Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dil Se (1998)

As a moviegoer, it is ironic that there are often movies against which I have a mental block. It may be for several reasons, it was critically panned when releases; it didn’t work at the box office; it looked too violent; I was never in the right mood for watching it etc. The list is a long one and just about any reasons is good enough for avoiding it. For me, these movies are often the gritty, dark or ones which require very patient viewing. I keep postponing these movies especially in law school where I keep opting for simpler and more conventionally enjoyable movies instead. However, once in a while, I do end up watching these movies and even more rarely, wonder to myself why I waited this long to watch it. One such movie was Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.

The movie is about Amar (Shah Rukh Khan), an All India Radio programme executive who falls in love with Meghna (Manisha Koirala), a mysterious woman, after a number of chance meetings in Assam. However, Meghna tries to avoid him at all costs despite a growing attraction. He becomes obsessed with her and despite being beaten up by her tribesmen, he follows her all the way to Ladakh. There, after spending some time together, she suddenly disappears leaving him dumbfounded. He returns home in Delhi to get engaged to Preeti (Preity Zinta) only to find Meghna at his house with her colleague (Mita Vasisht) looking for a place to stay and a job at the All India Radio. Set in the backdrop of terrorism and 50 years of independence, the story leads to revelations and difficult decisions for all the principal characters.

Mani Ratnam has fallen from grace for me as far as Hindi movies go. Yuva was a surprisingly average movie and Guru was downright disappointing. While these had Mani Ratnam’s technique, they lacked his power packed stories and execution. Dil Se is a fond reminder of what he is capable of as a story-teller. The film ranks easily as one of his best work ever, well above even Roja and Bombay.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Dil Se is Ratnam’s most ambitious work. Instead of looking at victims of violence like he did in films like Roja and Bombay, he looks at the perpetrators of violence and tackles the theme of terrorism without giving in to unnecessary sermonising or melodrama. The story and screenplay, also by Mani Ratnam, takes real and difficult themes but uses a fictional story to weave them into a powerful narrative. In doing so, he thankfully avoids the problems of factual inaccuracies, a fault for which I thought Bombay was unforgivable; and brings a maturity and sensitivity to these themes that only a handful of directors (like Gulzar in Maachis) have been able to achieve. He makes a bold choice by taking a love story to explore these themes and manages to do justice to both.

The movie was way ahead of its times for several reasons: many blamed the end, but I think there were several things: that it chose to look at terrorists generally as humans, its critical view of the actions of the Indian government in the North-East and Kashmir and of course, an obsessive love story between an ordinary man and a terrorist was too much for Indian audiences to accept then, let alone appreciate. Nevertheless, it is these precise reasons why I love this film especially when seen in the context of its time.

Very rarely has a mainstream film been this aesthetically brilliant. The music is undoubtedly Rahman’s best, in any language. The lyrics by Gulzar are mesmerising, especially the use of Ghalib's shaayari in "Satrangi Re" and Bulleh Shah's kafi in "Thaiyya Thaiyya". Farah Khan's choreography is appropriately grand for "Chhaiya Chhaiya" and intimate for "Satrangi Re". While the placement of some of the songs and Manisha Koirala's costumes there are perhaps my only complaints with the film, the visuals created for these songs take it to a whole new level together. While the title track is perhaps the worst placed, its video symbolises the central theme of the movie: that of love in a burning paradise. The cinematography of Santosh Sivan is exquisite. The sequence of Shah Rukh and Manisha wrapped together in red satin by a lake in Ladakh or Shah Rukh playing with school kids in a war torn area make for haunting visuals. His camera movements really help in capturing the sense of urgency, desperation and danger at several points of the film.

The performances by each of the principal and supporting actors are uniformly good. Shah Rukh conveys the angst and irrational obsession of his character remarkably well. Manisha Koirala gives away so much without saying anything at all. She has only one long dialogue sequence and a few bare lines in the movie. However, it is in her silent implosions as her character is unable to come to terms with her traumatic past and the consequences of her future actions where she really excels. Mita Vasisht, Arundhati Nag, Raghubeer Yadav, Aditya Shrivastava and the others fit their roles perfectly.

Overall, Dil Se is one of those movies that require a dark room, a quiet undisturbed viewing and above all, an open mind. The movie seeks to deal with some very serious themes through a micro view of its two principal characters. The social setting is too large and complex for either of them to completely understand or comprehend. The movie accepts that as its premise and within it, tries to show as a clash of ideologies and their origins. While doing so, it also gives us one of the most irrational and yet, poignant and powerful, love stories of all time. Do watch this one.


  1. Bombay and Roja aren't even close to Mani Ratnam's best. Nor is Dil Se, even though it is a wonderful film. His best movies are all in Tamil. He's not a Hindi filmmaker. That's the problem these days. He's trying to make movies in a language that he's not comfortable with.

    Watch Nayakan, Iruvar and Thalapathi (good subtitled versions are around these days). Those are his best. Those are more aesthetically brilliant than you'll ever see in Dil Se. Watch Kannathil mutthamittal, Mouna Raagam, Anjali, Agni Nachatram...

  2. I agree with you completely on movies like Nayakan, Iruvar and Thalapathi being better. I have seen Anjali and I really that liked that movie as well. I need subtitled versions and will be looking out for them. Of all the movies I have seen though, I think this was actually his best.

    But I disagree as to the language point. I don't think it's so much a language issue as much as finding the right subject matter. Neither of his later movies have had the thematic power of say Thalapathi or Dil Se or the intimacy of personal stories like Anjali and others. They are just there in some uncomfortable place. He needs the right theme and script like he did with Dil Se.

  3. No. I'm going a little beyond language here.

    I think you need to be a South Indian to get my point. He understands us like no one in the world does, and so, he creates convincing characters. But then, Gurubhai or his wife, they just didn't click as characters. If you watch Yuva in tamil, you'll know what I mean. The characters in Tamil made so much more sense. (Also, all of them acted better than their Hindi counterparts. Yes, Madhavan was way better than Abhishek Bacchan's 'breakthough' acting) He seems to be able to draw stupendous performances out of average actors in Tamil. I'm not sure he can do that in Hindi.

  4. aandthirtyeights...
    its not that someone need to be south indian to get your point.
    words give more mening in ones owen language
    dif. Dil se is a heavy work. ppl now days don´t have the understading for films or love like that.