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Plot: radio broadcaster falls in love with a strangely aloof woman

There’s no shortage of romance in Bollywood. It’s an integral part of Indian cinematic experience, and they sometimes turn up in the least expected places. One such is at the heart, erm, center of Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (or, From the Heart) which not only has the good fortune of featuring a young Shah Rukh Khan in the lead, but also two of Bollywood’s most beloved actresses: Manisha Koirala, and a very young Preity Zinta. Dil Se is a prime example of parallel cinema, or a more realist equivalent to Bollywood’s deliciously over-the-top and melodramatic popcorn/event movies. It’s certainly melodramatic in places but Dil Se is a political thriller first and foremost. Dil Se was closing chapter of Mani Ratnam’s thematic trilogy of terror films and was preceded by Bombay (1995) and Roja (1992). Dil Se initially did poor at the box office, and found success overseas first. It was screened at the Era New Horizons Film Festival and the Helsinki International Film Festival. It went on to win the Netpac Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, two National Film Awards, and six Filmfare Awards. In more recent years it has been reappraised and is now considered an unsung classic.

Amarkant Varma (Shah Rukh Khan) is an idealist program executive for All India Radio traveling to New Delhi to cover the festivities in Assam. On a rainy night he makes a stop at Haflong train station to catch the Barak Valley Express (he wouldn’t take the Chennai Express until some 15 years later) and makes his acquaintance with a mysterious, aloof woman. Mesmerized he tries to strike up conversation, but she has boarded her train before Amar can think up something useful to say. In Assam, while reporting on the North-East insurgence, he interviews citizens of Assam as well as the Liberationists in Kashmir valley and their motivations behind the resistance in Utthar Purv. Then he spots the mystery woman again in Lumding, but she claims not to recall their earlier meeting. A few weeks go by, and Amar describes their meeting on the radio, which she hears. When he meets her again at the post office she tells him to leave her alone since she’s married. Amar profusely apologizes but is beaten up by her brothers all the same. He figures that everything so far was a mere ruse and travels to Leh where the woman was last seen in the union territory of Ladakh.

At the Sindhu Darshan Festival a suicide bomber is chased by the military, and once again the mysterious woman is nearby. They both board the same bus, but when the vehicle experiences technical difficulties they are forced to walk to the nearest village. There the woman tells Amar to call her Meghna (Manisha Koirala) and confides in him that they never can be together. He’s an idealist, she’s a pragmatist. He’s a dreamer, she’s an activist. Unfazed Amar confesses his feelings for her, and is heartbroken to find that she has disappeared the following morning. He returns home to Delhi where his family has arranged a first date with wide-eyed young student Preeti Nair (Preity Zinta) from Kerala. Figuring that he will never see or hear from Meghna again Amar kindly agrees to marry Preeti.

Out on a date during his courtship with Preeti one day Amar spots one of Meghna’s associates on Connaught Place. Naturally, when the man commits suicide Amar becomes a prime suspect in the CBI investigation. Then one day he finds Meghna knocking on his door asking for an administrative job in the offices of All India Radio. Amar is puzzled to learn that her real name is Moina, and that she's part of a Liberationist cell planning multiple suicide attacks in New Delhi during the upcoming Republic Day celebrations. In fact Moina herself is one of the suicide bombers and she intends to blow herself up along with the President of India. His association with Moina and his trek to Sunder Nagar make Amar look suspect in the eyes of the CBI investigation officer (Piyush Mishra) and he’s arrested. On the day of the planned suicide attack Amar escapes CBI custody and pleads Moina not to go through with her terrorist act. Does love truly conquer all?

