What makes DDLJ so special? And why are so few other films that good? (It’s still Shahrukh’s Week!)

I was just writing about DDLJ, in my multi-multi-multi part DDLJ series, and E reminded me in the comments about how interesting Humpty Sharma is as a re-imagining of the film, which kind of made me want to talk about that a little.  And then I started to think about why Humpty Sharma works for me, and why a handful of other movies similarly remind me of DDLJ, and why others (including every other SRKajol movie), do not.

(moviemavengal just put up a similar post while I was writing this one!  Great minds think alike.  I co-sign on almost all of her choices.)

I loooooooooove Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania.  I was really not expecting a film that enjoyable, or that well-made.  It’s a re-imagining of DDLJ, certainly, but in a world where DDLJ never existed (can you imagine how bleak and empty such a world would be?  Shahrukh would be a talented actor who never quite made it, and we would be in the 3rd decade of trying to make another Amitabh happen in increasingly unimaginative action films, while the diaspora audience was continually ignored.  Oh, and Yash Raj films would be bankrupt), Humpty Sharma could actually stand on its own as a perfectly good film.

It can stand on its own not because it is so different from DDLJ, but because it is so similar in all the ways that matter.  It has the same brilliant big beating heart at the middle of it.  Both movies, ultimately, are about a boy and girl who find their opposite half in each other.  It’s not about falling passionately in love, it’s about falling passionately in like, in compatibility, in who they are when they are together.  It’s about seeing how two very different people fill the gaps in each other.  It’s more than sharing a love, it’s sharing a life.

Before DDLJ, I can’t really think of a movie that did this.  And since DDLJ, I can count on one hand the other films that have succeeded at it.  Really, I would just say Humpty, Jab We Met, Socha Na Tha, and maybe Chennai Express (Obviously, I haven’t seen every film in the world!  If you think there is one I have missed, after reading all of my restrictions, let me know in the comments).  It’s a really specific thing, that is kind of easier to define by what it isn’t, than what it is.

First, there’s the films where there is no real journey, no change.  The “love at first sight” films.  Or, love at 20th sight.  Really, any time they fall in love because of one single magical moment, whether it is the first moment or the last.  Dilwale, say.  They are two very different people who are in love and out of love and in love again.  But you barely see the love and connection build between them.  You only see a magic bond that suddenly appears with no effort on their parts.  Or, more to the point, on the part of the scriptwriter/director.  The couple has to be in love for the plot to work, so they throw in some random conversation, a couple of moments of sexual tension, and then have their eyes meet as a song starts.  It’s the same technique films have been using since before Mughal-E-Azam.  And it works!  It definitely works, I believe in those love stories and I enjoy watching them, and I get all swoony in the movie theater.  But I believe in them as a fantasy.  Watching a movie like that and then watching DDLJ is the difference between watching Devdas and watching Neerja.

(See, like this!  Swoony, but not believable)

There are a good number of romances that don’t go the fantasy route, that feel real.  But DDLJ is also showing a very particular kind of real feeling relationship.  Raj and Simran are at a transition point in their lives and we see, in exquisite slow detail, how they grow together and change each other.  There are plenty of movies where we fully get to know the hero and heroine, we see how and why they fit together, we even see them grow and change in order to fit together better.  It’s not just a sudden magical moment that changes everything.  But we don’t usually see them really changing each other, we have these huge gaps in their contact, in which they each take a leap forward, but they don’t need the other’s constant presence to force them to do it.

For instance, Hum-Tum is a great romance, and it is a great couple that is fun to watch together.  But we only see them together in these disconnected moments, their growth as people takes place in between times, when they are alone.  The same thing happens in Yeh Jawaani…Hai Deewani, and Love Aaj Kal.  Even in Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na, they stay in touch, but they are on separate journeys for much of the film. In DDLJ and films like it, our hero and heroine are together on this journey, literally and metaphorically.  They change because they are beating away at each other constantly, forcing each other into a different mold through their interactions.

