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'Take the bride away': India's romance with a 20-year-old film and its stars

'Take the bride away': India's romance with a 20-year-old film and its stars
Shah Rukh Khan, left and Kajol during the photo call for the film "Dilwale" in a central London hotel on Dec. 1. (Joel Ryan / Invision)

The four young men from western India rode the overnight train to Mumbai, reaching the movie theater before the box office opened at 11 a.m.

From the back row of the balcony, the friends, all single guys in their early 20s, whistled at the opening titles and hollered at the first glimpse of the star, Shah Rukh Khan. They knew the lines practically by heart, tittering at punch lines before they landed.

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The film was almost as old as they are: "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge," or "The Brave-Hearted Will Take Away the Bride," opened in 1995. But it remains so beloved that it has played for more than 1,000 consecutive weeks at Maratha Mandir, a grand old Art Deco cinema hall in central Mumbai, still drawing scores of die-hards to the daily 11:35 a.m. showing.

"I've lost count of the number of times I've watched it on TV, but it was my dream to see it once in the theater," Kutub Patel, a slim 23-year-old with shaggy hair, said before a screening last week.

He and his friends, employees of an e-commerce company who had the day off, traveled six hours from Gujarat state and were sitting on the concrete steps outside Maratha Mandir before the three-hour movie, waiting to be let in. A few dozen fans milled about, including several college students with backpacks, clutching deeply discounted 30-cent tickets.

When the door to the cavernous cinema opened, the friends were among the first to file into the soaring, wood-paneled lobby. They climbed the marble steps to the balcony and settled into squeaky chairs, their vinyl cushions worn to a shine, moments before the familiar red titles rolled.

India's prolific Bollywood movie machine churns out an endless string of sumptuous romances, but none as enduring as "DDLJ." Central to its cross-generational appeal are the relentlessly singable love songs, the dazzling Swiss mountain scenery and, most of all, the electricity between its stars: Kajol, who goes by one name and plays a headstrong beauty set for an arranged marriage, and Khan, the exuberant playboy bent on stealing her away.

"People in India have learned how to be romantic from Shah Rukh and Kajol," explained Patel, who, his friends agreed, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the film. "The movie just exemplifies love."

As cinema audiences in the United States await the latest "Star Wars" installment, Indian moviegoers are fixated on a different Dec. 18 release: "Dilwale," an action film that reunites Khan and Kajol on screen for the first time in five years.

The new film is unrelated to the earlier one, but as fans such as Patel and his pals will tell anyone, the stars' reunion is big: Go ahead and rank it up there with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher both appearing in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Or, figure that in India it's about 100 times more intense than Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan reuniting for "You've Got Mail" five years after "Sleepless in Seattle."

Khan, 50, and Kajol, 41, have made seven previous films together, but their pairing is rarer these days; whereas he is India's No. 1 box-office draw, she has put aside her career to raise two children.

"I'm excited because they're coming back in a movie, and not the kind of movie we're used to seeing them in together," film critic Rajeev Masand said in an interview. "I'm hoping it'll be a new experience."

The producers have revealed hardly any details about the new film, and few expect director Rohit Shetty, best known for showy flicks with fast cars, to match the soft heart of "DDLJ." But its marketing, right down to the title, harks back to the earlier film. A music video shot in Iceland for one of its signature songs featured Khan and Kajol — in a spectacularly flowing canary-yellow sari — with the tag line, "Some love stories never end."

"For those of us searching for a plot, I don't know if we're going to find one," Masand said. "The intrigue is purely because it's Shah Rukh and Kajol."

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"DDLJ" is one of the five highest-grossing Indian movies of all time, earning an estimated $44 million worldwide. It spawned a generation of films that imitated its international flair — the stars play Indians living in Britain who fall in love on a vacation through Europe — as well as the climactic scene in which Kajol's heroine races to catch Khan as his train pulls away from a station.

"Everybody wanted to recreate 'DDLJ,'" Natashja Rathore, a London Film School student who is directing a documentary on the movie as a master's degree project, said in a phone interview. "It became this iconic thing, and it is still happening. But I don't think anyone can recreate that magic."

In January, President Obama even quoted from the movie in a speech in New Delhi. He managed only a few words in heavily accented Hindi, but a delighted audience recognized the line immediately.

Harish Darji, a slight tailor in a neatly pressed shirt, said he leaves his shop at least one morning a week to catch a screening at Maratha Mandir. It's the cheapest entertainment a poor man can find in Mumbai without getting into trouble, he said.

"The movie has everything — action, romance, songs, the way they part ways and then are reunited," Darji, 42, said outside the theater, where a "Dilwale" poster had been put up. "Shah Rukh and Kajol are the most popular cinema couple. I hope 'Dilwale' lives up to the billing."

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for news out of India

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