On 21st August, 1998, we got the third (and best) instalment of Mani Ratnam's "terror trilogy." Where 'Roja' and 'Bombay' were more narrative-driven, 'Dil Se' came after 'Iruvar', which marked the birth of a very different filmmaker. 'Dil Se' is more abstract, filled with mood and moments rather than full-fledged scenes. Baradwaj Rangan recalls 10 moments from the film, which was written by Mani Ratnam, Sujatha and Tigmanshu Dhulia.
Duniya ki sabse chhoti prem kahani… The world's shortest love story. This is how Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) describes his run-in with Meghna (Manisha Koirala), at a railway station. As in Bombay, the earlier Mani Ratnam-Manisha Koirala collaboration, a truant gust of wind blows the veil off the heroine's face, and this stops the hero in his tracks– only here, the wind blows harder, much harder. This is a stormier story. Even the weather says so –it's pouring outside. In Bombay, the attraction was mutual, so we saw both of them in the scene they meet. Here, Amar is in focus, and in the far distance, Meghna is a fuzzy silhouette. The composition makes sense: he is open, what you see is what you get, but she's got a lifetime's trauma hidden inside. He walks up to her and starts a one-sided conversation. She listens, and when he won't stop, she asks him to get a cup of tea. He leaves. Her train arrives. She steps on board and leaves, just as he returns. He thinks that's it: "Duniya ki sabse chhoti prem kahani…" It isn't, of course – there's a whole film ahead. But this scene is a perfect little short story about a boy who craves companionship and a girl who just wants to be left alone.
Main vaisi nahin hoon jaise ki tum soch rahe ho. I am not the girl you think I am. Meghna's gentle rebuff to Amar is a classic example of how it's never the same movie, and how, with each viewing, it becomes a different experience. Dil Se is from the pre-spoiler days, when you didn't wake up to a tweet that said "Manisha is dope as the suicide bomber." So the first time you saw the film, you wondered what this statement means. Is Meghna, as she claims, really married? But in subsequent viewings, you see that "I am not the girl you think I am" is also "Don't put me in a box and stereotype me." At a temple in Leh, Meghna prays in a surprisingly ritualistic manner. "I am not the girl you think I am" is also "The things I say carry another meaning." When Amar asks her why she won't marry him, she says she doesn't have the time. It's not that she's busy. She really doesn't have much of a lifespan left. When Amar jokes that she cannot live without him, she says yes. She snaps her fingers and says she'll die… like that. Instantly. By the end, he'll know what she meant.
Are you a virgin? In a different film Preity Zinta's character, Preeti Nair, would be the Mallu Pixie Dream Girl who helped Amar snap out of his existential funk – but here, she's content to be the life force of the narrative. With Amar and Meghna going on about love, Preeti's line about sex (which she refers to as "honk-a-bonk-a-bonks") injects some much-needed zing into the proceedings. But consider this. Preeti is from the South, Amar is from the North, and Meghna is from the (North) East. It's not just a love triangle; it's a literal triangle on the country's map. The South, mostly, remains unaffected by the events depicted in this film. It remains… untouched, virgin. I'm half-kidding here, for this implication is most certainly unintentional – but it's fun, no? Mani Ratnam will surely chuckle if he reads this, for he hates his work being mined for meaning – but where would film studies be if critics didn't, um, penetrate every frame?
Aap mere bhasha mein bolenge nahin… Main aapke bhasha mein boloon? You refuse to speak my language. And you expect me to speak yours? These are the words of an insurgency leader, when Amar asks him to speak in Hindi. Amar is a programme executive with All India Radio, and in the 50th year of India's independence, he is touring the North East, recording what people have to say. His boss asks him not to take this project too seriously. "We are radio journalists, not the press. There's no need to be sensational." But Amar insists and heads deep into the jungle to meet this insurgency leader. This is an important scene for a couple of reasons. One, it sets up the us-versus-them, "regional language"-versus-Hindi, State-versus-Centre dynamic that will inform Meghna's character. Two, it defines Amar's character, too. He just can't see that no means no. When his boss says no (to his jungle visit), he persists. When Meghna says no (to his overtures), he persists. This isn't just the usual stalkery behaviour. This is a man who likes to play with fire.
Tum Dilli main baithke All India Radio mein gaane bajaate ho. Meghna tells Amar, "You sit in Delhi and play songs on All India Radio." Translation: "What do you know about our suffering?" Even before we meet Amar, when the screen is black and only the credits are rolling, we hear her suffering, her people's suffering, on the soundtrack. Machine guns erupt. A child wails. In a sense, this is not just before the film begins, but before even Amar was born. Meghna is, in essence, taking forward what the insurgency leader (above) said: "We want independence from your government. In five decades, not one promise to us has been fulfilled. Your government thinks that Delhi is India." Twenty years after the film's release, the line still cracks like a whip – listen to what people are saying about the government's handling of the Kerala floods.