Not bad for somebody like Shah Rukh Khan. Before he became the “king of romance” and “Tom Cruise of India” he was an actor from humble beginnings. He has a penchant for chosing projects with an autobiographical slant. His father was a freedom fighter, so the screenplay of Dil Se must have resonated with him on a personal level. Khan had debuted in Deewana (1992) but would soon make a name for himself playing anti-heroes and villains. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) proved particularly successful. It was the highest grossing Bollywood film that year, and is widely considered one of the most successful Indian films in history. The Maratha Mandir cinema hall in Mumbai has, as of 2017, been showing it 20-plus years. And who wouldn’t want to be involved with a prestigious project as Dil Se? Mani Ratnam writing and directing, sharing the screen with India’s most gifted dramatic actress (Manisha Koirala), a lovely debutante (Preity Zinta), a director of photography (Santosh Sivan) and a choreographer (Farah Khan) who would direct the “king of romance” in the historical epic Aśoka (2001), and the Bollywood box office smashes Om Shanti Om (2007) and Happy New Year (2014), respectively? You’d imagine that Dil Se would resonate with people, but the opposite is in fact true. In its original run it did poorly, and Dil Se was only reappraised much later.

It’s nigh on unbelievable that Shah Rukh Khan is barely known in the English-speaking world. He’s one of the biggest actors, producers, and directors in Bollywood, and often works with filmmaker Yash Chopra. On-screen he’s frequently romantically paired with the Kapoor sisters (Karisma and Kareena), Madhuri Dixit, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Juhi Chawla, and introduced Preity Zinta, Deepika Padukone, and Priyanka Chopra to the world. Khan famously declined the lead role in Danny Boyle’s multiple Golden Globes, Academy, BAFTA, and Critics' Choice Award-winning sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a part subsequently given to Anil Kapoor. Khan is known for playing idealists, anti-heroes, villains, and romantic heroes. He’s a man of the people, and loved across age brackets and demographics. He has his own wax statue in Madame Tussauds in New Delhi and London, lectured at Yale (in 2012) and TED (in 2017), and he was interviewed by David Letterman on his My Next Guest (in 2019). Dil Se is probably one of the most important movies in Khan’s extensive filmography, and a lot more cerebral than than the romantic comedies and dramas wherein he made a name for himself. Besides Manisha Koirala the biggest other star is Preity Zinta.

Zinta was a 23-year old former student of criminal psychology who had established a foothold in television as the adorable Cadbury Perk chocolate bar – and Liril soap girl. If those commercials weren’t enough to shoot her to domestic superstardom, her now world-famous dimpled smile certainly would. It takes well over an hour before Zinta makes her appearance in Dil Se but what a debut it is! Just a short 20 minutes is all that it took for pretty Preity to become a Bollywood darling and superstar. Obviously Preity impressed the Bollywood bigwigs and she won the Filmfare Award (1999) for Best Female Debut. Five years, and 15 films later, Zinta appeared in two career-defining productions. The first was Rajesh Roshan’s nearly three-hour-long Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) (or I Found Someone), a family adventure epic of Spielbergian proportions modeled after the likes of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Independence Day (1996). It ensured Hritik Roshan’s continued relevance, and birthed India’s most lucrative superhero franchise Krrish in the process. The same year she reunited with Khan for Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) where she played geeky, black-rim glasses wearing, and barely-smiling Naina Mathur. Her hearty laughter warmed millions. Preity has shared the screen with legends, old and new, and probably is one of the most recognizable Hindi stars along with Priyanka Chopra and Mallika Sherawat. Also making a cameo appearance is former MTV VJ Malaika Arora in the song ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’.

