21 Years of Dil Se: A Long Affair With Bollywood’s “Shortest Love Story”


21 Years of Dil Se: A Long Affair With Bollywood’s “Shortest Love Story”

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

As its lead, Amarkant Varma (Shah Rukh Khan) put it, Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.. is best described as “the world’s shortest love story”. The film, which released 21 years ago today, completed the director’s terror trilogy after Roja and Bombay. But this stunning film is also remembered for a host of other reasons: Malaika Arora’s waistline, AR Rahman’s evocative music elevated by Gulzar’s piercing lyrics, Santosh Sivan’s breathtaking cinematography, Preity Zinta’s debut act that gave us “honka-bonka-bonks”, and for generally being an inimitable collaboration that brought together Tigmanshu Dhulia, Ram Gopal Varma, Mani Ratnam, and Shekhar Kapur.

And 21 years later, Dil Se.. — that shed a light on human rights violations routinely carried out by the Army and the Centre’s indifference to the state of affairs in India’s North East — also remains one of the finest depictions of the all-consuming insanity of love. While most of Hindi cinema has the tendency to disguise the ugliness of love with sugarcoated romance, Ratnam deftly exposed the selfishness and delusions attached to this elusive feeling.

In the film, Amar, an All India Radio journalist from Delhi falls in love with the inscrutable Meghna/Moina (Manisha Koirala), an Assamese suicide bomber, determined to seek revenge for 50 years of insurgency. Both of them are fiercely in love: Amar loves Meghna so much that he is unable to imagine life without her; she in turn is blinded by her love for the cause that she’s ready to squander the promise of a happy future. Both their lives inevitably end in destruction, driven by their inability to let go of their love.

The finest point that Dil Se.. makes though, is that love is no less damaging than war.

The finest point that Dil Se.. makes though, is that love is no less damaging than war. On one hand is the backdrop of the film: an impending act of terrorism by a set of people who have long declared war against their country. On the other, Amar wages a battle against everyone and everything in his life for Meghna. In both cases, love is the underlying emotion. You see it in the film’s title track, where images of war and love are juxtaposed.

The premise of Dil Se.. is the theory of the seven shades of love: attraction, infatuation, love, reverence, worship, obsession, and death. It’s the reason Amar comes off as such an unlikeable character throughout the film’s 160-minute-long-runtime despite his evident need for companionship. He’s terrible at taking a no for a no, whether from his station chief who warns him against interviewing an extremist leader or from Meghna, who repeatedly informs him of her disinterest. He stalks her, makes her uncomfortable in public, harasses her, and risks his life in his obsessive need to end up with her. Even when it dawns on him that she’d just been using him for her own reasons, he refuses to let go, giving in instead to his blind devotion.

Similarly for Meghna, her steely determination to not even consider the life and the “eight children” that might await her, despite developing feelings for Amar, is her way of letting the intensity of love consume her. In a way, Ratnam articulates the one thing we often forget: Being in love guarantees that you’re stripped of “free will” and choice. If the film says anything, it’s that there’s nothing romantic about love.

It’s precisely why Dil Se..’s songs (especially the exquisitely choreographed “Satrangi”) have a surrealistic, colourful, and an otherworldly feeling to them. They’re possibly the expressions of the romantic desires that can only exist in Amar and Meghna’s head, but can’t translate to life. Because in their real lives, they can’t afford to fall in love in isolation. It comes sullied with a lifetime’s baggage of trauma, injustice, insurgency, and sacrifice.

Ratnam might have been inspired by the events in 1998, but like most of his films, Dil Se.. is still relevant in 2019: We still continue to enforce Hindi on people whose mother tongue it is not. We still have people who believe that “Delhi is India” (just look at the Centre’s apathy toward the Kerala floods). And more importantly, we still keep forgetting that love in the end is just negotiation.