In 1995, 23-year-old Indian filmmaker Aditya Chopra wrote and directed his first Bollywood movie, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.” The globe-hopping romantic comedy told the story of two young British Indians, Raj and Simran, who fall hopelessly in love, even though Simran has been pledged by her father to an arranged marriage with a stranger in India.
Nicknamed “DDLJ” by its legions of fans, the movie became one of the highest-grossing Indian films in history. Chopra would go on to produce some of the nation’s biggest blockbusters. The film’s lead actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol became superstars overnight. And thanks to continued screenings at movie theaters in South Asia to this very day, “DDLJ” remains the longest-running film in the history of Indian cinema.
Twenty-seven years later, Chopra is ready to take another crack at “DDLJ” with his first venture into American musical theater. “Come Fall in Love — The DDLJ Musical” will make its world premiere Thursday, Sept. 1 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. And after it closes here, Chopra plans to prep the musical for Broadway.
Over the years, Hindi cinema has changed dramatically, and so have the societal mores that once forbade young Indian women from making their own choices. So Chopra, who is directing the musical at the Globe, said he is approaching the story with fresh eyes and the understanding that the musical’s primary audience will be Americans. Although some melodies from the original film will be featured in the musical, it will have a new 18-song score written by the Indian film and pop composing duo Vishal & Sheykhar.
In the musical “Come Fall in Love,” Simran will be a more liberated Indian American woman and Raj is now Rog, an American with no Indian heritage. They meet in Boston and their love gradually blossoms during a mishap-plagued trip to Europe. Their relationship infuriates her father, an Indian immigrant who cherishes his native cultural traditions, including his plan for Simran to marry the son of a family friend in India. As in the movie, some of the story will be told in flashy, full-cast bhangra song-and-dance numbers.
News about the transformation of Raj into an American and the story’s re-setting in the U.S. has caused a social media firestorm among the film’s fans in recent weeks. But Chopra said that the interracial romance is the story he always wanted to tell in “DDLJ” and it’s even more important today, particularly in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian attacks in the United States.
“ ‘Come Fall in Love’ … has allowed me to revisit my original vision for ‘DDLJ,’ and share with audiences this love story between an American man and an Indian woman,” Chopra said in a statement. “ ‘Come Fall in Love’ is truly an expansion of the success story of ‘DDLJ.’ Any lover of the film will rediscover its beauty, and the English-speaking world will fall in love with Rog, Simran and India. Bollywood and Broadway will meet for an exciting theatrical experience.”
To help tell Simran’s story for the musical stage, Chopra sought out one of Broadway’s best interpreters of strong-willed, all-American girls: two-time Tony nominee Nell Benjamin. With her husband Laurence O’Keefe, Benjamin wrote the music and lyrics for “Legally Blonde The Musical” as well as the lyrics for the musical adaptation of Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls.”
About five years ago, Benjamin said she was chatting with a theater investor friend about her passion for Bollywood films, and the friend said he’d just met Chopra and discovered he was planning to turn “DDLJ” into a Broadway musical. Not long after that, Chopra met Benjamin and hired her to write the musical’s book and lyrics.
“It’s Adi’s incredible movie and baby … and I told him I have a very specific style on Broadway with female characters. It was different,” she said. “And he said, ‘Yes, it is. This is the story I want to tell. It is not my Simran, but it’s a Simran that I recognize in my Simran.’ He felt like I could do the original proud, and I’m incredibly honored and grateful.”
In Benjamin’s adaptation of the story, the clash between Simran and her father is one that many American immigrants will recognize.
“Her father worked very hard to raise his daughter as an Indian woman steeped in her culture. He’s trying to hold on to the place he loves and give that to his daughter. But they’re in America now. Adi wanted to tell the story about two cultures colliding and falling in love,” Benjamin said.
And where Raj was the lead in the “DDLJ” movie, Simran is at the heart of “Come Fall in Love.”
“Simran is our heroine,” Benjamin said. “She’s the one sitting where the two cultures come together. She has strong opinions about what women should be able to do and an idea of what love and romance is that she gets from how she was raised, not from the movies that she watched. That’s an important difference.”
Benjamin said the biggest challenge in writing the musical’s book and lyrics is getting audiences to understand how Simran can be a strong female lead and still acquiesce to an arranged marriage.
“Is love just two people who go out and fall in love, get what they want, get married and end of show? Or is love a bigger force in all of our lives, and how do we reconcile the different kinds of love with the different ideas of romance?
