Raj, the embodiment of normative maleness

The 1995 hit film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was widely regarded as the epitome of a fulfilling Indian romance, where a daughter manages to unite with her lover with due consent from the father. The daughter’s chastity as a symbol and trope associated with the honour of an Indian family, particularly one that struggles to retain its roots of Indianness on a foreign land, is a problematic social construct much discussed by critics.

Poster of DDLJ (Source: Indian Express)

A glaring factor however, that surprisingly escapes the eye of both viewers and critics is the trope of masculinity, upon which the entire premise of the plot was built. Raj signified the symbolic hero that sought to represent the aspirations of the modern-day Indian young man. But a closer observation would reveal that the depiction of Raj in the film characterizes everything that is worrisome and problematic, not just about what Raj depicts in the film, but also the social norms of masculinity in a broader sense.

Raj, as a non-resident wealthy Indian born and raised overseas, embodied all the stereotypical traits of masculinity that a patriarchal society adorns an ideal man with. But his character development across the plot of the movie is heavily skewed, inconsistent and abrupt.

If one were to trace the plotline of the film, there is an absolute schism at the moment when the storyline shifts to the Indian soil from the buzz of Europe. Raj in Europe, is not the same person as who he becomes when he comes to India to convince and gain the approval of Simran’s family for marriage.

The construction of his character is just as deliberate and sporadic, as are the expectations regarding the performance of masculinity in real life. Most feminist narratives look at the embodiment and depiction of an ideal man from an external lens of desire.

The notion of a suitable hero which such a feminist imagination paints is one full of idealism and hope. Simran’s ruminations about an unknown, unsolicited face erupting in her dreams, that she confesses to her mother in the beginning is symbolic of such an imagination.

But even in the realm of intuition and imagination, the binary between femininity and masculinity persists. Action and resolution of a conflict is characterized as masculine, while revelling in hopes, imagination and fantasies is perceived to be feminine. Simran and Raj embody these binaries in the film.

Simran is introduced as a dreamy girl living within a repressed household who is weaving her imagination of an ideal romantic partner within a secret personal space, away from the gaze of the world. Raj, on the contrary, is introduced on screen with a string of visual performances such as riding a racing car, playing rugby, and indulging in all material pleasures of life, leading a life of fulfilment and debauchery; which is essentially a marker of his machismo.

The rift between the introductory presentations of the female and male character also signify the dissonance between them. It has been established as the woman’s role to stay enmeshed in fantasies that would form the emotional ingredient in the forthcoming relationship.

The man has essentially, and strategically, been distanced and deprived of that emotional web of intuition and imagination, since sentiments are positioned in the feminine realm within the narrative. The man’s world is shown as a reservoir of freedom and adventure.

Raj’s initial demeanour and persona has been carefully constructed to satiate the fantasy of both the typical male and female viewer, as perceived through a conventional lens.

We as a culture do not say it out loud, but we secretly admire a tinge of disobedience and rebellion in men. A boy too shy, or too obsequious begins to run the risk of appearing flat and unattractive. Patriarchy as a social order has conditioned men since childhood with the belief that they are supposed to be vocal, assertive and lead a situation as per their whims.

While women are conventionally rendered attractive when they appear as passive and in compliance, men are revered most when they come across as audacious and upfront about whatever it is, that they seek.

Raj is shown to embody a carefree and reckless attitude towards all situations and circumstances, that has been engendered by pervasive, gendered social norms to be such an intrinsic characteristic of masculinity that it instinctively appeals to the conventional male psyche.

His excessively flirtatious attitude since the beginning of the narrative when he sees Simran can be read as borderline creepy. His sexual drives and prowess that is immanent in subtle moments on screen, especially when his character is being introduced in the beginning, have been carefully crafted and inserted to establish his masculinity.

Yet Raj’s masculinity is different from the other male characters, such as Simran’s father Baldev or her supposed fiancé Kuljeet, and the demarcations contribute further to the causes that aim to characterize him as desirable.

