Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dil Se, or, Juliet's a Terrorist

Once upon a time, so long ago that the truth of the tale has become obscured by the mists of centuries passing, there lived a boy and a girl. The boy is known today as Majnun, or maybe it's Madjnun, Majpoonun, or Mecnun, but chances are those who knew him called him Qays ibn al-Mulawwah ibn Muzahim, and he lived on the northern Arabian Peninsula.

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.


  1. Fun writing Ajnabi! I love "Dil Se"- so much angst and patriotism :B The movie bombed when it cam out, which I completely disagree with- while the songs are definitely weird, and plot holes abound, I found the the whole package amazingly heartfelt. You may also want to see "Bombay"- by the same director, and also featuring Manisha.

  2. Cool, I didn't know Bombay had the same director. Thanks for the rec!

  3. I remember a TV anchor joking about the movie when it came out. When asked why Shahrukh and Malaika dance atop a moving train, the anchor quipped that it was because the movie was made entirely 'dil se' (from the heart) and brains werent used at all! :-)

    I loved the songs but found the story a bit incoherent with inexplicable jumps between scenes. After Dil Se I wondered where Mani Ratnam got his reputation for directing and producing "good" movies but his latest Hindi effort Guru changed my opinion!

  4. Whoa, great write-up - you cleared up the whole Laila/Majnu thing for me! And, because I am le stupid, I didn't even pick up on the Laila/Majnu parallels between Amar and Meghna. But... no duh.

    Unlike Shweta and Bollyviewer, I am a BIG fan of disconnected scenes and disconnected songs. I thought Mani did a great job; the story proved as disorienting and atmospheric as poor Amar no doubt felt most of the time. And I thought, visually, that songs like Satrangi Re and Jiya Jaale were an absolute delight. Big kudos to SRK for making it and giving it his all - my favorite "revelatory SRK scene" was his fight scene in the alleyway. It was after that that I was like, "Daaamn. He's at 200% here." It's a shame that all his more interesting efforts (this, Paheli, Swades) keep getting punished by the populist box office.

  5. @Bollyviewer--oddly enough, the disjointed narrative doesn't bother me at all in this film. I think it's because I'm used to feeling lost half the time with Hindi films anyway at this point! Some of the shots of SRK dancing on top of that train make me wince out of nervousness. Obviously he survived the experience, but holy cow! Lookit that chasm on either side of the tracks!

    @ppcc: I'm with you, the songs and movie are awesome just the way they are. Oddly enough, my big moment for appreciating SRK was when Meghna tells him, "I'm married." I had never seen him play a character so humiliated and at a loss as Amar is at that moment--it was like it wasn't even SRK there onscreen.

  6. Annnnd, we break our Bollywood twinship! xD I positively hated Dil Se (and I think I am the only one in the world who did), but I guess we all have different opinions, no?

  7. Tee-hee, maybe we can be twins-at-odds like Charlie and Guddu in Kaminey. :-) There are many people who detest the movie--my husband's one of them--but I appreciate it a lot for the performances. Don't like the ending at all but, hey, you can't have everything. ;-)

  8. Dil Se... Was a film much ahead of its time.
    And Now I am sure even ahead of times to come...

  9. Dil Se was real shock to me and as you said, multi layered.

    I saw Shah Rukh's progress through the film, from the over excited Amar to the self sacrificing Amar and just thought it was him learning to act along with character development but now it's clear it was all meant to be character development which is a little sudden but still acceptable.

    The first thing that surprised me in this review was the title and then when you started telling the Laila-Majnu story... but I can see why they are relevant. Great review and as a completely random side note, I love the play at the end of Aaja Nachle showing the Laila-Majnu story.

  10. Anonymous: I would love to see more movies similar in production, if not necessarily storylines.

    MsBlogger: This came out the same year as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and marked the full transition into mega-superstar SRK instead of him dabbling in "real acting" roles for quite some time. Not to say he did a bad job in the other films, just that he did play Raj/Rahul for a good many years. So I can see why it would be disconcerting to see Amar's character arc.

    And I LOVE the Layla-Majnu play in Aaja Nachle! When she flings herself over him to protect him from the whips--and when she collapses with her clothes spread out like blood beneath her--beautiful beautiful beautiful!


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