A crowd stands patiently and faithfully at the ticket window, the line spilling around the corner on a Tuesday morning as they wait to hand over a fistful of rupees to get into Mumbai’s once-grand Maratha Mandir theatre.
They’re not aching to see the latest Bollywood blockbuster.
They’re here for a film that premiered 27 years ago, but has such an enduring appeal — along with its leading man, Bollywood legend Shah Rukh Khan — that it’s played at this 1950s-era cinema nearly every day since the movie came out, aside from a brief pandemic-induced pause that shut down all theatres in India.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which translates to “The Big-hearted Will Take The Bride,” is a classic love story about a boy who meets a girl, falls in love, and then tries to win over her disapproving father.
It came out in 1995, a few years before 24-year-old Navnath Ghosle was born, and yet he’s seen it some 70 times at the Mumbai theatre.
“I really love the movie, especially the songs,” he told CBC News in Hindi. “They are amazing.”
The songs are ringing out even louder this February, as the film’s intense and abiding popularity has prompted its production company to re-release it in dozens of cinemas across the country — a gimmick timed around Valentines Day.
At last count, with two days left in its one-week run, the Bollywood classic had earned six million rupees, or more than $97,000.
DDLJ + SRK = lasting charm
It’s pure economics that propels Maratha Mandir’s owners to keep showing the ever-popular 27-year-old film every day at 11:30 a.m., given the crowds it still attracts. But it’s also a recognition that the movie has a lasting charm that’s hard to fathom for many outside India.
“DDLJ has its own magic which we can’t describe in words,” said Preeti Gupta, 25, who was waiting to surprise her friend on her birthday with a trip to see one of their favourite films.
The movie was groundbreaking for its time, she said, and still resonates deeply today because it depicts a young Indian woman choosing her own path and convincing her conservative father to allow her to marry for love, forgoing an arranged marriage.
“One of the main reasons [for its popularity] is its story,” Gupta said.
“And Shah Rukh Khan,” she added with a giggle. “Shah Rukh Khan rules the heart of all Indian youth.”
The male megastar of the film is one of the first things nearly everyone at the Mumbai theatre brought up when asked why they love DDLJ.
According to Reetu Sarma, 29, the film is “quintessential Bollywood.”
“It has the drama, it has the fight, it has the songs, the dances and the disapproving father,” she told CBC News. “This movie has it all. Plus, Shah Rukh Khan. So how could it go wrong?”
The wider re-release of the old classic comes as the Bollywood star’s latest blockbuster, the action-thriller Pathaan, is breaking all kinds of records.
Crowds have been pushing and shoving in lineups to get inside to see it, and others swarmed movie cinemas, dancing and drumming and yelling Shah Rukh Khan’s name.
Khan himself tweeted, in jest, about the re-release of DDLJ, writing that he’s finally become an action hero in Pathaan “and you guys are bringing back Raj … uff!,” referring to his character in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
“This competition is killing me!!!!” he wrote, before adding he was heading to see Pathaan.
Arre yaar itni mushkil se action hero bana….and you guys are bringing back Raj…uff!! This competition is killing me!!!! I am going to see #Pathaan …Raj toh ghar ka hai. https://t.co/ImGLi1nC2m
Star’s popularity came under fire
Khan’s popularity is of an unmatched intensity. Every day, fans gather outside his Mumbai home hoping to catch a glimpse of the star or his family. On his 57th birthday last November, thousands showed up and waited on the street, until he stepped out on a platform, blowing kisses and spreading his arms.
“Shah Rukh represents a gentleness … a soft kind of love,” said Stutee Ghosh, a Mumbai-based film critic and radio personality. She said that the star single-handedly changed the idea of how masculinity could be represented in Indian cinema.
He’s also lauded as one of the few Bollywood stars who comes from a middle-class background and made his own way.
“Why I love Shah Rukh Khan? Because he came from nowhere, he came with his talent,” said Jignesh Doshi, 39, buying a ticket outside the Maratha Mandir theatre on Valentine’s Day with his wife.
“He’s maintained his name and his credibility for the last 30 years,” the fan said, gushing.
Still, the success of recently released Pathaan was not assured, after right-wing Hindu groups called for a boycott.
A fact Khan alluded to, on Jan. 30, shortly after the film’s release, when he thanked the fans “for supporting the film so much, in spite of the fact that there might have been things that could have curtailed the happy release of this film.”
Khan is one of the few Indian actors who has spoken out, however discreetly, about the rising intolerance in India that also has Bollywood’s position as a secular bastion in its sights, and that outspokenness, as well as his Muslim name, has made him a target of the Hindu right.
His son was arrested on what were widely seen as trumped-up drug charges last year and held for 26 days before being released.
WATCH | A look at the power of Pathaan — and Shah Rukh Khan:
“People went after Khan,” Ghosh said. But the film critic sees the smashing success of Pathaan and the continuous and steady box-office sales of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge as a sign the viewing public remains eternally devoted to the actor.
“With every ticket that people are buying, it’s like they’re acknowledging [the political turmoil] and also probably apologizing for all that he had to go through in the recent years,” she said.
“So it’s completely backfired — the questioning of his patriotism, questioning his love for the country.
“That just shows the connection an average Indian has with Shah Rukh Khan.”
The connection is strong on a Tuesday morning at Maratha Mandir theatre, where moviegoers continue to trickle in long after the opening credits and signature song starts. Loud cheers erupt when Khan first appears on screen, playing rugby in slow motion in the pouring rain.
It’s one of Jignesh Doshi’s favourite moments, from his favourite superstar.
“Shah Rukh Khan’s name will never come down, he is No. 1 and he will stay No. 1.”