Chalo yahaan se, toofan tez hone wala hai… Long before The Dark Knight Rises, this is where you heard it: There's a storm coming. Their bus breaks down in Leh. And for some twenty-five minutes, Amar and Meghna find themselves in the middle of nowhere, and in the midst of one of Mani Ratnam's most expressionistic stretches of cinema. For the first, and possibly only time, Meghna allows herself to forget. She forgets her oppressed people, her compatriots, her cause, her scarred soul – all she sees now is this obsessed man, who treats her not as a rebel or a soldier or a victim or a martyr but as a woman. In the face of a gathering storm (the wind howls in the background), Meghna is at her calmest. She imagines a life married to Amar. She imagines eight children who'll look like her. When he catches her bathing, he stares, transfixed, and she stares right back. And we cut to Satrangi re, where her outfits change from black to white to red to yellow to green to blue to purple – a rainbow's worth of life in a short-lived canvas painted by Santosh Sivan. In other words, the real storm is the one brewing inside this woman who never allowed herself to dream of love.
Main galat waqt pe aa gayi hoon! Meghna decides to use Amar –to get accommodation, to get an AIR job that will allow her to cover the Republic Day parade and set off a bomb. When she arrives at his house, it's overflowing with people. Hence this line to Amar: Maybe I've come at the wrong time! Her face is troubled. There's no one explanation. There are many. Amar is getting engaged to Preeti, so maybe the part of her that remembers their time in Leh rues that she let him go. Maybe it's because she sees all these happy people around Amar and wonders why she was never, ever, surrounded by so many smiles. Maybe it's because she's hesitating, now, about bringing her dark world into this sunny one, possibly hurting everyone. Maybe it's because she sees Amar kiss his mother. When Amar asked her, in Leh, to tell him what she liked the most, she said, "Maa ke haath." Her mother's hands. What's a memory to her is a taken-for-granted reality here. "Main galat waqt pe aa gayi hoon!" should be Meghna's slogan. The wrong place. The wrong time. Right from the day she was born.
Bitiya, zara sheesha to laa! "Get the mirror, please?" Amar's mother tells a little girl, as the women of the family begin to place bridal ornaments on Meghna, because Preeti is unavailable. And we get one of Mani Ratnam's most exquisite mirror scenes. Towards the end, after she's slipped into her bomb suit, Meghna looks at herself, one last time, in the mirror. She's right out of the bath, she's "purified" herself – there's not a trace of personality or vanity, not even an earring. Which is why this earlier mirror scene is so effective. The women hold up various ornaments around Meghna – something for the head, for the ears, for the neck. Meghna doesn't dare look at herself, until someone lifts her chin. And as she looks into this mirror, at this version of her that might have resulted had she been born at the right place and right time, Amar appears behind her. Their reflections, together, look like the saddest-ever wedding photograph.
Kya hai tumhare andar? Meghna tells her superior (Sabyaschi Chakrabarty) that things are going per plan, that she has an AIR job, that she should be able to get "parade duty." He asks if Amar suspects anything. She says no. "Bhola hai." (He's innocent.) The subsequent segue, turning the focus from Amar to Meghna, is a masterly bit of dialogue-writing reminiscent of Salim-Javed. [He's innocent?] What else is he? And what's between him and you? What's inside you? Meghna's transformation is chilling, more so because she doesn't stop and outline this transformation, playing it as a "scene." They are walking through a crowded marketplace, and they continue walking. Her superior's "What's inside you?" makes her snap back to reality, and she begins to list out what's inside her. Anger. Ideals. Her goal. And courage. While mentioning this last quality, she touches the cyanide-filled locket around her neck. Had she been truthful, she'd have listed another thing inside her: love.
Tu kahin / tukdon mein / kahin jee rahi hai… Ae ajnabi is one of AR Rahman's greatest songs, it contains some of Gulzar's finest word-embroidery, and the sheer depth of feeling Udit Narayan conjures up almost makes me forgive the numerous Tamil numbers he's mangled. This line from the song is about Amar and Meghna being incomplete without each other, each a "piece" rather than a whole – and it lends itself to several readings, including an inappropriately Tarantino-esque one that points to the end, where Amar and Meghna are literally blown to pieces. But then, the entire film is filled with a sense of parts and pieces. When Meghna heaps scorn on the army, Amar says, "Agar fauj na hoti to is desh ke hazaaron tukde ho jaate." If it weren't for the army, this country would be in a thousand pieces. You could see Amar as a stand-in for India, the whole. He lives in Delhi, is a government employee, his father was in the army, and his grandfather fought in the INA for our freedom. Even the work he's doing now has to do with the country, its various people. Meghna, on the other hand, wants her own "piece," her own country. (Even her name is the name of a river from Bangladesh, a nearby yet different country, similar yet separate.) He wants to possess her. She resents his sense of "ownership." And we go back to the very first image of the film: barbed wire. A boundary. A do-not-cross sign on places. And people.