(What would it have been like to watch this couple the whole movie?  See how they keep fighting and making up and slowly become partners?  Instead, we left them after 20 minutes, and met them again after 5 years apart)

This kind of film is not an easy thing to write, and it is not an easy thing to act, and (most importantly), it is not an easy thing to cast!  Obviously, the couple has to have great sexual chemistry, that part has to be believable even while they appear to hate each other.  But more than that, they have to be able to naturally slip into complimentary characters.  But while the actors need to be comfortable in the character’s skin, it also needs to be characters that the audience will see as actual characters, not just the star pretending to “act”.  This is the problem with, for instance, K3G.  Or, not really a problem, a difference.  Do you ever really forget you are watching Shahrukh and Kajol and just see Rahul and Anjali?

And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have characters so far outside of the actors’ natural personality, that it just feels like they are playing dress-up the whole time, instead of really connecting.  Like Dil Bole Hadippa, which I quite enjoy, but which I was watching the whole time very aware that this was Rani “pretending” to be a Punjabi performer, and Shahid “pretending” to be a bitter London returned soccer champ.

(I think that’s why they added this song at the end of the film, so we can finally see them be the people we believe they are, not the people the script tells them to be.  Or else, because Rani wanted to show off her new bikini body.  Either way, it’s still my favorite part of the movie!)

And, of course, they have to be playing characters who are believable together, but not obvious.  Dil To Pagal Hai, for instance, Madhuri and Shahrukh had some fun spark, and a few fight scenes, but mostly they were set up as being “made for each other”.  The audience never really thought “wait, I don’t see how this can ever work out!”  DTPH, and movies like it, run the danger of feeling like they are simply treading water, as two obviously compatible people try to avoid ending up together.  In DDLJ, in the beginning, Raj and Simran truly do not look like a couple that could ever work.  She is too prim, he is too crude, there is no way they can fall in love (short of a magical eyes meeting fantasy shortcut).  But then we see them get to know each other, and we the audience get to know them better at the same time, and it all starts to make sense.  And because it took so much work to get them to a place where they can meet in the middle, you end up being that much more invested in their relationship when it finally happens.

The hardest part, I think, is being brave enough to give an entire film over to this slowly building relationship.  There are plenty of movies that start to build a DDLJ kind of relationship, and then just give up after an hour, because it is so slooooooooow.  And often, those are my favorite parts of the film, before the director gives up and switches to a higher gear.  For instance, the romance in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha is really beautiful and carefully constructed and strong and believable.  It hits everything I’ve been talking about, they are two miss-matched people who grow together and change through their constant interactions.  It’s not an immediate love at first sight, it is a series of incremental movements as they come closer and closer.  And it is a brilliant casting, two actors playing characters similar to what they have done before, but also distinctly different, and who seem like they could never fit together, until suddenly you see that they are perfect.  But it’s all over and done with after an hour, and we switch to an entirely different kind of movie.   Speaking of historicals, Jodha-Akbar has the same problem.  It’s not a cut and dried first half-second half thing, its scene by scene, we suddenly leave our love story and cut over to politics or religion or war instead, because it is just too hard to maintain a 3 hour love story!

(This is the resolution of the love story, but then the movie keeps going for another 20 minutes with a battle scene)

Even if a director is willing to do a full 3 hour love story, they can still get bored with all the talky-talk and want to just skip ahead and reset.  Like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which did a brilliant job of building the love triangle in the first half, making you really believe in both Rahul-Anjali and Rahul-Tina as a viable couple.  But rather than continuing to slowly build that conflict (can you imagine a K2H2 where Anjali doesn’t leave and Rahul realizes he loves her and has to break Tina’s heart?  Never mind, that’s just Mujshe Dosti Karoge and Kabhi Alveda Na Kehna), it breaks the couples apart and jumps 9 years into the future.  I love Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and I find the characters and their relationships completely real and completely believable.  But they are different people in the first and second half.  We aren’t watching Rahul and Anjali fall in love for 3 hours, we are watching Young Rahul and Young Anjali fall in love, and then watching a distinctly different Old Rahul and Old Anjali fall in love.

