Welcome to Bollywood IRL, a series in which we impersonate iconic Bollywood characters to find out how well filmy fantasy holds up in the real world.
It’s the middle of the day, and I’m loitering on a traffic island at one of the exits from Connaught Place’s Inner Circle. On either side, people push their phones through their car windows to take a picture of me:
I’m wearing a hat with a fluorescent yellow feather while attempting to feed pigeons in the manner of Shah Rukh Khan and Amrish Puri in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, complete with many calls of "Aao. Aao."
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is the longest running film in Indian history. The film propelled Shah Rukh Khan to the lover-boy status he still hasn’t relinquished, and left a lasting impression on the way we all think about romance. Even in 2015, DDLJ’s 20th anniversary year, filmmaker Rohit Shetty tried to cash in on its hit jodi’s chemistry with Dilwale, in which Kajol co-starred—a rare lead role for a 40-year-old woman in Bollywood.
But at the core of DDLJ’s cultural stranglehold is Shah Rukh Khan’s performance as Raj, which, to quote Sampada Sharma in The Indian Express, “makes him lovable even with all his so-called bad habits.”
But in the age of #MeToo and toppling idols, we wondered if Raj’s raffish charm would stand up to the scruples of the day. There was only one way to find out. Empirically.
Since I didn’t have the dough to go to Europe (my Pops isn’t as generous as Anupam Kher) or the travel budget (#startup) to find my own sarson ke khet, I did what I could on the streets of Delhi.
10:30 AM: The Stealing of the Beer
24Seven, Club Road, Punjabi Bagh
Near the beginning of DDLJ, Raj wants booze, but Amrish Puri, who runs a convenience store with a li’l theka won’t let him have it because it’s after hours. Raj fools his future overlord, picks up the beer and runs, leaving some cash. I walked up to my local 24Seven to attempt the same heroic deed.
The alcohol fridge is near the cash counter, behind which stalks shift manager Azad Ahmed, a sweet 30-something with a Colin Farrell ‘stache who is fated to become my new mortal enemy. I take a breath and walk straight through the wooden gate between me and my alcohol.
A lady with a broom stops me. I’m in luck. Like Raj, I’ve shown up at the wrong time—24Seven won't even sell me beer until the store manager, who is late, shows up. If I ignore the woman, there are still three staffers between me and the front door. I’m not sure the whole “fake pooja” sequence would work on Ahmed, plus I don’t see any religious icons around, so I just ask him straight up if I can “steal” the daaru and run when he’s over on the far side of the sales counter. He shoots me down. “Nahin ho sakta.”
Quick mental calculus: The distance between me and the alcohol is three feet. Nine feet between Ahmed and the alcohol, at the furthest point of his pacing. Twenty feet between me and the exit.
They eye me, and I them. It's a game of chicken.
What is math? Why didn't I study more? Why couldn’t my failure be as handsomely rewarded as Raj’s?
I ask Ahmed to let me fake the whole thing. I try to give him my bag and laptop, and my phone, to take a picture of me. I even promise to hand over my Aadhar card. He says I need permission from the head office. The rest of the staff is getting into it. The lady with the broom edges closer. They eye me, and I them. It's a game of chicken.
To not seem like a weirdo, and build a positive relationship with my enemies, I look for something to buy. I ask the lady her name and whether the new Cadbury is any good, but she just stares back. I meekly ask for a pack of cigarettes and a Zazzy.
Raj didn’t really care for the people who stood in the way of fulfilling his heart’s desires.
I hang around for another 45 minutes, marvelling how many types of dips are now available, but also thinking about how mean it would be to first take up Ahmed’s time with so much useless small talk, and then just try to flee with the alcohol for which he was responsible.
Raj, I realise, didn’t really care for the people who stood in the way of fulfilling his heart’s desires. This is manifest in the film, again and again. Raj toys with Preeti (Mandira Bedi in the film) by leading her on and promising marriage, only because he needs to deceive her brother, Simran’s fiancée. Raj is a fuckboi masquerading as a nice guy who destroys lives, whether it’s love he’s after, or beer.
I say goodbye to Ahmed, who refuses even to let me take a picture with him. Perhaps he’s warmed to me though, because he gives me some friendly advice to not try the East Patel Nagar 24Seven, as it has tighter security, with a guard at the door. I don’t have my beer, but Ahmed doesn't have a daughter, so at least I don’t have to destroy his entire value system for my happiness.
11:30 AM: Lover in the Metro
Punjabi Bagh Station to Rajiv Chowk Station
The Delhi Metro is the closest I have to Eurail. However, the Metro is different from the Eurail in one key aspect: It has a designated ladies’ compartment, ensuring none of us can ever have a DDLJ or Before Sunrise moment, ever. The first coach is the women’s coach, pure and pious I assume, while the rest are a sketchy sausage fest. Especially the coach right next to the women’s coach, where guys stand around to stare. Of course this is the coach I get into in the quest for my Simran.