Dil Se is the ideal title for Westerners to dive into the wonderful world of Bollywood, as Dil Chahta Hai (2001), and Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) for that matter. It might not exactly be representative of Shah Rukh Khan’s massive body of work (that generally dwells in far lighter comedic – and romantic territory) but if there’s one Bollywood movie that everybody should have seen at least once Dil Se is a pretty good choice. It offers a chance to see a number of Bollywood superstars early in their career before they became the household names and red carpet fixtures they are today. Shah Rukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, and Preity Zinta all are philantropists who have found charitable foundations, and have championed women's and children's rights in India, as well raised awareness around various (mental) health issues. For that all three have often won awards and are leading figures in their philanthropic endeavours. If that doesn’t make Dil Se more appealing to a wider audience, nothing probably will…

Plot: wealthy socialite meets a shy young man who looks exactly like her boyfriend

Before Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) revolutionized the way films were made in Bollywood, there was the box office smash Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai (or Say That You Love Me). Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai was the big screen debut of Hritik Roshan, the Hindi superstar-in-waiting whose dashing good looks, sculptured physique and mad dancing skills would shoot him into the hearts and loins of women of all ages. Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai amassed a record 102 awards at every award ceremony in the country, grossed 3.6 billion worldwide and made stars out of Hritik Roshan and Ameesha Patel. Not bad for a rom-com with a rather perfunctory plot and a selection of decidedly average songs that were catchy but had not much in the way of hooks. More importantly though is that Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai set the stage for the sweet family masala Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) and the future Krrish franchise. Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai was so lucrative that an attempt on the life of director Rakesh Roshan was made just a week after the movie’s release. He was shot several times just outside his office on Tilak Road, Santacruz in Mumbai by two hitmen from extortionist and Indian Mafia don Ali Budesh before whom he refused to bow.

By the time actor, producer and writer Rakesh Roshan came to direct Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai he had plenty of experience as an actor and had helmed a whopping 8 features (going as far back as 1987) all starting with the letter K. Roshan is often (and not without reason) accused of pilfering western properties for storylines and characters from Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) onwards, Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai on the other hand does the exact opposite. The plot recombines plotpoints from Khudgarz (1987), Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) and Koyla (1997) into a fun, if not exactly riveting, little romp that gets by more on its inherent sweetness than its actualy storytelling. Roshan originally envisioned to helm the production on the Fiji Islands but when the necessary permits couldn’t be secured New Zealand was chosen instead. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor were initially offered the role of Sonia. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan politely declined the part for reasons unknown. Kareena - the granddaughter of Raj Kapoor, daughter of Randhir Kapoor & Babita and sister of Bollywood superstar Karisma Kapoor – was forced to pull out just days into shooting after her mother got into a heated argument with director Roshan. Eventually Roshan decided on Ameesha Patel. For western audiences Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai will probably look like an Elvis Presley musical comedy and a Frankie Avalon-John Ashley beach party movie from the sixties combined with a truncated The Blue Lagoon (1980) vignette for good measure. Hritik Roshan and Ameesha Patel are a joy to behold, but there is nary any chemistry to speak of between the two. Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai is a romantic desi masala for the entire family that even western audiences might find appealing. It’s not quite on the level of Roshan’s later productions, but it works well enough for what it is.

Rohit Chopra (Hritik Roshan) is a good-natured young man from humble beginnings. He slaves away at his car salesman job during the day and fills his nights with playing guitar and singing his heart out. One day sells a vehicle to wealthy entrepreneur Saxena (Anupam Kher) who is involved in some shady business. At a traffic light Rohit makes his acquaintance with Sonia (Ameesha Patel, as Amisha Patel), the daughter of Saxena, and the two are instantly smitten with each other. The two meet each other again on a cruise ship bound for Singapore where Rohit impresses everyone with his singing. Through no choice of their own Sonia and Rohit are separated from the cruise and end up on a deserted island. The two decide to make the best of the situation until they are taken back to civilization. Once back in the world Sonia and her friends assist Rohit in cutting a cassette demo and help him kickstart his career in every way they can. When his career takes off and he’s able to make a living from his singing he and Sonia are to be married. On the eve of a performance set to launch his career, Rohit is witness to Shakti Malik (Dalip Tahil) and Atu Malik (Rajesh Tandon) murdering a law enforcement official investigating Saxena’s illicit businesses. Saxena’s goons find Rohit and drown him for his trouble. Saxena covers the murder up as an unfortunate accident. When the news reaches Sonia she's naturally shaken by the news. To keep his daughter from feeling maudlin and depressed Saxena sends her to live with her cousins in New Zealand. In New Zealand Sonia meets the bespectacled, well-dressed Raj (Hritik Roshan) who looks exactly the deceased Rohit. As you’d expect Sonia and Raj fall in love and together they decide to find the culprit responsible for murdering Rohit…