“For this story, there is both. There’s a place where we want to move beyond cultural stereotypes and move to cultural understanding. We wanted to make sure that we’re not just putting up a festival of India. You’re falling in love with what has been created by Indian and Indian American and American artists’ interpretations of an incredibly complex, ancient and awesome modern culture.”
Benjamin is collaborating on the score with composers Vishal Dadlani and Sheykhar Ravjiani, an Indian music duo who over the past 23 years have written songs for 350 soundtracks and recorded hundreds of songs with artists that include Diplo, Imogen Heap and the Vamps. They’ve also worked with Chopra and his Yash Raj Films company for nearly 20 years.
Ravjiani, 43, said he still remembers the “sheer magic” of seeing “DDLJ” for the first time: “We all fell head over heels in love with the movie and every guy saw himself in Raj and every girl in Simran. The music assimilated itself into our own stories and the classic dialogues into our everyday banter.”
Dadlani said that what he loved most about the songs in the “DDLJ” film was how simple, unpretentious and ageless they were.
The film’s score is most famous for its recurring love theme, played on a mandolin in the song “Tuihe Dekha Toh” (“I Saw It”). Dadlani said there will be “subtle tributes” to these melodies in the musical, but the score will be original and diverse.
Like many of the film scores they’ve worked on in the past, Ravjiani and Dadlani said they have incorporated many music styles into their “Come Fall in Love” songs, including Indian classical music, pop, rock and Broadway show tunes.
Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein said the big difference between the Vishal-Sheykhar team’s music for the stage is how it is written narratively to move the story forward. Instead of writing songs for stand-alone bhangra dance extravaganzas in films, the musical’s score is being woven through the script to help explain the characters’ emotional journeys.
“V&S have very quickly figured out how to adapt their talents to this medium,” Edelstein said. “And I must say that they bring a totally fresh musical idiom to our stage. Obviously, the specifically Indian sound is distinctive, but what I really love about them is that when they’re writing in a more established Broadway mode, their sense of melodic freshness and rhythmic surprise really sounds new to my ears. They bring together pop style, Bollywood energy and Broadway storytelling.”
Bringing a company of international artists together to create “Come Fall in Love” has been a logistical challenge. Edelstein said music work, dance labs and auditions have taken place around the world, but with the help of recorded video, phone calls and Zoom sessions, they’ve been able to bridge the distance and the 12.5-hour time difference between San Diego and Mumbai.
Choreographers Rob Ashford and Shruti Merchant have been working with dancers near and far, as well as the actors in the 30-member cast led by Shobu Narayan (Simran), who played Princess Jasmine in Broadway’s “Aladdin” musical, and Austin Colby (Rog), who played Hans in the North American tour of Disney’s “Frozen” musical.
Edelstein said Narayan has “a light inside her that just shines onstage. A gorgeous singing voice and a really witty sense of performance.” And he said Colby, who has the tougher job of competing with Khan’s unforgettable film performance as Raj, is “totally up to the challenge of reimagining such an iconic role for today’s audience.”
“The man can do it all: sing, dance, act. And he’s just lovable and winning and charming and completely disarming. It’s a major performance, and, again, it’s intentionally a new version of the character. I love watching Shoba and Austin working together, and I think it’s a revelation,” Edelstein said of Colby.
Benjamin said being in the Globe’s Balboa Park rehearsals rooms over the past several weeks has been an unforgettable experience: “I’m surrounded by incredible artists of all different backgrounds who want to tell new stories and create new and inclusive ways of thinking about new music.”
“It’s an incredibly exciting knife’s edge,” she said. “We’re telling a story about an interracial romance. There will be spaces where we live in discomfort. This story is so joyous and so inclusive that we think everyone who comes will really fall in love. That’s why we named the musical that. It’s the most ‘musical theater’ title you can imagine, but it’s also the hardest thing to do in our show. To truly fall in love with someone in a different culture is heroic.”
When: Previews Thursday, Sept. 1 through 13. Opens Sept. 14 and runs through Oct. 16. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $52 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
Pam Kragen is a feature writer and critic who specializes in writing dining, theater, opera and human interest stories. She joined The San Diego Union-Tribune staff in October 2012 after 27 years at the North County Times, where she served as the Arts & Features Editor, as well as the paper’s longtime arts writer and theater and opera critic. She is the president and co-founder of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from San Diego State University and completed fellowships in theater criticism at the University of Southern California and opera-classical music criticism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In 2022, she was chosen as one of the fellows in the prestigious National Critics Institute, run by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in New London, Conn.
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