No woman even looks in my direction, let alone leaves her brassiere lying around for me to creepily pick up and start a conversation, as Kajol does in the film. I look through the screen of my semi-wavy hair, into the void of the women’s coach, as bashful as Raj, hoping one passenger will at least offer to take a selfie with me so I can prove to my editor that I tried to actualise Raj’s Eurail vacation.
12:30 PM: The Fedora and the Feather
Janpath Market, New Delhi
To truly pull off Raj, I needed to look like him, so I set out on a search for the most transcendent fashion accessory in Indian cinema—no not the “Cool” necklace from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but Raj’s dark grey fedora with a flowing feather.
As Fashion 101 noted on the film’s 20th anniversary, “While Shah Rukh deeply impacted the impression of a ‘perfect man’ on our impressionable minds, his iconic hat made us all yearn for it.” Yearn for what? The hat, of course.
Janpath market’s middle lane is where the magic happens, with hawkers selling fake Gucci jeans, cheap trinkets, and exotic-lite handicrafts from make-shift tarpaulin stalls. Surely the iconic hat will be available here.
I’m disappointed when I realise that the combination is non-existent on the #Delhibro wardrobe desirability chart, having been replaced by flashy snapbacks and flashier bandanas. A couple of shop owners even laugh at me. One takes pity and directs me to the sidewalk outside the Regal Cinema building. Though now closed, Regal is the cinema where, throughout school, I heard rumours of soft porn screenings masquerading themselves as Bhojpuri films. Regal never left anyone high and dry, and it’s where I have a lucky encounter with Suraj Singh Rawat.
Fifty-year-old Rawat has operated at the same temporary spot in a Regal-adjacent lane for 10 years. He tells me he sells headgear to encourage more people to wear headgear, and offers me a grey fedora for Rs 150. Sadly, it has no feather. Rawat directs me to a trinket shop which sells feather earrings—back in Janpath. Fuck.
The shop owner plucks out a feather, finds some cellotape to fix it on, and charges me 50 bucks. I put on the feathered fedora, pull my overcoat out of my leather sling, and BOOM! I’m Raj.
3 PM: Seducing Pigeons and Future Father-in-Laws
Connaught Place Inner Circle
Despite recent revelations that pigeons can seriously fuck up our lungs, flocks of pigeons are fairly easily to locate in central Delhi as neither the Delhi Government nor Municipal Corporation, unlike The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation has taken any steps to discourage people from feeding the birds.
I find pigeons in CP’s inner circle, gathered around Sushila, who sells platefuls of barley for Rs. 20.
Sushila has worked this spot for around seven years. She says she has about 100 customers in a day, but pockets only Rs. 500 to Rs. 700. So when I ask her to take a video of me feeding pigeons, she’s pretty pissed. I asked a passerby, whose first reaction is “Pagal ho kya?” He then calls a friend to help.
Raj tried to turn pigeon-feeding into a bonding exercise with his father-in-law, but I feel no sense of greater purpose. It’s embarrassing, with people laughing and taking pictures. I swear I even hear Sushila chuckle. Emotionally, the whole ordeal leaves me with an emptiness not unlike Shilpa Shinde’s comments at the end of the latest season of Bigg Boss.
The only certainty is that Raj doesn’t really care about pigeons, which, in addition to all the people he fucks over, makes him a pretty bad human being. I sit amongst the birds, thinking about Kuljeet, Preeti, and Bauji, wondering how fucked we must be to anoint an insensitive asshole as our patron saint of romance.
Googling pigeons to distract myself, I come across the incredibly graphic documentary, The Sex Lives of Pigeons, according to which pigeons are super perverted and fuck a lot. It’s no surprise then, that Raj was so obsessed with them.
6:30 PM: Woo a Girl with a Guitar
Innov8 co-working space, Saket
I’m back at office, when I spot a guitar and realise this could be my own shot of redemption as Raj. I seize the instrument, trying to figure out how to hold it correctly while a colleague records every embarrassing moment. I look up hopefully at a girl I’d spoken to earlier in the day while getting coffee. She might as well spit on my soul, so disapproving is her expression before she walks away.
No one falls in love with me. I think Raj, the romantic hero, probably should have died in the film, because these days he might actually be taken for a villain. That night, in a last-ditch effort to bring Raj’s wooing skillz into the 21st century, I text my girlfriend, asking her to meet me on her roof. “GTFO,” she replies. We end up watching The Rebound on Netflix instead.