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, day labourers 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 theatre has played it everyday 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 “DDLJ” — 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 liberalisation peaked and economic inequities deepened, aspirations of mobility have diminished. For those left behind, the world of “DDLJ” — 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.
“It grew and grew and grew and went on to, you know, become an heirloom,” said 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 ‘DDLJ’; 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 theatres for a year, many speculated that “DDLJ’s” record run would end. But the film is back on for its 11:30 am 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 theatre one morning this fall had seen it six times, a welder about a dozen. A gray-bearded merchant of second hand 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 everyday. Madhu Sudan Varma, a 68-year-old homeless man who has a part-time job feeding neighbourhood cats, comes about 20 mornings a month.
The woman with her head wrapped in a plastic bag? “I come everyday,” she said. “I like it everyday.”
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.
Kajol said that the movie’s middle path had broken new ground. Before “DDLJ,” 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 ‘DDLJ’ came up with a very simple thought: to say that maybe we can walk a line.”Many more people can afford cinema tickets. And India, which recently became the world’s fifth-largest economy, is expected to have 1 billion smartphone users by 2026.
Film stars have become permanent fixtures on billboards and on TV commercials. India is a huge market 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.
Bollywood has long favoured those with legacy and family ties. 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 Indian economist Shrayana Bhattacharya. “He became this prism and this concept. He represents this idea of mobility.”
Bhattacharya wrote a book, “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh,” about how Khan symbolises the possibilities that only India’s liberalised 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, Bhattacharya said, “want to be him” rather than want to “marry him,” the emotion usually associated with older matinee idols. -- The New York Times
The writer is NYT’s bureau chief for South Asia
The writer has worked as an investigative journalist with Indian
and international news outlets