Student film explores the Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge phenomenon

An ambitious documentary by a London film student wonders what makes people drool over DDLJ 20 years after its release

It is a Thursday morning, and 175 seats at the 1,000-seater Maratha Mandir at Mumbai Central are filled up for a matinee show of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ). A confused rickshaw-driver from Bandra loiters by the ticket window. He is late by an hour. His wife is admitted at the neighbouring Nair Hospital, and he is looking for a little “time-pass”. DDLJ, now in its legendary 1,037th week, seems like a reasonably distracting option. It is fans like him that fascinate Natashja Rathore, a postgraduate student from the London Film School (LFS). Since May this year, she has been shooting with her seven-member crew for a feature-length grad film that trails the love path of the film’s protagonists, Raj Malhotra and Simran Singh, played by Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol.

Natashja Rathore’s The DDLJ Documentary is a student film shot across two continents. PIC/TUSHAR SATAM
Natashja Rathore’s The DDLJ Documentary is a student film shot across two continents. Pic/Tushar Satam

With six years of film education, the 24-year-old was thinking hard over a subject for her final college submission. “But it wasn’t until Christmas last year, when I was watching Comedy Nights with Kapil, that I came across my theme. The episode discussed DDLJ running for 1,000 weeks at Maratha Mandir. I hadn’t heard of a film running that long. Of the 16 films that may release in London each week, few make it for as long as a month. DDLJ, then is a phenomenon,” she says.

Growing up in Singapore, Mumbai and London, Rathore was fed on a Bollywood diet, and had watched DDLJ some 50 times before she decided to make her documentary. “But this is not a soppy fan tribute or a making-of film. It asks why DDLJ has touched so many hearts. Why is it a success? We want to maintain a balanced perspective.”

Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, in a still from DDLJ
Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, in a still from DDLJ

Presently titled, The DDLJ Documentary, the film features the star-cast and crew of the original film, and has travelled to locations in Switzerland, where Aditya Chopra shot its opening sequences. Expecting a lot of nature and quiet in the Alpine country, Rathore says she was overwhelmed to see the milling Indian tourists. “Switzerland is Bollywood, and Bollywood is Switzerland,” is what Rathore realised. The Jungfrau Express is now lovingly called the Yash Chopra Train; there are customised DDLJ tours across the cities, and a humongous cut-out of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in a typical Bollywood dance move sits atop Mount Titlis. Recalling the people who have been interviewed for the documentary, Rathore says there was an Indian couple touring Switzerland with an elaborate slideshow featuring them in various Raj-Simran poses as well as DDLJ-curious Americans who wanted to watch it on Netflix when they returned home.

Currently wrapping up shooting in Mumbai, Rathore adds that her film about a film is for a Western audience, including a sizeable NRI population, to which DDLJ spoke volumes. “DDLJ was a skillfully made film,” says Rathore, and continues after a thoughtful pause, “for an Indian audience. We don’t realise it but it touched on serious issues that concern young urban India, whether it’s female chastity, double standards in marriage, or the arranged marriage versus love marriage debate. It sugar-coated the lessons in an entertaining package.”

Rathore and her college crew have received £4,000 from LFS, like every other graduating student group to support the production. Planned for a running time of 75 minutes, The DDLJ Documentary is as ambitious as any grad film can get. Most student films are usually shorts, submitted for awards and screened at festivals. Apart from following this tradition of premiering at festivals, Rathore’s film aims for a commercial release, even as it struggles for funding. If all goes well, Yash Raj Films might just be the distributor. “The profit will go to LSF, registered as a charity, which plans to announce scholarships for Indian students. Formal film training is crucial but very difficult to get. I want to make the path easier for aspirants,” says Rathore.

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