As boys tend to do, when Qays grew up he fell in love, with a woman named Layla, or Leyli, or maybe it was Leyla. Her name means "one who works by night." Nobody knows for sure whether he knew the object of his desire from his childhood, or if he saw her only once and instantly became obsessed--there are accounts that support both versions of the story. What is known for sure is that Layla's father forbade the match, and Qays went mad from grief and unfulfilled passion, eventually becoming known as "the one who's driven mad by Layla," or Majnun Layla. Unlike most madman, his insanity led to the production of some amazingly fervent poetry written in praise of his beloved. In the literature of mystical Islam, also known as Sufism, "Layla" has become synonymous with its concept of the Beloved due to the influence of the legend and Majnun's poems.
"Hold on," you're probably thinking. "I thought this was a blog about Bollywood." It is, it is, but the movie I'm talking about today is about the least Bolly of Bollywood movies I've ever seen, and it depends heavily on the legend of Layla and Majnun. It's a 1998 film called Dil Se, or From the Heart, and stars Shah Rukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, and Preity Zinta in her first onscreen appearance.
Dil Se opens with Shah Rukh's character Amar, a reporter for All-India Radio, about to embark on a trip to northeast India. It's India's fiftieth anniversary of independence and his assignment is to record the reactions to the occasion of the region's citizens. Waiting on the platform for the train, he tries to bum a match off of a figure swaddled in a long black shawl--only to be astounded when the edge of the shawl is blown away to reveal a woman. Manisha Koirala is a beautiful woman, but she is deliberately unglam in this role, so it's hard to say what makes Amar stop, stare, and instantly become obsessed with her character Meghna. Or it would be, if you didn't know that Amar might as well be named Majnun.
I can't say enough good things about Shah Rukh Khan in this role. He starts out naive, boisterous, and oozing the same confident-to-the-point-of-arrogant entitled sex appeal that's gotten him where he is today. Gradually, his obsession with Meghna breaks him down, piece by piece, until he is shattered into a more worldly-wise but despondent shell of his former self. This isn't the suave King Khan of his later films (whom I am still madly in love with, by the way); this is a guy who isn't afraid to look desperate, foolish, even pathetic in his pursuit of a woman who doesn't want to give him the time of day, let alone her heart.
Manisha Koirala is a revelation as Meghna. Most Bollywood films feature women in extremely glamorous outfits and makeup--the spectacle of gorgeousness is half of what makes me love those films. However, Meghna has bigger things on her mind than cosmetics and clothes. Manisha's not afraid to make herself look completely unappealing because it's what the character demands. The only times she smiles through the entire film are during Amar's song-set fantasies about her. During the narrative portions she watches life from two steps removed, her face immobilized by interior anguish. As far as she's concerned, her life ended when she was twelve years old, and she moves through the fog of Amar's obsession as a ghost, letting it pass through her and over her, but never affect her overarching purpose. The only times she shows real emotion are the times when she is reliving her traumatic past. Amar thinks their story is about a boy and a girl, but Meghna knows her tale is about a much greater goal.
Preity plays an adorable modern girl (named, weirdly enough, Preeti) who is only in the second half of the film. She, too, makes the mistake of thinking she's in a story about a boy and a girl. Amar's family and hers wants them to marry, and they become engaged after some frank conversation that starts out with her asking him, "So, are you a virgin?" When Meghna invades Amar's and her life, she dimly senses the danger the other woman poses to their relationship, but cannot conceive of what the real hazards of Meghna's presence entail. I love Preity's "real girl" looks in this film--frizzy hair and ordinary clothes and all, she's not afraid to play a character I imagine many modern-day city-dwelling Indian girls can identify with. Her fantasy number, Jiya Jale, has some scorching hot moments with Shah Rukh that actually convinced me that Veer-Zaara would be worth seeing. She doesn't have a whole lot to do, but what she does is important.
The narrative follows the "Seven Shades of Love," as does the song Satrangi Re--I won't list what they are because it'll give away the ending, but the incorporation of mystic interpretations of love suffuses the film. The fantastic first song, Chaiyya Chaiyya, (pictured on the left) is what the lyricist admits is a "sufi song," saturated with incredible imagery and passion. (That's the song Spike Lee used for the opening credits of his movie Inside Man.) The entire soundtrack is probably one of the top three out of all the Bollywood movies I've seen--truly amazing in every note.
The obsession Amar shows for Meghna is not unknown in Hollywood movies. To paraphrase the way Gavin de Becker puts it in his excellent book The Gift of Fear, boy meets girl, girl shows no interest, boy pursues girl, girl says no, boy ignores girl's rejection, girl still says no, boy ignores girl's rejection some more, girl falls madly in love with boy. The end. Apparently in Hindi cinema this, um, "phenomenon" is even more common. If I didn't know that this whole story was also a metaphor for the relationship New Delhi has with its northeastern states, I would be completely appalled by this storyline. But, I do know it and, far from being appalled, I am enthralled by the masterful, multi-layered storytelling that Dil Se has given the world. Heck yes, it's worth every penny, and then some.
"Kifa, nabki, min zikra habibin oua manzili, ala sikkat el'liqua" (My friends, let's stop here and weep, in remembrance of my beloved, on her traces, here at the edge of the dune).
You can find many clips from the film on YouTube, but I'd recommend you just go ahead and buy it.