for tickets,” he said about the film’s release in 1995. “After 10 years, it cooled off a bit — but the passion hasn’t died.”
As customers line up to enter the theater, the guards frisking them and checking their bags repeat one reminder: “Don’t put your feet on the seats.” They know it’s futile, because many come precisely for that — to escape the city’s heat, to put up their feet.
Mr. Varma, the 68-year-old homeless man, arrives at the ticket counter with his two bags of belongings, containing a blanket, some changes of clothes and his water bottle.
He sleeps in a parked auto rickshaw near a Buddha statue. Waking before dawn, he feeds about 50 neighborhood cats, for which an NGO pays him 100 rupees — roughly $1.30 — a day.
He worked in the family’s furniture upholstery business before a dispute forced him to the streets. He has lost everyone dear in his life, from his siblings to his parents.
But one person resurfaced about 15 years ago: an unrequited love that had left him a bachelor. Caste differences made their union impossible, just as they prevent many love stories even today. The woman got married in 1984 and went on to have children who are now married.
The rekindling is one of friendship. They speak by phone once a month; he asks about her life, her children, and she asks if he is eating well.
“There were others who would call in the past,” Mr. Varma said. “There is no one else now.”
Mr. Varma takes his seat on the ground floor of the cinema hall. In the row in front of him is Simran, the prostitute.
When the movie’s wildly popular songs come on, Simran shimmies in her seat, singing along and getting up to dance in the aisle. She mimics the dialogue. And when the Simran on the screen waves goodbye to Raj, the Simran in the theater also waves her hand in goodbye.
Every time the light from the screen reflects on Mr. Varma’s face, he is lounged in his seat, his soft eyes glued to the film.
“I find peace here,” Mr. Varma said. “I get a little calm.”