Bombay's longest running matinee

A love story in classic Bollywood style draws repeat crowds to an old-time movie palace.

The audience in the balcony leans forward. Young couples and commuters have forgotten the heat outside, the crushing trains, the bills to be paid. They are waiting in the darkness of the Maratha Mandir cinema for the climactic moment in this well-loved film, some of them whispering the dialogue to themselves like a prayer.

Onscreen, the heroine is dressed for her wedding day. She pulls at her father's hand desperately. "Let me go, Babuji!" she cries. "Please let me go. Raj means all my life! Without him I can't live. Let me go to my Raj. Please...."

Her father ignores her. He stares at a young man standing in the doorway of a train. The young man stares back. His face is cut and bleeding and wet with tears. The train starts moving, oh so painfully slowly.

And the audience waits, as it has waited every day, at the same time, for the same breathless ending, for nearly 10 years.

"Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" (the title means, "The brave-hearted will take away the bride") is the longest-running movie in a country with the world's biggest film industry. Today, the film marks its 500th week of shows.

No visit to Bombay is complete without viewing at least one Bollywood film. The trick is finding the right one among the dozens being shown. Movie posters change weekly above the city's humid crowds. Soundtracks of coming releases bounce from strap-hung radios, and juice vendors hum along as they shove sugar cane into crushers.

A short walk from Mumbai Central train station, the cinema is lined with banners of current releases. The placards for "Dilwale" are faded from years of sunlight. "This is the best love story," an older man says, walking by.

Something odd has happened here. Bombay audiences are some of the toughest in the world, and a bad movie can be pulled before the end of opening weekend. Most films bloom for a week or two and disappear. But "Dilwale" has become a Bombay institution, a perfect masala of location, entertainment, and low price. Young men and women, but mostly young men in their untucked white shirts, wait every morning outside the cinema. The box office sells balcony tickets - the choicest seats - for 15 rupees, or 34 cents. On busy weekends, the 1,000-seat theater sells out with visiting families. The film's popularity "shows no signs of letting up," writes film journalist Anupama Chopra in a recent e-mail. She wrote a book on "Dilwali" in 2002.

In a city with hundreds of theaters, from suburban multiplexes to tiny concrete rooms, the Maratha Mandir is an old-fashioned cinema, with lights that dim and a curtain that opens heavily and slowly. The audience snuggles down in the dark, ready to make jokes, applaud the hero's arrival, and urge the lovers to "Kiss! Kiss!"

Ah, but they never do. It's one of the few Bollywood traditions "Dilwale" follows. These types of films are full of young heroes and heroines who fall in love at first sight, fight with their disapproving parents, and elope in fantastic ways.

In "Dilwale," instead of rebelling, the hero refuses to elope without the approval of the heroine's father. That was a surprise to Indian audiences when the film was first shown in 1995, especially as the hero is an overseas Indian, raised in England. At the time, most Bollywood films showed Indians in the diaspora as having little respect for tradition. Suddenly, people had an optimistic model for their quickly changing world - Indians who made their home in foreign lands without losing their values.

Still, the film plays with the chaste demeanor of most screen lovers. After a night of drinking (itself unusual by Bollywood standards), the heroine wakes up in a hotel room, finding herself in bed strewn with the hero's clothes. He comes in, teasingly asking if she remembers the previous night. She panics, but he quickly assures her that he is honorable and would not touch her under such circumstances. Later, he works up a plan to win over her father on the eve of her arranged marriage to another man.

The audience cheers the hero on. To have an impossible goal, to rely on one's wits - to many off the Bombay streets, it's a familiar fight.

The plan almost works. And then it doesn't. And then.... The audience, caught up, murmurs along with the hero: "Babuji [your dad] is right. So what if I can see nothing beyond you? So what if I can remember no one but you? So what if this wastrel loves you like a madman?" says the anguished lover. "Love isn't everything, is it?"

And finally, the eager silence before the father lets go of the heroine's hand, and then cheers as she jumps onto the train with her lover.

After the climax, however, the theater bangs to life with repeat patrons heading for the doors. They don't need to watch the final moments. It's enough for them that once again, the boy gets the girl - but this time, by staying with tradition.

'Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge' has been released on DVD with English subtitles.

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