Editor's note: Since cinema is not only a form of entertainment but also an important cultural tool that has the power to shape opinions, we are reviewing classics and trying to see them through the lens of the current socio-political climate. The aim is to call out biases, misrepresentation and everything else that is problematic so that we can gauge our journey thus far and the road ahead.
Director: Indra Kumar
Cast: Aamir Khan, Madhuri Dixit
Dil came to a theatre near me in 1992. Although the film released in 1990, it generally took a while (several years to be more accurate), for a new film to show up at the local cinema hall in my small hometown--Birpara--situated close to the Bhutan border in North Bengal.
Surrounded by tea gardens, nights came early in my sleepy town where people had very few means to keep themselves entertained. But, when a new movie came to the theatre--things changed visibly. People suddenly got a new topic to discuss, and a new place to go to.
I still remember the day when I learned that Aamir Khan's Dil had finally arrived in my hometown. By then, I had heard the film's songs way too many times on Chitrahaar and was eagerly awaiting its release. On my way back from school, my eyes suddenly went to the wooden plaque high up on the Banyan tree (which served as a billboard for posters of films currently showing at the town's cinema hall), and I saw Aamir Khan and Madhuri Dixit smiling down at me from a poster of Dil.
As a 4-year-old, I had recently made my acquaintance with the alphabets of the English language, and was having a hard time learning R for Rabbit. Such was my powers of interpreting all things related to Aamir Khan that the moment I saw the poster, I immediately knew that it said Dil. I rushed home to inform my dida (grandmother) that the film we both had been waiting for had finally arrived. However, that woman had a way of beating me to the punch, every time. She smiled indulgently and showed me tickets for that night's show.
Back then, going to the movies was a big thing in my town. Families donned their best dresses to go to the cinema hall, which was a dilapidated building--with overflowing urinals--and ceilings missing in parts, from where rainwater seeped inside and ruined the seats.
But that did not dampen anyone's enthusiasm. Kids promised to study harder in exchange for a night at the cinemas, lovers tried their best to sneak in discreetly from the prying eyes of the uncles and aunties to find their corner 'make-out' seats. Labourers from neighbouring tea gardens came in hoards over the weekend to watch the movies and sometimes the old uncle sitting at the ticket counter even had to turn away people.
Dida and her two friends took me to watch Dil that night. It was the first film I watched in a cinema hall (or at least the first one I remember). As the film began, and giant-sized Madhuri and Aamir danced, bantered and fell in love in front of me--on the screen--I was mesmerized.
Dil, directed by Indra Kumar, is the story of two college goers--Madhu (Madhuri Dixit) and Raja (Aamir Khan)--who despite their initial dislike for one another eventually fall in love. A classic story of class differences, Raja's father (Anupam Kher) who owns a small business, talks himself up and pretends to be a big industrialist, to Madhu's dad (Saeed Jaffrey), so that his son can marry Madhu, and he can grow richer by association.
However, his plan is foiled at the pair's engagement party, where Madhu's dad humiliates Raja's father for pretending to be rich, and the two become arch-enemies deciding to keep their kids away from one another at all costs. However, the couple elopes and starts afresh, but tragedy strikes them too soon and they find themselves in a quandary which is resolved in the end, with everyone getting a happy ending.
When I first saw the film with my dida, I laughed at Anupam Kher's stinginess, and at Madhu (Madhuri Dixit) and Raja's (Aamir Khan) back-to-back pranks. I was afraid when Raja threatened to rape Madhuri and I remember dida putting her hands on my eyes saying, "Don't watch this". I absorbed Madhu and Raja's romance all gooey-eyed and cried my eyes out when Raja met with an accident.
The day after we watched the film, a hair-splitting scene-by-scene discussion of the film ensued in my dida's afternoon knitting circle. One of her friends said, "Oma! Madhuri'r mukhe ki gota dekhecho?" (Oh! did you notice the pimples on Madhuri's face?) The other remarked, "My god! that fat girl looked like Shurpanakha."
I observed that the boys' group who generally hung out at the corner of our street broke into a chorus of 'Aaj Na Chhodunga Tujhe' every time they saw my dance teacher, whose name was also Madhu (like that of Madhuri's character in Dil). Few weeks after the film's arrival in my hometown, the boys in my class teased a friend of mine to tears--calling her the 'big fat girl' from Dil--because she was slightly bigger than the rest of us.
Over the years--thanks to cable television--I have watched Dil many times and each time the film has left me more disappointed than before. The thing that saddens me most, even today, is a particular scene in the film where Madhu organizes a boxing match between the reigning boxing champion of their college, Shakti, and Raja.
She declares that the punishment for the loser is that he will have to kiss her friend--Mimi. As the camera pans on Mimi's face, we see an obese girl, with red sauce smeared over her teeth, monstrously looking at the boys and laughing. I remember asking my Dida and her knitting buddies why kissing Mimi was such a punishment, hearing which the old women had a hearty giggle and much to my chagrin pinched my cheeks.
I want to say that Dil blatantly normalized fat shaming for me and my classmates back then--undoubtedly so--but I know placing the blame only on one film will be wrong when Bollywood routinely does that even today, and so does our society.
Unfortunately, that horrifying scene wasn't the worst thing about the Indra Kumar film which went on to become a cult Bollywood romance.
The film shows Madhu pushing the envelope too far as she alleges that Raja tried to rape her, as a part of an elaborately planned prank. Because of her allegation, Raja is thrown out of the college with makes him so vengeful that he abducts her, and then threatens to rape her, but finally lets her go.
Madhu, on seeing that Raja is such a gentleman that he doesn't rape her despite getting an opportunity to do so, falls in love with him immediately. Yes, what is strange is that it never occurred to the screenwriter, director and dialogue writer that 'not being a rapist' cannot be a criterion for a woman to fall in love with a man.
All men are NOT supposed to rape women, therefore, NOT being a rapist can hardly be considered a virtue. What men are also NOT supposed to do is abduct women, and/or threaten to sexually assault them--all of which Aamir Khan's Raja does to Madhu, but she still decides to fall in love with him (go figure!).
Dil, like most 90's films, not only normalizes eve teasing and harassment of women by showing several sequences where Raja and his friends harass Madhu, but also presents a very stereotyped portrayal of gender roles through its characters. As soon as Madhu and Raja elope and establish a home of their own, Madhu's primary job becomes the household chores, while Raja takes work at a construction site. He is the bread earner, and Madhu is the homemaker.
Re-watching this 1990's film in 2018 left me bored and annoyed. The jokes which I had once found funny, were literally cringe-worthy, and the half-baked romance of Madhuri and Aamir could hardly drag back my attention from the phone screen. I was, however, horrified (again) on seeing how the rape faking scene played out, with Madhu never owning up that it was prank even after Raja was thrown out of college.
I was extremely tempted to stop watching the film several times until the song 'Mujhe Neend Na Aaye' started playing and the memory of my grandmother's face, lit with excitement, lip-syncing to the lyrics, floated back in my head and I decided to watch it till the end, for old times' sake. I guess that's what films do, they not only become a part of you but also of your memories, which is why it is so important to make good films so that we can remember our past better.