Baldev is symbolic of the traditional voice of male domination and the reign of patriarchy within a conservative social order. Whereas Kuljeet represents the predatory and oppressive male instincts that are clearly discernible for the audience. Raj is the saviour, for he intends to rescue Simran from both of these forces of hegemonic masculinity.

In spite of the overt hooliganism and rowdiness visible in Raj’s lifestyle during the initial segments of the narrative, his desirability and genuineness is established by the moments when he aids Simran during her moments of isolation and discomfort, and vouches for her safety.

Raj’s character begins to shift, and the gentler shades of his personality are gradually revealed, since the moment when he respects Simran’s bodily integrity. The typical jock-like figure steeped into debauchery is shown as a lonesome individual humming the tunes of his violin in moments of solitude, casually expressing his ruminations and desires at certain moments.

His ruminations however, are grounded within emotionally stoic expressions, for unlike Simran, he does not possess the liberty to express or even admit his emotional instincts to their core. The only socially acceptable form in which they are allowed to manifest are his flirtatious or sexual drives, that only add to the typical conception of masculinity that associates sexual drive and prowess with manliness.

The one moment where he confesses his true emotional desires to Simran, that are very similar to her own fantasies, is singular and short-lived. The first half of the film set on overseas locations is committed to the project of establishing Raj’s masculinity, by carefully displaying his emotional stoicism, debauchery, flirtations and carefree attitude towards life.

When he comes to Punjab with hopes of attaining his love, he comes across as a changed man. The Raj in India is gentle, tender and sensitive to Simran’s wishes and demands. Yet unlike Simran, who is deprived of any agency over her own life, Raj is embroiled in the project of securing his love in a fashion, that the prevailing social norms would deem ethical.

He does not have the space or freedom to confess his anxiety, or even ponder too much upon any feeling of self-doubt regarding his abilities. His emotional self is only a buffer to serve as a source of protection and comfort for the heroine, and not an outlet to express his own feelings of turmoil.

The deliberate construction of Raj’s masculinity shows the rifts and limitations within society’s conception of an ideal man or boy, even in today’s times. Even when feminist imaginations or progressive mindsets acknowledge the need for emotional intelligence and sensitivity in males, it is still regarded solely as a tool to enhance their desirability in the popular imagination. It never yields into a confession of their honest, heartfelt vulnerabilities.

The narrative of DDLJ is a battleground for the hero where he establishes his machismo by affirming his prowess, stoicism and ability to manipulate social situations as per his needs and desires, and love for him becomes a project to conquer. For the heroine, it is a plot of tension and turmoil from which the hero eventually manages to rescue her in the end.

But to preserve the binary between femininity and masculinity, the heroine is deprived of any real agency over her life and is dependent upon fate, circumstance and the ability of the hero to rescue her.

The hero meanwhile, is consumed within the project of performing the socially encrypted role of a desirable man and saviour throughout the plot. For his emotional succour, he is dependent upon the sensibility of the heroine, for it is only within the proximity of a woman who reposes faith in his masculinity, that his tender desires can ever be revealed, which are so subtle and hidden, that they are nearly invisible on screen.

As long as his vulnerability, anxiety and self-doubt are hidden from the audience and suppressed beneath the narrative, the fantasy of the ideal man whose stoicism and emotional numbness is regarded as a strength by a patriarchal social order, persists.

DDLJ was an iconic superhit romantic film, that reinforced the expectations of an ideal boy or man quite firmly within popular culture. Masculinity might be imagined as the reservoir of strength, freedom and adventure, but the lack of vulnerability and emotional expressions within the persona of Raj becomes a tool, both in popular culture and real life, to suppress non-normative, or any seemingly effeminate expressions of maleness that render full reign to emotions, and do away with the need to perform masculinity; a duty that Raj is inexorably tied to, throughout the film.

Raj managed to rescue Simran but not himself, from the force of patriarchy, for if a boy begins to honestly reveal his tears and vulnerabilities to the world, he would not really be seen.