'Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical' raises eyebrows

The 'whitewashing' of the lead actor faces criticism even as makers defend their choice

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Austin Colby and Shoba Narayan in “Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical.”
Austin Colby and Shoba Narayan in “Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical.”

Published: Fri 16 Sep 2022, 12:45 PM

Last updated: Mon 19 Sep 2022, 8:54 AM

It is one of the most successful Bollywood movies of all time. Though released in 1995, it still plays daily at a movie theater in Mumbai, India. Its songs are a mainstay at weddings. Its lead actors became Bollywood superstars. And now “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” or “DDLJ,” has hit the stage.

“Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical” is in previews at the Old Globe here before a planned Broadway run. Fans of the film had been abuzz after producers announced the stage adaptation last fall, but when the show’s cast was revealed this summer, social media lit up with criticism. The news that a white actor, Austin Colby, would play the role of Rog — known as Raj in the film and played by Indian star Shah Rukh Khan — led many fans of the movie to accuse the show of whitewashing.

The show’s creators say they want to tell the story of two cultures coming together. But those critical of the casting decision see a missed opportunity. Amid increasing demands for more inclusive hiring and storytelling in the entertainment industry, South Asians are still underrepresented onstage and on screen.

“Just when you think we are moving on wards and upwards we are right back to square one,” Andy Kumar, an India-based performer known as VJ Andy, wrote in a tweet. “Why can’t our stories be told as they are? Without a white wash??”

On Instagram, negative comments were sprinkled among the responses to Colby’s excited post about his casting. “Haven’t y’all colonized enough,” one user wrote. Another commented: “It is embarrassing that as a white man you are willingly stealing opportunities from men of color. This isn’t something to be proud of.”

Chef and restaurateur Vikas Khanna, who was born in India and lives in New York, has also expressed his disapproval on social media. “They took away a star from us,” Khanna said during a video call. “All these guys would have gone in for auditions and the parents would have been: ‘My God, my boy is going to be Raj!’”

“Doing this, you’re making our kids feel less-than,” he added. “Let’s not move back. We’ve worked really hard to be on the stage.”

“DDLJ” was one of the first Indian films to center on a love story between nonresident Indians (known as NRIs), a reflection of the large numbers who were emigrating. It focuses on two young NRIs living in London. The party boy Raj (Khan) is rich, entitled and Western, quite the opposite of the old-fashioned Simran (Kajol) and her hardworking traditional father, who says to Raj in the film: “You call yourself an Indian? You give India a bad name.” But when Simran returns to India for her arranged marriage, Raj and Simran try to persuade her father to let their love conquer all.

Beyond the central love story, the movie also resonates because of its focus on love of country and family.

The film “touched a nerve” with NRIs who were “navigating between two or three cultures,” Rajinder Dudrah, a professor at the Birmingham Institute of Media and English, explained in an interview. Individuals were having to grapple with the tension between Indian tradition and Western ideas just as this movie was highlighting them. “The idea of ‘dil hai Hindustani’ the heart is Indian,” was also conveyed in the film, Dudrah added, “meaning that no matter where in the world you were, if you were of Indian descent, you had an attachment to India.”

Although the show includes nods to the film — pigeons, fields of mustard flowers, a mandolin cameo — and the film’s narrative arc remains, this “DDLJ” is decidedly American. Raj has been transformed into Roger (or Rog), and the leads now live in Massachusetts, meeting as Harvard students in Cambridge. Aditya Chopra, who directed the movie, is also directing the stage show; the book and lyrics are by Nell Benjamin, who wrote the screen-to-stage adaptations of “Legally Blonde” and “Mean Girls.”

In August, Chopra posted a statement on Instagram saying that his original vision for the film involved a white male lead. (His first choice at the time was Tom Cruise.) “The most powerful way to depict a country’s culture and values is to see it from the perspective of someone who does not belong to the same culture,” Chopra wrote, saying his goal was to showcase Indian culture for a global audience. “That is the starting point of ‘Come Fall in Love,’ the story of Indian Simran, her culture and heritage through the eyes of American Roger.”

This month, Benjamin said she was not surprised by the reaction, “given the lack of representation” in the theater, but the uproar was still unsettling. “I was distressed that people thought that Adi or me or anyone would want to whitewash this movie,” she said, referring to Chopra. “That would suggest that, ‘Oh, well, when we do it, she’s going to fall in love with this guy because he’s better than the options.’ That’s not the story. I believe people who come to see the show will get that.”

The show’s writers stressed that the production still featured a predominantly South Asian cast, including Shoba Narayan, who plays Simran, and a production spokesperson said South Asians represented more than 50% of cast members.

Benjamin said the creators had considered writing the male lead as an Indian American or a half-Indian man but believed it would have been an “easy choice” that wouldn’t have worked as well. “If you don’t excavate it, you don’t add value to it,” she said, adding that Chopra “is perfectly capable of doing the exact movie as a musical, developing it in Mumbai and then renting a theater in New York, but that’s not what we wanted to do together.”

Shoba Narayan, with ensemble members, in “Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical.”
Shoba Narayan, with ensemble members, in “Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical.”

Not everyone was critical of the direction the stage musical has taken. Bollywood screenwriter Shibani Bathija (“My Name Is Khan,” “Fanaa”) saw the advantages in changing the lead’s ethnicity to make the story work for a general audience. “I think having him be South Asian would be more problematic, because where is all this objection coming from,” she said, referring to the family’s disapproval of the central couple’s relationship. The United States focuses less on caste and class differences than India or Britain, she said, so the possible differences between two South Asians would not be as apparent to an American audience.

“If you hadn’t watched the film, you wouldn’t get it,” she said. “There would need to be another level of explanation that maybe wouldn’t serve the creative.”

The show’s composers, Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani, known as Vishal & Shekhar, also disagreed with the criticism. Ravjiani said they were proud to represent India through the musical, for which they created an 18-song score. (The two did not write the film’s original songs, which have become classics, and only a few melodies from the movie are heard in the musical.) Dadlani said that Chopra wanted to tell this specific story and that it was “ridiculous” to say that “just because you’re an Indian filmmaker, you should write the story differently.”

“It’s not about color, it’s not about white or brown,” Dadlani added. “It’s about a boy who’s in love with a girl and whose family is different than the girl’s family.”

However, Benjamin, interviewed separately, thought of color as a storytelling tool. She explained that in her view, “with the change to Rog, you’re talking about color” and discussed how Roger’s “whiteness” gave him privilege, making things easy for him, until he faced Simran’s father.

Despite the criticism of the show, among the three dozen or so audience members interviewed in San Diego, the response was mostly positive — from those familiar with the film and those who weren’t.

One of the few dissenting voices was Shebani Patel, who flew in from San Francisco to see the show: “I was not pleased with the casting. I don’t hate the show, but it’s not our show.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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