Editor’s note: Since cinema is not only a form of entertainment but also an important cultural tool that has the power to shape opinions, we are reviewing classics and trying to see them through the lens of the current socio-political climate. The aim is to call out biases, misrepresentation and everything else that is problematic so that we can gauge our journey thus far and the road ahead.
Director: Mani Ratnam
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, Preity Zinta
The one thing that I fondly remember about Dil Se is Manisha Koirala. I loved the way she spoke in the film (the little that she did, anyway), I loved her messy hair, I loved the clothes she wore. When Delhi-based radio broadcaster named Amarkanth Varma, played by Shah Rukh Khan, followed her to the ruggedly romantic landscapes of Ladakh, they had a midnight conversation. She was asked to list her favourite things in the world. She responded with, “Maa kay haath, gaaon kay mandir ke kabutar, aur kavita.”
I learnt the dialogue by heart. In every slam book that would be passed around in class, I would write corrupted versions of the line in the box marked ‘favourite things’. Clearly, I didn’t have any original idea of what my favourite things were and all my 10-year-old self wanted was to be like Meghna. I didn’t understand much about love and attraction back then, but I had an instant crush on this mysterious woman, who in Amar’s words, ‘couldn’t be read’.
I had not seen or known of too many women who would pick up arms in an act of extremism. The terrorists I had seen on TV and news had always been big, mean looking men and as a child, Meghna’s character blew my mind. Her job may not have been the best or ideal, but she seemed to be in power.
But last night, I rewatched Dil Se and this time, the scene that stuck with me was one quite different. It was when Amar forced himself on Meghna in the middle of desert even as she kicked and punched him in her attempt to rescue herself from the clutches of this stranger turned stalker. In the scene, Amar tore her clothes and forcibly kissed her. Meghna sat there at the end of the assault, quietly sobbing while a triumphant Amar walked away. I was watching a man sexually assaulting a woman and then claiming that he loved her ‘dil se‘. The scene was so disturbing that I had to look away a couple of times. It triggered a lot of emotions and reminded me of the many times I have been groped and assaulted, often by strangers and sometimes by people I trusted.
The scene that I obsessed over as a child suddenly lost all meaning and innocence.
Throughout the movie, I couldn’t bear to watch Amar anymore. Everything he said would give me the creeps. And Meghna’s obvious indications that she was just not interested in this man, or a marriage with him, or to have his kids was something that Amar failed to even notice. Or at least, pretended not to. At some point he even went on to tell her that he knew ‘these kind of women’, essentially slut-shaming her because she refused to get married to him.
When Meghna’s ‘brothers’ beat up Amar, his first question to them was: Who among you is her husband? The fact that Meghna may not be married and yet may choose to not love him was unbelievable to him.
Dil Se, the third in Mani Ratnam’s trilogy of films (following Roja and Bombay) revolving around lovers caught in the turmoil of politics and terrorism, is basically a film that makes a stalker-turned-molester into a hero. Perhaps it didn’t bother anyone in the 90s when Amar groped Meghna, but watching this much-beloved film in 2018 made me sick to my core.
Yes, the songs are still beautiful, thanks to Gulzar and AR Rahman. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s dialogues will stay with me, forever. And the cinematography by Santosh Sivan is impeccable. The ‘Chaiya Chaiya‘ dance sequence, too, will remain one of the best pieces of choreography by Farah Khan. In fact, it had all the right ingredients to make for what could be called a beautiful film. Except the ‘love story’ – which was not one of love.
What I never noticed watching the movie as a child was Meghna’s helplessness and lack of agency. Her ‘brothers’ decided whom she could talk to or could be seen with. It was on their wishes that she became an extremist. And in the end, she could not even successfully do that because her enforced ‘lover’ wanted her to be his bride.
Dil Se may be many things. But, let’s just admit, there was no romance, scintillating, intense or otherwise, between Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala in this film that is often hailed by many as one of the greatest odes to love and its contradictions in Bollywood.