Casting for DDLJ’s Broadway Adaptation Has Angered Fans. But Is DDLJ’s Sexist Legacy Even Worth Reviving?
Hindi cinema has grilled one-word association into people: every character titled “Raj” is almost always played by Shah Rukh Khan, a link that the 1995 classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) played an important part in cementing. But there appears to be a glitch. New York’s Broadway is adapting DDLJ, and has the British actor Austin Colby cast as Raj.
Titled Come Fall In Love — The DDLJ Musical, the yet-to-premiere show has incensed the movie’s extensive fan base, who are accusing its makers of “colonizing” a movie so deeply embedded into the country’s culture by “whitewashing” its male lead. For young audiences experiencing DDLJ for the first time on Broadway, people argue, the iconic romance’s cultural essence will be diluted since they will see it as the love story of a white man and an Indian woman.
On one level, Indians see themselves as marginalized enough to be offended at the prospect of a white actor playing Raj. But the outrage demands a bigger question: is DDLJ — with its dated, sexist legacy — truly a movie worth reviving? The “Indianness” of the story goes beyond the nostalgia and adoration of its characters’ nationality, seeping into its normalization of the harassment of women — thereby promoting rape culture for its impressionable young viewers. In 2016, an article called it “a cute spin on harassing a woman until she falls for you,” and rightfully so.
It was only recently that people began to see DDLJ as a narrative that pushed forth a questionable portrayal of the male gaze and women’s agency. For one, it makes light of sexual assault; after waking up in Raj’s bed, Simran (played by Kajol) is worried that they had sex while she was intoxicated. First, Raj leads her to believe that’s true, simply because he thinks that qualifies as a “prank.” Then, when Simran breaks down, he assures her that nothing sexual transpired between them because he isn’t the kind of person who would take advantage of an intoxicated Indian woman — as if he deserves appreciation for choosing to not have sex with a woman who was unable to provide consent. As Shivani Shah, a Mumbai-based screenwriter, told The Huffington Post, “After making a joke about what is technically a rape, he goes on to judge women who have premarital sex.”
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The arc of DDLJ‘s female lead began with her being “owned” by her father whose word was the law. Shah also notes, “…I feel as if he [Simran’s father, Baldev, played by late actor Amrish Puri] treats his daughter like cattle that he drags all the way to a village in India, taking away from her any agency over her own life. How is that any different from a khap panchayat?” From there, she went on to be with a man who harassed her until she reciprocated his feelings, and then followed her to another country — despite knowing she was engaged — to convince her to marry him instead. Amid all this, as the 2016 article noted, Raj “[broke] into Simran’s room as he please[d], tamper[ed] with her underwear, [and] flirt[ed] with other women.”
Simran and Raj’s romance was not the precise articulation of fairy tales. Instead, Simran was the passive, submissive female protagonist; the men projected their fantasies and desires onto her, determining her fate. And this is the narrative that is being remolded for a global audience.
If it’s DDLJ‘s romantic nostalgia that the adaptation may tap into, the concern is the modern narrative may also uphold the movie’s gender roles and misogyny. We know there is an audience for criminally misogynistic leads; think Arjun Reddy, and its equally successful remake, Kabir Singh. Even if DDLJ‘s Broadway adaptation manages to remove all the problematic traits of Raj’s character to make it more palatable to a modern audience, it’s unlikely that Baldev’s character won’t be as sexist as in the movie. Especially so, since his patriarchy is integral to the primary conflict in the plot: of finally allowing his daughter to marry a man against his wishes. With a white actor playing Raj now, one Twitter user raised a pertinent question: “So it’s a white savior story now?”
Then again, reportedly, Raj’s character was originally supposed to be played by Tom Cruise, another white actor. Perhaps, it was always a white savior story.
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This isn’t to say that people’s anger at Colby’s casting is entirely misplaced. A report from 2021 — analyzing the racial diversity on New York’s stages during 2018-2019 “the last full season” before the pandemic — found that not only did white actors bag about two-thirds of the available roles, but more than 90% of the producers and directors, too, were white. As such, the criticism rooted in the lack of Indian representation — notwithstanding the exoticized, caricatured, and stereotypically-reductionist kind in shows like Bridgerton and Never Have I Ever — perhaps, deserves merit.
Yet, one question continues to loom large: is DDLJ really the best representation of Indian cinema — and culture? This is a time when Indian audiences have moved on to movies like Kahaani (2012), Queen (2013), Pink (2016), and Thappad (2020). If a love story is what Yash Raj Films wanted to adapt for Broadway, perhaps, 2004’s Veer Zaara — yet another movie with Khan as the male lead, which has been described as “a fantastic romantic tale that subverts gender roles while telling a touching story of love” — would’ve been a better bet.
Having said that, DDLJ might still represent an unfortunately large chunk of India where women lack agency and are treated like chattel. But, it is movies like DDLJ that might have had a hand in reinforcing the mindset that allows it. “More than capturing a reality, DDLJ shaped one… While the happy ending makes the viewer happy, the overwhelming message of the film is inescapable: if your parents don’t let you marry who you want, don’t run away. Convince them. The obvious implication is that if they are not convinced, eloping against their wishes is not an option,” Shivam Vij had written in 2014.
What we choose to reimagine is often reflective of what we aspire to as a society. It’s high time we deconstructed that “reality,” rather than perpetuating it.