DDLJ solved this second half problem by just refusing to solve it.  You don’t notice while watching it, but ultimately, the whole second half of the film had no stakes.  Sure, there is a fight scene, and a dramatic twilight speech between lovers, but really it is all resolved at the interval when Shahrukh finds the bell she left him and knows she loves him as well.  No matter what, they are going to be together.  Kajol may be sad and doubtful, but the audience knows he is on his way.  And once they are together, Shahrukh may insist on getting her family’s permission, but Kajol is planning to elope no matter what.  They always know they will be married and their love story will have a happy ending, so why are we even watching any more?

This is the brilliance of the “not without your father’s permission!” twist to the plot.  Unlike Bobby, which similarly devoted tons of time to building the relationship between the young people, but it then switched gears into making it “us against the world!” in the second half.  Same with Qayamet Se Qayamet Tak and partially with Maine Pyar Kiya.  It’s a standard structure, the first half is the couple falling in love in isolation, the second is testing their love against society.  Except, here, there is no test.  They are both of age, they both have British passports, they can leave at any time.  We know his father has already given his approval.  Nothing is stopping them from leaving.  It’s not “us against the world!”, it’s “well, we already have the world, let’s just stop here a bit and see if we can get the moon as well.”

Ultimately, after “Tumse Dekho”, Kajol and Shahrukh are essentially married.  Nothing is going to break their relationship apart.  We have seen the culmination of their romance.  But then the movie keeps going, and we keep seeing them.  This is what makes the relationship in this film special, and different.  We see them not just falling in love, but BEING in love.  Working at love.  Fighting over silly things like when to break a fast, figuring out how they are going to be as a couple, no longer questioning their commitment or their mutual love, instead questioning how they will live, what values they will share, what surprises might still be left along the way.

That is what sets aside DDLJ‘s true heirs.  That they build and build and build a slow and real romance, they reach the culmination point, and then just keep going.  That’s why Humpty (uch, that name!) and Kavya have to have sex in Humpty Sharma, and Aditya has to live for a while as though he is married to Geet in Jab We Met, and Viren and Aditi have to consider eloping in Socha Na Tha, and Rahul and Meena have to be “married” at the temple on the mountain top in Chennai Express.  And then the movie keeps going.

(I just realized these are the same song with the genders reversed.  In both, one partner considers them to be married, and is living their life that way, regardless of the attitude of the other partner.  Also, I would not want to work for a man who keeps fantasizing a fake wife in board meetings)

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17 thoughts on “What makes DDLJ so special? And why are so few other films that good? (It’s still Shahrukh’s Week!)

  1. I eagerly await the day you analyse Humpty!

    Thanks to this review – I am now watching Socha Na Tha. Love that movie too! Eagerly await the day it appears on your blog too hahaha

    I had never seen these movies like you’ve described – makes so much sense. DTPH did annoy me a bit though with their “forever” – madhuri’s character esp.

    Like

    • I love Socha Na Tha too! And I am so sad about how Imtiaz Ali moved away from movies like that. Socha Na Tha was great, Jab We Met was great, Love Aaj Kal was all right, and then everything after that was just odd.

      Like

  2. (Ok no idea why I can’t reply to your comments – maybe it’s not compatible with the phone)

    Anyway, I so agree – Imitiaz just went downhill. I miss the freshness of his movies.
    Although I’ve heard Highway was pretty great.

    Like

    • Highway was…..interesting? Alia was wonderful and her character was very strong and real. And the songs were amazing. But there were so many things in it that were just odd.

      I wish someone would just force him to go back to rom-coms! They were so good, and all his other stuff is just unsuccessful and strange.

      Like

  3. Over this weekend I rewatched another movie that I think does what you’ve talked about here — build and build and build a natural romance between the characters, and then move beyond — and that’s Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film OK Kanmani. It’s not a hate to love trope like DDLJ, but not quite love at first sight either. I’m not sure I’ve seen characters fall in love so naturally and beautifully done as well as OK Kanmani. The love and attraction builds to the consummation and then when they move in together, it’s almost like they’re married, but not in name or officially. And that’s the conflict — within the characters and their feelings about the institution of marriage, and not an outside family conflict in the same way as DDLJ. Also, there’s a missed train towards the beginning of their relationship that changes everything, but it’s got some new modern twists. I don’t know if the characters change quite as much as DDLJ, but they do both grow up, too.

    Like

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