Like a lot of Ratnam's work, Dil Se is also a very small story. A boy meets a girl, falls in love at first sight, gets rejected, doesn't give up, and then by the end of the story they both find redemption in each other's arms. But I would be damned if I said that the film is even close to small in its ideas and the philosophy around which the love story blossoms and ends.
Amarkanth Verma, played by Shah Rukh Khan, is a radio broadcaster who works for All India Radio. He is on a tour to the North-Eastern parts of India interviewing the common people as well as the terrorists (or revolutionaries, in their words) about the present conditions of their livelihood. Common people as well as the terrorists are not happy. Amar is not afraid of asking the tough questions even if he is at a gun point. He is a man of principles and always speaks his heart, whether it's a matter of work or love. One day on a stormy night, at a desolate railway station, our hero meets this silently beautiful girl, played by Manisha Koirala. She is all alone, wrapped in a blanket. As soon as he sees her, he is enraptured and starts a one way conversation until she asks him to bring her some chai. He complies readily. This is a classical setup for a love story. But by the time he comes back, the train has arrived and there are two other men on the platform helping her get onboard. In the words of our hero, this was probably the shortest love story in the world.
Manisha Koirala plays the role of Meghna with an inert sadness that fits the character well. It makes you wonder if she chose this life herself or if somebody else chose it for her. We also have another character in the film named Preity, played by Preity Zinta. She plays the role of a South Indian girl who is engaged to Amar and provides another classical setup for a love triangle.
But this story is about so much more than love. It's a story about the struggles between love and duty. It's a story about fate and retribution, and the morality surrounding life and death. Amar follows Meghna through the North East and then to Ladakh, only to get rejected again because 'she does not have time'. When I heard those words I thought to myself, just like our hero, that's a peculiar answer. But after I finished watching the film, these words take on a whole new meaning and this is the most amazing quality of this film. The film is filled with such great dialogue that when you think about them later they furnish the film with an astonishing depth of character. There are a lot of hard -pressed arguments made in the film about nationality and freedom. At the same time, there is also talk about virginity and past love.
There is a great scene in the film between Meghna and Amar where they argue about the righteousness of one's actions and how revenge can never bring peace to the oppressed or the oppressor; a question of whether their love can conquest the hate. The scene feels like two India's arguing about their side of the reality and in a way, they are both right. It's a shame that we don't get to see a lot of such arguments in our movies these days.
There are a number of songs in the films. I did not feel even a little bit repulsed or displaced by a single one of them. A lot of credit for this goes to the amazing cinematography by Santosh Sivan. From the valley of Leh, Ladakh to the forests of North Eastern India to the concrete paved roads of Connaught Place, New Delhi, every location has been captured with the most amazing wide angles possible. The lighting is one of the highlights of the film's creative accomplishments. But it's not just the camera but the whole staging and choreography of these songs; not to say the songs themselves. It is a filmmaking lesson in itself, especially the title track. I know that Chhaiya Chhaiya is the most iconic number from the film but there is something about the Dil Se track that hits me on an emotional level like no other. The whole idea of love during war and children in school uniforms amidst guns and war cries is a thing of great inner beauty. All the performances are well-crafted and measured but I have to say that Piyush Mishra's CBI officer does feel a little over the top. The plot of the film feels a bit too convenient at times, but you can easily circumvent these external machinations if you stick with the internal credo of the film's actions.
The climax of the film leaves you in a bitter sweet situation but I don't think there could have been a better ending than this. Recently, I saw another one of Ratnam's great films: Kannathil Muthamital. That film also has a somewhat similar background of a civilian war and a lot of talk about freedom and ideals. It also left me with a very similar emotion. So I guess Ratnam doesn't really believe in happy endings or maybe he is too conscious of the fact that life doesn't really offer a happy ending to a lot of us.
After watching the film all I could ask myself was: When was the last time that a mainstream filmmaker had the courage to criticise and question the methods that our 'honourable' armed forces employ in the name of protecting the nation? There was such a man who wasn't afraid, although I get this feeling that even he won't be able to muster that same courage in today's India.