Dil Se… released when I was in the middle of my 10th standard. The songs came out first, and I didn’t have much of an opinion. After the release of the movie too, I don’t think I got any feedback. Those days, friends and followers had a more literal meaning and they were mostly restricted to your class. These hapless souls, chained like me and being led to the altar of public exams half a year later, also wouldn’t have watched the film immediately. Even though I had seen some of Mani Ratnam’s earlier films and liked them, nothing really compelled me to watch it immediately. But by the time the movie left the theatres- which was very soon- my cousin had seen it and was all praises for it. Being my soul mate, his opinion mattered a lot. By this time, with repeated hearing and watching on TV, the songs- as it always happens with Rahman’s- had really grown on me. And then there was that evening…

I caught on TV the sequence of Shah Rukh whispering to Manisha in the dark corridor of an AIR Studio, interrupted by streaks of light and greetings whenever a passer-by opens the door. Never before had I experienced such a use of light and sound, or rather, their absence. I couldn’t catch even a single dialogue then (it was the Tamil version), but was instantly drawn into the melancholic world of Amar and Meghna. I believe it was on that evening he became “Mani Sir”, a dronacharya to me. Watch the video here.

But what to do now? We didn’t even have a VCR at home. This was much before TCRips and DVDScrs (Well, what is a DVD anyway?) Months later, I found out that the movie is playing in a B-class theatre somewhere outside the city. What followed was nothing short of an uprising to make someone take me to the movie (Yeah, people. I had to be “taken”). I vaguely remember that I attempted Bhagat Singh’s path of “loud noise to make deaf ears listen” and Gandhian fasting. However the might of authority brutally quelled it. Later when I was invited to watch movies on a VCR at a friend’s place, I tried to rent Dil Se, but it was not available. It was a year later that I finally got to see it, when it was screened at an open air venue. It matched all of my heightened expectations, and I fell for it completely, much like Amar fell for Meghna at the deserted railway station that rainy night.

But I learned later that the majority did not share my feelings for it- starting with my uncle who accompanied me to the screening and later remarked, “What a waste of three hours!” to my “One of the most beautiful three hours of my life”, to the majority of Indian movie-goers who decided its box office fate. I realised that it was very much a niche film. It might sound silly now, but for years my litmus test for a new friend who displayed similar views on life was, “Do you like Dil Se…?” and a positive answer moved him/her to the inner circle. I compensated for my initial negligence by immersing myself in that familiar melancholy on VCD countless times. I used to claim that I could survive years of solitary confinement if I had the freedom to play this movie. More than just as a movie, I suspect that in those formative years, Amar’s single-mindedness in his desire and passion might have rubbed off on me too.

But this time when I re-watched, I really wanted to put Dil Se… to the acid test. It’s been over a decade since I saw it first. I have grown, undeniably in age and arguably in sensibilities, aesthetics and experiences. And now I write this because, to my delight, I saw the same film again- not a degree less of anything. Excuse me for wasting so many words on my personal life, but that’s what Dil Se… is to me- it’s MY film. And all the above factors contributed in making it so.

I view Dil Se… as the manifesto of a man’s passion. The first shot of the movie shows objects and movements out of focus with strange noises making us crave to know what they are. This more or less speaks of Amar’s life- he belongs to a well-to-do, caring family; has a secure career and a happy married life in the offing. But all he wants is Meghna, who is shrouded in mystery. Despite being amidst loved ones, he chased that one love that eluded him forever. I think this would be the longest journey anyone has taken to get a positive nod to his proposal. People seem confused about the genre of the film. Some catalogue it as the last of Mani Ratnam’s “Terrorism trilogy” after Roja and Bombay. And then accuse it of simplifying the issue of how terrorism is born! To me, Dil Se… is nothing but a love story, whose purpose is neither propaganda nor giving answers but simply telling the intense tale of a man’s love and loss (or gain, depending on how you see it). It speaks on behalf of individuals and their singular experiences. It neither generalises nor attempts to place any element of it above its central theme of love.