That Hritik Roshan was destined for superstardom was clear from his debut performance (in a double role, no less) here. Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai is a valentine to his every move, his every glance and an extended preamble to showcase his dancing skills. In quite a few ways Roshan (the elder as much as the younger) lays the groundwork for the 2003 box office smash that would establish them both. In Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai Roshan the younger for the first time portrayed a sculptured, good-natured working class guy as well as his bespectacled, more reserved and introverted counterpart. Ameesha Patel combines the regal posture of Mia Sara in her prime with the doe-eyed innocence of a young Shiri Appleby but is in the habit of hamming it up every once in a while. Granted, her grand declaration of love ‘Janeman Janeman’ (‘Sweetheart’) is adorable in every way even though her dancing tends to be a bit stiff. Patel does look quite fetching in her blue veils in the love song ‘Na Tum Jano Na Hum’ (‘No, You Know, Us’) and ‘Pyar Ki Kashti Mein’ (‘On the Ship of Love’) introduces the well-known melody that Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) would use for Jadoo and that Krrish would later inherit. The soulful Lucky Ali r&b club banger ‘Ek Pal Ka Jeena’ (‘There’s Only A Moment To Life’) could have easily charted in the US and Europe had it been given an English make-over. In retrospect most of it, the romantic entanglements especially so, feel like a dress rehearsal for the later and overall superior feel-good masala Koi… Mil Gaya (2003).

Hritik Roshan playing a double role and characters named Rohit, Raj, Sonia, and Saxena all would make their return in future Rakesh Rohan productions. A lot of it feels like a test-run for something more ambitious and grander in scope. At the heart of most Bollywood productions is a romance and in case of Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai that was its entire raison d'être. Compared to the on-screen romance between Hritik Roshan and Preity Zinta in Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) and Priyanka Chopra in Krrish (2006) the courtship and eventual union with Ameesha Patel is fairly uneventful outside of the uncharted island segment. Ameesha Patel is adorable as many Hindi women in these productions tend to be but she isn’t a great actress by any metric of choice. Her presence is illuminating certainly, but it’s not as if she’s setting the screen alight quite in the same way Preity Zinta and Priyanka Chopra would years later. It’s not even for a lack of trying on Patel’s part either. The love scenes are good for what they are but there’s never quite any sparks or electricity between both leads. The action sequences are serviceable enough but tend to stick out for all the wrong reasons. Sonia’s friend Neeta (played by Tanaaz Currim Irani) obviously was the basis for Honey (played by Manini M. Mishra) in Krrish (2006). In fact most of everything retroactively served as a model for things that turned up later in Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) and the ongoing Krrish franchise. It’s hardly the worst complaint to level against the movie.

Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai was in the unfortunate position of being retroactively eclipsed by the two box office smash hits that followed it. Not that that in any way diminishes the overall effectiveness of this little rom-com. This is the sort of injection that many Western rom-coms would benefit tremendously from. Ameesha Patel is cute as a dish and Hritik Roshan is a lead man with talent to spare. Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai is a standard romantic comedy enlivened by its selection of some halfway decent (and a few surprisingly really good) songs. Compared to later Roshan productions Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai is much smaller in scale and scope. It is a fun little movie sure to elate the spirit with its kind-hearted nature and stubborn belief that love indeed does conquer all. In Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai Roshan the elder’s quirkier tendencies are reined in and it's fairly conventional as such. Talks of a sequel have been making the rounds for years, but nothing substantial has come from it thus far. Anybody interested to see where one of India’s best-paid actors was launched needs to look no further.