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Dil Se.. (1998)

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…