As mentioned, the aim of my latest viewing of the film was nitpicking and making sure it’s still worth writing about. All these years, Dil Se… has intuitively been my benchmark of Indian cinema, against which even a couple of Mani Sir’s latest paled. Now, the reason for this dawned on me- it’s simply perfect in every sense, from screenplay to background score. There isn’t even an iota of excess anywhere. Let me just point out one thought that struck me- this film is one of Santosh Sivan’s finest works as a cinematographer. Each of Santosh’s directorial ventures is praised for being a visual treat, but the images he brings in often seem to be excessive technical indulgences, superfluous from a critical point of view. In Dil Se…, there is not a single shot that you can remove from its structure. The same minimalism and maturity is shown by each technical department. In which other movie can you find Bollywood stars in so less make-up? Yet in their most deglamorised roles, Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala look gorgeous, may be because as a dialogue in the movie goes, there can’t be anyone more beautiful than a martyr. And martyrs were what they were.

Ever since I first wanted to see it, I’ve tried to follow each mention of Dil Se… in the media. Years later, Manisha said in an interview that she feels the film was ahead of its time and that it would be the one that would make her grandchildren proud. I’ve also read Mani Ratnam blaming the film’s failure on his ineptitude with Hindi language, an argument I would refute furiously. Dil Se… would simply cease to exist without the poetry of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s dialogues. (Can you believe, I had noted this name back then and was overjoyed when he later debuted as a director with Haasil). I suspect though, that the basic thought behind the dialogues were from Sujatha. The unquestionable superiority of Sujatha Sir and Mani Sir in dealing with romance, which we have witnessed in their other movies, is very much present here too. By now, I know most of the dialogues by heart which allowed me to pay more attention to the rest of the soundtrack and it amazed me again. Mani Sir’s wizardry brings into life the total world of the story by painstakingly giving details of even stray background noise. And it’s those details that makes the scenes magical – their walk as they plan a family and Meghna opens up to him for the first time ever, the later recreation of that scene through the yellow headphone, the night at the old temple in Ladakh where they share their list of likes and dislikes, even Amar’s later scenes with the bubbly Preeti… There were no clichés. Everything was fresh, and it still remains so.

I believe this is the best work of most of the cast and crew- from Farah Khan’s choreography to Allan Amin’s action to Shah Rukh Khan’s acting. The film must have challenged them all to do something that they are not used to doing otherwise in Bollywood- to be natural and authentic. However, the real master who made his mark till eternity through this movie is A R Rahman. As someone who hates the typical song-dance sequences in Hindi cinema, it was a revelation to find song lyrics and choreography taking the movie to a higher level, particularly with “Satrangi Re”. Rarely has the format of a Bollywood musical been exploited with such artistic grace, without yielding completely to market pressures. Personally, it’s my favourite Rahman album, one I will never get tired of. Even in the middle of a noisy crowd, if you randomly play, “Tu To Nahin Hai Lekin Teri Muskurahatein Hain…”, I’ll instantly be pushed into the sad world of the movie. And it’s a sheer pity that we don’t have the practice of releasing soundtrack albums because many of the brilliant tracks (many with lyrics) which would be amazing by themselves are locked to the movie- like the song we hear when Amar finds out after the night at the temple that Meghna has vanished. It forms the base of many tracks from then on- like when he chases the tuba player across Connaught Place. Once Rahman had remarked that the favourite scene he has ever given music to was the one in which the bride’s ornaments are being tried on Meghna. I’m curious to know whether he still thinks so.

It’s very difficult to be objective when trying to write about Dil Se… I must have attempted it in vain at least a couple of times over a decade. Yes, it’s after all a dichotomy- you either love it or you rebuke it. That’s it. The film works for me because I can feel the characters and their world and make a connection with them which deepens with every viewing. These are people we won’t usually come across in real life. The decisions they make are the most uncommon. But the masterly writing makes it all so credible. Compare it with the careless caricatures that we usually see on the Indian screen. Let me take the liberty of giving an example. Each time “Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa”‘s Karthik made advances to Jessie, I was irritated, repelled and totally disconnected. I could never relate to him. His intentions are never convincing, neither are those of the “No-Yes-No” Jessie. But when Amar chased Meghna across the east and north of the subcontinent, there was a certain dignity to it. I lived through him. Each time I also writhed with him in the pain of unrequited love. And at the end, I too couldn’t think of anything but “sleeping in the lap of death” so that I can “drown my body in her soul”…

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)