a review by
Muffy St. Bernard
with bonus comments by David Chute of L.A. Weekly
How a person responds to "Dil Se" will depend largely on their opinion of guys who just won't take "no" for an answer.
The promo materials for "Dil Se" list a series of love stages, from hub (attraction) to maut (death). But in Shah Rukh Khan's case, he jumps the first five stages and starts right at junoon...obsession. He sees the tortured, haunted Meghna at the train station, and within seconds he's in love...and we're not just talking about the piddley love of those first five stages -- attraction, infatuation, and all that stuff. We're talking the "I'll get you some warm chai and then be willing to die for you" sort of love. And if that ain't junoon I don't know what is.
This obsessive behaviour was the stumbling block I needed to overcome in order to enjoy "Dil Se." I find that Bollywood tends to hold stock in "fated lovers," a concept that's a bit alien to those of us weaned on Hollywood since the 70's. In my world, if a man is obsessed with a woman, and she tells him to go away, he'd better darn well go away and forget all about her. But not so in Bollywood, where men pursue their reluctant loves with a dogged persistance similiar to...well, similar to dogs, actually. And in this movie, SRK pursues Meghna in a way that seems more than a little scary: he's beaten by her cohorts and left for dead, she repeatedly tells him to take a hike, but no matter how many times she rides off in some form of public transportation, SRK retreats into a dance number and tries twice as hard to track her down the next time. And while this is somewhat charming in theory -- they're fated to be together after all, even if she doesn't realize it -- in reality this often leads to guys who buy an extra freezer to hold the severed heads of their girlfriends who "just wouldn't stay." Uf.
"Dil Se" managed to convince me of the plausibility of his love, however, and I'm glad it did. After 2 and a half hours and a Ganges-load of tears I'm left with almost nothing to criticize, so bear with me if I gush just a bit (or a lot). The acting is first-rate: Shah Rukh seems to do very well with tragic, understated, somewhat self-mocking characters, and it's largely through his sweetness that I saw this film as a movie about devotion instead of one about a creepy guy who just won't leave a girl alone. The first half of the film consists of his attempts to win the reluctant Meghna, recognizing that he's playing a dangerous game with her but somehow unable to give up. When he finally does give up, he meets Preity Zinta, who also deserves accolades for portraying a strong-willed, funny, realistic character. Her dialogues with SRK -- about love, sex, and marriage -- provide welcome relief while the rest of the film becomes overwhelming, and the position her character is in is by no means an enviable one.
The overwhelming character is Meghna, the terrorist who Shah Rukh can't seem to forget, and the big award in this film goes to Manisha Koirala for playing this role to the hilt. Her performance here is awe-inspiring...though walking a fine line between extremes of overacting, she does it perfectly, weaving between convincing frenzy and a terrifying, withdrawn hopelessness. The scene where her terror and anguish rises to the surface and she screams soundlessly into Shah Rukh's bewildered face must be one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in cinema. But just when you feel that her character is simply a walking, tortured zombie -- a caricature -- she relaxes a bit and shows us her human side...and that, somehow, makes everything else in the movie more horrible.
Because Meghna really does seem to be a wonderful person, but she's been permanently and irretrievably damaged in a way that nobody -- let alone Shah Rukh, or the motley band of somber terrorists she's involved with -- can possibly relate to. It's awful to watch her vengeful, desperate side fight with the part of her that just wants to let go, cry, and try live again. I understand that some people thought this flip-flop of her character was unrealistic; I didn't see it that way at all. It was the only way we knew she was still alive and capable of feeling, even after all she'd been through. And Manisha played it wonderfully.
There isn't much more I need to say about the plot, partly because I don't want to spoil this movie for anybody, but mostly because the plot is very simple, especially for a Bollywood film. There are no real subplots or minor recurring characters, it's all about the Shah Rukh and Manisha and their respective agendas. And this is another strength of the movie: it doesn't deviate much from the story it's trying to tell. I can't comment on the plausibility of the story -- I don't know much about the sort of terrorism that goes on in India's northern territories, or the rationales behind that terrorism -- but it certainly drew me in and kept me engaged to the finish, and to it's credit the movie doesn't do much preaching at all. And when it does preach, it lets both sides have their say. If anything, the message seems to be: terrible things have happened, and people are still paying for those things. Nothing more, nothing less.
Part of the power of "Dil Se" comes from Santosh Sivan's cinematography -- it's so beautiful it hurts, without ever being arty-farty or over the top. His footage of deserts and forest in the northern territories evokes those breathtaking moments of epiphany when you find yourself staring off into nature, wondering how the hell it ever happened. Even when the camera moves to the city, the scenes remain organic and thoughtful and well-composed. All I can say is: thank goodness for the chance to see this film in widescreen format, though I can't help wondering how much better it would look in a theatre. Also notable was the sound production, something too often neglected in Indian films (especially once they're transferred to DVD). The incidental sounds set the scene right from the first few seconds of the movie: the sounds of rain, wind, and the clinking of barbed wire tell you that you're in for a sparse, gritty, and unapologetic film.
As for the A.R. Rahman score, it's typical of his music of the time: catchy, highly rhythmic songs with unexpected instrumentation and effects (backwards beats, whispering playback singers, dynamic changes in pitch and volume, and the odd moment of discordance). No matter how wonderful they are -- and they're really darn good -- the songs don't really seem to fit into the movie...they're the one deviation in an otherwise linear and inevitable plotline...since Shah Rukh's obsession with Manisha is largely unrequited, the songs can be presented only as his fantasies, some of which are decidedly odd (romance amongst the explosions of terrorists and the army, and a particularly weird spandex adventure in the middle of the desert that reminds me of something I may have seen in Liquid Sky or another 80's bit of avant-garde self-importance).
I understand this movie is part of a glut of "never love a terrorist" films that Bollywood released in the late-90's, and this may have lead to it being somewhat overlooked. All I have to compare it to is "Mission Kashmir," which I thoroughly enjoyed but found more slick and contrived than "Dil Se." As an introduction to Bollywood it's probably a poor choice, and those in need to escapist fantasy would probably want to avoid it, but for me it was an unforgettable movie, and one I will gladly see again.
Mani Rathnam used the device of mixing a private story of romance with a public political story in two other films, "Roja" and "Bombay," that with "Dil Se" form a sort of trilogy. My favorite of the three is probably still "Roja," in which the ache of newlyweds separated during their honeymoon heightens the suspense of the central kidnap plot---and in an odd way makes it erotic. (The use of music and imagery, which you describe so well, adds to the overall steamy sensuality of the experience; this may be why some people describe Rathnam's style as "operatic.")
SRK first became famous playing obsessed lovers in films like "Baazigar" and "Darr." People who complain about his "over-acting" may be noticing the same thing I have; that he often seems to be re-using the twitchy mannerisms he developed for those early roles, even when they aren't appropriate. In this case, however, they fit the character and his situation like a glove. So maybe this is a triumph of casting rather than acting?
David Chute is an old pal of the Bollybob Society and has championed our efforts in, of all places, Film Comment. He also sent us our copy of Mard (which we love & resent him for).