Dil Se (Heart)

Director: Mani Ratnam
Music: A.R. Rahman, Lyrics: Gulzar
Year: 1998
Running Time: 155 minutes

When Dil Se came out in India it went down faster at the box office than a man with cement boots on in the ocean. I know there are many precedents in every film industry for this sort of thing, but it astonishes me that a film as brilliant and bold as this one hit with such a thud. It is in many ways a magnificent film – but not knowing anything about the Indian film industry, I would just have to guess that the film was too dark, too intense, too political, too tragic for the audience. It is extraordinarily passionate, but not at all romantic. It is incredibly dramatic, but contains little melodrama. The musical interludes verge on genius, but there are only a few of them. All these may have been factors in its lack of appeal.

In other words the film makes little attempt to ingratiate itself with the audience. It has the surface and structure of a typical Bollywood film, but inside it is an art film barely disguising itself. It is also a tense thriller that seconds as a harsh political criticism of the Indian government and the Indian military. It is also a love story, but one in which the love for a cause is vastly more important that the love between a man and a woman. It also throws gender stereotypes into the winds because it is the man who is the love struck innocent while the woman is as tough as nails and willing to die for what she believes. The film is a mass of conflicting messages – the hardest for the audience to grapple with - especially in these days - is how do you judge acts of terrorism when clearly the terrorists have a just cause. What is the distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? Can a terrorist act ever be just? All of these issues lie just below the surface of this story of a man madly in love with a woman he can’t begin to understand.
Amar (Shahrukh Khan) is sent on a temporary assignment from New Delhi to one of the northern provinces as a journalist for All India Radio. While there he becomes curious about a separatist movement that has illegally been formed and that is committing acts of terrorism to free themselves of India’s rule. He secretly meets the head of the group and interviews him – but can’t comprehend their grievances against the government – “we are all Indian’s aren’t we?” he asks naively. He also meets a mysterious village girl named Meghna (Manisha Koirala) at a train station and then later in town and is immediately drawn to the sadness in her tired eyes. Later she claims that all the laughter left her when she was eight years old and has never returned. We are to eventually find out why. She shows absolutely no interest in Amar, but his obsession only grows and he continues to chase after her even after being beaten up badly by her brothers.
Finally he is called back to the capital and reluctantly realizes that this is a love that is not meant to be. Upon returning he discovers that his family has found a girl that they want him to marry. This potential bride comes in the form of Pretty (actually Preity) Zinta, an adorable westernized woman who in truth makes for a much better match for Amar than did his village fantasy. Pushing his love into the background, he agrees to marry Preity and the wedding is scheduled – but then Meghna shows up on his doorstep asking for a place to stay. He lets her in. She is in fact in Delhi to commit a horrific act of terrorism. The last forty minutes of this film are music free and as intense as a gun to the head standoff.
Technically the film is astonishing – achingly beautiful cinematography that captures incredible vistas in which India seems to stretch on forever, fluid edgy camera movement, noir like scenes that feel visceral and all too real. The locales in the pre-Delhi section are stark and stunning, while the Delhi outdoor scenes are claustrophobic and tumultuous.
The music from Rahman is considered to be some of his best and though there are only four set musical pieces, all of them are terrific and two are absolutely close to the most beautifully staged musical pieces I have ever seen. One takes place on the top of a train journeying through the Indian countryside with guest Malaika Arora shaking her perfectly flat taut stomach in rhythm to the movement of the train among an army of musicians and dancers and a beat that you can’t forget – Chal Chaiya Chaiya. This is later outdone by an exhilarating number that takes place in the mountain ranges of India that is nearly surreal in it’s exquisite beauty. The one issue that I had with the musical numbers is that they feel very separate from the story  - they don’t push it along – in fact they almost slow it down and the characters in the music (in particular Meghna) are not at all like the characters in the film. One could argue though that the music represents what is happening inside them – feelings that they can’t openly express – because Meghna does in fact love Amar – but clearly it isn’t the right time or place in her life to fall in love and she has to fight these feelings.

The one weakness in the film for me is perhaps the Amar character. It’s difficult to explain his love for this woman – she is so embittered and so silent that she exudes little charm – but it is this silence, this mysterious aura around her that draws him towards her so ardently. Still it feels too much by the end. You want him to let it go, to let her go. The first time I saw this film I wasn’t particularly impressed by Manisha – she is so withdrawn – but this time the concurrent emotions that are flowing through her body and the conflict they are creating feels much more powerful and her one scene in which she tells Amar about what happened to her village will send chills up your spine. After having just recently seen her in Gupt that was made only one year previously, it is especially an amazing performance and transition. She is barely recognizable having lost a fair amount of weight and taken on such a sad world weary visage.

This is a fabulous film. Perhaps not one that will bring you to sentimental tears as many Indian films can do – or one that will make you feel happy and carefree. It is almost a painful journey – one of love and obsession – of gut wrenching conflicts with no easy answers  - but it is certainly a worthwhile journey.

My rating for this film: 8.5

Song 1

Song 2

Song 3

Song 4