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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Dil Se’ (1998): Great Mood, Bad Romance

terror-dil-se dil se eros dvd cover

Directed by: Mani Ratnam || Produced by: Bharat Shah, Mani Ratnam, Ram Gopal Varma, Shkhar Kapur

Screenplay by: Tigmanshu Dhulia, Mani Ratnam, Sujatha || Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, Preity Zinta, Raghuvir Yadav, Zohra Sehgal, Aditya Srivastava

Music by: A.R. Rahman || Cinematography: Santosh Sivan || Editing by: Suresh Urs || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 158 minutes

If you’re a fan of Hindi movies, but are looking for something different than the usual three-hour romantic epic, Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se represents a distinct, if inconsistent, alternative. Relative to most other shallow, arranged marriage-obsessed pictures in 1990s Bollywood,  I found Dil Se’s serious, dark tone and foreboding sociopolitical subject-matter refreshing. You don’t need to be a South Asian history buff to understand the themes of terrorism, nationalism, childhood trauma, and even sexual assault that loom over the film’s dour narrative. Dil Se covers all the above set to — what else? — a central romance, but one that is interested in anything but rebelling against parents, challenging social traditions, or eloping from weddings. The only social mores Ratnam’s film seems intent on breaking are the mindless lengths human tribes go to destroy one another, including the destruction of romance. Dil Se’s thematic ambitions are laudable, almost transforming into a modern day South Asian Romeo and Juliet-affair, but unfortunately the romance central to its intriguing political plot threatens to unravel the movie’s greater intentions. 


The famous “Chaiyya Chaiyya” song that plays atop a moving train following the film’s introductory scene.

The tone of this tale is anything but whimsical, playful, or lighthearted, as one would expect from the synopsis. I give credit to the filmmakers for maintaining a dark mood throughout, all the while never wallowing in the film’s seriousness or forgetting to enjoy the cinematic journey at hand. Dil Se is brooding, yes, but it is not an unrelenting tragedy, as its script prompts a variety of thought-provoking themes, and Santosh Sivan’s beautiful, free-flowing camera movements enhance the visual acuity of these ideas and keep the movie visually interesting. The musical sequences in the film (oh yes, they’re still here) are to die for, including what may be the ultimate opening-sequence of all time (minus a brief prologue), shot atop a moving train set to A. R. Rahman’s legendary “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” staring Shah Rukh Khan and the unforgettable item-girl, Malaika Arora Khan. Other terrific set-pieces include the title song, which features amazing long-takes and location-photography amid ancient Indian ruins, and “Jiya Jale,” arguably the most melodic song of the bunch, which features a plethora of seductive, metaphorical dances, and further terrific location-shooting. Put another way, Dil Se is no Rang de Basanti (2006); at no point does the film’s dark mood or serious subject-matter feel forced or overly simplistic. It earns its darkness with style, like a supercharged musical version of Bicycle Thieves (1948), or better yet, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955).

With that said, despite Dil Se’s serious nature and great musical numbers, the film’s screenplay does little to keep up with the impressive camerawork of Mani Ratnam and cinematographer Santosh Sivan. The main problem is that the relationship between Khan, an Indian program executive for a radio station, and female lead, Manisha Koirala, a covert separatist operative, is unconvincing. The concept of an Indian suicide-bomber and a more or less average Indian citizen falling in love with each other, amid the planning of a gruesome terrorist attack to kill the Indian Prime Minister on Independence Day, is a great one. It’s a shame that its execution here is so poor. The credibility of the concept isn’t the issue, it’s the acting, and to some extent, its involvement in the overarching narrative. The love-story’s pacing isn’t terrible, but its development and the way it is weaved within the overarching terrorist plot feels downright confusing much of the time. Much of their relationship feels forced and dependent on contrived plot devices, convenient chance encounters, and one-sided affection.

To the screenplay’s credit, Khan’s protagonist is well written and relatable, and Khan gives a good lead performance. The majority of the romance’s believability falters with Koirala’s illogical behavior, or rather the unconvincing fashion in which she falls for Khan. To be blunt, Koirala never looks like her heart is in her performance, and acts as if she’s going through the motions. I don’t know whether to blame this on Koirala exclusively or if Ratnam’s acting-direction is also to blame, but her character comes across as a boring, inexpressive, emotionally distant mope. Given how one half of the core of the film — Khan and Koirala’s relationship — doesn’t work, Dil Se struggled to convince me to invest in this love story’s tragic outcome.

Furthermore, while the film never drags much in comparison to other, longer Hindi epics, several sections of Dil Se could have and probably should have been cut to better focus the narrative on Khan and Koirala. While Dil Se’s tone feels much bleaker than most mainstream Hindi films, several genre cliches and plot devices are shoved in for what were either sellout purposes, or because they are so ingrained into Hindi filmmaking that Ratnam couldn’t not include them. The entire wedding subplot is unnecessary, as is Preity Zinta’s role. These distract from the central focus of the story, which is supposed to be the relationship between Khan and Koirala, and how their romance is affected by the sociopolitical turmoil surrounding them. The story’s editing stumbles by the end as well, since the final twenty minutes of the narrative (minus the death scene, of course) could have been cut and not made a difference to the overall narrative.

Visually and musically speaking, Dil Se holds its own. It’s when the focus turns to writing and character development that things begin to stumble. Here is a shot from one of the many symbolic musical numbers that illustrates the film’s journey through the seven shades of love described in ancient Arab literature… or so I’m told.

I really wanted to like Dil Se. It seemed like it was trying to do something edgy and different, and I always respect films for venturing outside of mainstream formula. Yet, that in and of itself is no guarantee of quality filmmaking, just like cliched genre-tropes are no guarantees of movie failures. In every case, a film has to deliver a solid screenplay combined with a directorial effort that realizes those concepts in effective ways, and Dil Se just doesn’t do that. It’s a fun experience for well written Rahaman music, which is among the best in the world, and its symbolic imagery that hints at deeper spiritual themes is commendable, but as a narrative film with a story to tell and characters you care about, it feels lacking. I appreciate movies that try, but simply trying is not enough. A movie that tries is not necessarily a movie that is good.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Dil Se could’ve been a masterpiece with a script rewrite or two, or perhaps a better lead actress. The central love story feels contrived and artificial. Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala have zero chemistry despite the former’s best efforts. The interesting premise of the tragic, doomed relationship is never used to its full potential.

However… Dil Se also possesses a powerhouse soundtrack, beautiful musical sequences, great location-photography, and an intriguing setting.

—> ON THE FENCE: Bollywood fans will probably be able to look past the shady romance and unbelievable plot points, and everyone and their grandmother will be impressed by the film’s visuals and music. The problem is that the central romance, the core of the movie, is flawed.

? Seriously, those opening bass notes on the train.

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