I’m not sure if I will be able to articulate this correctly or not. But I will try my darnedest and we will see what we get.
When I was 19, I was in a confused place and a lot of it was related to my gender roles. I was a freshman in college, a female freshman. Popular culture, even the stories from my own family (parents and both sets of grandparents met in college) said that this was supposed to be a time of romance. I was supposed to be going to parties, on dates, falling in love with boys, and eventually finding my husband. Not like they expected me to do that, but like I expected myself to do that. That is what I had always been told college was for a girl, the place where you blossom and fall in love and blah blah blah.
But now I had finished my freshman year, and instead college was where I explored the city around me, made close female friendships, and really liked my classes. There were no parties, there were no boys, there was no rebellion, no alcohol, no make-up, no rock music, none of those things that culture said was “college” for a girl. This was my mind when I went to see DDLJ for the first time.
Even going to see it was part of that. I was doing summer school and staying on campus. But it wasn’t “woo, party all night!” summer school, and on the weekends the campus was totally empty and I kind of didn’t know what to do with myself. So I went to movies, any movie that looked interesting, which is how I stumbled into DDLJ.
And I watched the movie and felt just so much BETTER about myself as a woman! Here was a 19 year old heroine who was like me! She didn’t drink, she didn’t go to parties, she didn’t date, and that was all okay. She was strong and interesting and wonderful and NORMAL. Here was a version of a woman in popular culture who didn’t follow any of the rules I had learned and she was happy.
Years went by, I watched a lot more Indian films and talked to my Indian friends and came to understand that for some people the DDLJ heroine had the same effect but from the opposite direction. I saw her as a great prototype for a young woman as uninterested in boys and parties as I was. But if you are coming from a more conservative background, you see her as a young woman who wears short skirts, who has friends who date even if she doesn’t, who wants to take a trip around Europe, who gets drunk and has fun, who falls in love and wants to elope. She is breaking the rules, and that’s okay, she is still a good person with normal needs, she deserves to be happy, and she is happy.
One way of looking at this is saying that Aditya wrote his female lead, Simran, the same way he wrote his male lead Raj: with an eye on two markets. For the westernized types like me, she was a reminder that it is okay to be more conservative than your friends, that isn’t “weird”. And for the more conservative types, it is okay to be western. But I think it’s simpler than that, he wrote Simran as an individual, not a “type”, not the way women are “supposed” to be, but simply as she was.
That’s what makes her such an easy character to judge. Because she is written as a flawed human person, she will not exactly fit any critical framework you bring to her. A perfect modern woman should want a career, not just marriage. A perfect Indian heroine should run from a hero like Raj not towards him. She doesn’t do anything right! Because she isn’t built to be a perfect expression of a philosophy, she is built to simply be the person she is with the motivations and reactions that would make sense for her.
That’s why, to me, this film is feminist. Because it gives its female characters permission to just be human. It’s not only Simran, her mother also changes her mind multiple times, is pulled in multiple directions, makes mistakes. Her younger sister too.
Woman are given a barrage of messages as to what we should Be, from religion and family and pop culture, all of it. Woman are the reflection of the patriarchal society, their jewel, their creation, and so we must be as they created us. Skinny or curvy, obedient or rebellious, career women or homemakers, it is all being told to us, not allowed to come naturally from within. When you find a pop culture product that says to its female audience “look, these women are just people, they aren’t perfect” it is saying “you don’t have to be perfect either, you just have to be a person”.
What’s the most iconic symbol of Kajol playing the Simran character? It’s not the green formal outfit, it’s not the white mustard field clothes, or the sexy red dress, or even the golden wedding dress. Or the big hair, or curvy figure, or even the dancing eyes. It’s the eyebrows, her unplucked eyebrows. This is a heroine who doesn’t even bother to shape her brows, who says “here I am world, this is me”.