Thursday, March 08, 2007

Dil Se -- A War Protest Movie

It has only been 58 years since India gained independence from Britain in 1947. There were many bloody struggles in India’s war for independence and millions died during Partition when Muslims and Hindus either traveled to the newly created nation of Pakistan or from Pakistan into India. Kashmir is still in dispute and India has been fighting terrorism since independence as recent subway bombings in Mumbai illustrate.

There are many movies that illustrate the horrors of war in attempts to suggest peaceful alternatives. While war is fought by nations, it is carried out by individuals. Mani Rantam wrote and directed Dil Se as a sensitive portrait of two people with different views of war based on personal experiences.

Dil Se is a story of Amarkanth Varma, an idealist radio journalist, who meets and falls in love with a lonely young woman, Meghna, on a railroad platform. At first, their stories diverge as she catches the next train while Amar has gone to get her some hot tea.

I was enthralled with the movie from the opening credits. The director added small details that not only added texture to the story but later you realize he is also giving the viewer and the characters information that foreshadow the depth and complexities of the emotional conflicts to come. Little touches like in the opening scenes where Amar is dressed in a black shirt and red sports jacket and Meghna is dressed in a red dress but covered with a black shawl, almost as if to say Amar wears his heart on his sleeve and Meghna keeps her heart hidden from view. Another example is when Amar goes to fetch Meghna some tea, he jokes and tells her not to move because he has a bomb in his suitcase and it could explode. Later, this joke seems prophetic.

As part of his job as a radio producer, Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) gathers various man-on-the-street perspectives for a program about the upcoming 50th anniversary celebrations of Indian Independence. He hears from some that they have suffered more since independence and from others that India has prospered since independence. To expand his research, Amar seeks out the leader of a revolutionary movement. The leader’s main complaint is that the smaller outlying states of India were forgotten after the war for independence and many villages have suffered and continue to suffer in a multitude of ways. For Amar, whose father and grandfather served in the Indian army, he struggles to understand the dissents’ evaluation of their current treatment at the hands of the Indian government.

When Amar returns, he runs into Meghna (Manisha Koirala) but she claims she never met him before and they part. As you can imagine, Amar is confused. He is certain she is the girl he met on the train platform. Another day, he spies her making a phone call and he follows her. Again, she rejects him but this time he hitches a ride on the back of the bus she is on and he lands in her village. Here, Amar declares his love for her; again she rejects him claiming to be married. When Amar seeks to apologize to her, she sends several men to convince Amar that his pursuit is futile but in the ensuing fight, Amar learns she is not married and his hope is renewed.

While covering festivities in Lucknow, Amar glimpses Meghna in the crowd. He searches for her and finds her on a bus. As the police go down the aisle asking about identification and travel purposes, Meghna says she is Amar’s wife. Amar is more amused than suspicious by her change in attitude.

The bus travels north to the mountains. After it breaks down, the passengers gather their belongings and walk toward their destinations. Amar follows Meghna. Amar has been open and ardent about his feelings about her. She has continually rebuffed him but she appears to warm up a bit but not without visible internal emotional struggles that leave Amar and the viewer puzzled.

Late into the night, Meghna leaves while Amar is sleeping. She leaves a mysterious message in the sand. Amar returns to the city feeling he has lost her. He agrees to marry Preeti, a woman of his family’s choosing. Preeti (Preity Zinta) is a bouncing, cheerful girl. They find that they both have loved and lost, but it does not take her long to realize that Amar’s thoughts are elsewhere.

Amidst their wedding preparations, Meghna appears at Amar’s house with a girlfriend asking for temporary shelter and a job at All India Radio where Amar works. He agrees. Watching the emotional struggles play across their faces as Amar and Meghna participate in the wedding festivities pictures two confused, unhappy, young people. Both Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha capture the pain, confusion, and regret of their lost love just as Preity expresses the joys and hopes for her future.

Soon the festivities are disrupted when Amar discovers Meghna’s true purpose for coming to the city and working at All India Radio. Because he is still loves her, he thinks he can stop her. It is chaos from here on. Amar tries to piece together information of Meghna’s whereabouts before the police find her. He locates her near the parade route. When he confronts her about her treachery, he learns about her tragedies. He offers to give up everything for her and begs her to run away with him. She wants to go with him. She wants those dreams of love and family, but she also wants justice for her people. She refuses. He attempts to physically stop her but police intervene. Later, the police release him but thugs lay in wait and beat Amar up. When he returns home, Preeti confronts him as she bandages his wounds. She asks, “Should Meghna’s name be on these wedding invitations rather than mine?” He evades her questions. He is intent on stopping Meghna. The police raid the home and he dragged off to be questioned and drugged to elicit information but he escapes.

The action in these scenes is fast-paced and the emotions of all involved are heightened and intense. Amar still wants to save Meghna and she is tempted but his love can not offer her the solace she seeks. Amar makes the ultimate offer. He loves her and has accepted her pain.

For me, this is a well-crafted movie. Shah Rukh Khan’s and Manish Koirala’s performances are among the best I have seen. The choreography is incredible and inspiring.

I may have read somewhere that Amar’s love represents India’s pain over the loss of the territory of Pakistan, the horrible death and cruelty inflicted on so many Indians, and its longing to make amends. Meghna’s pain, desire for justice and love represents the desire of Pakistan to heal its rift with India because while war was initiated by governments, it was individuals who were affected.

1998, Color, Hindi, 163 minutes
Director: Mani Ratnam
Story/Screenplay: Mani Ratnam
Producer: Shekhar Kapoor, Ram Gopal Varma, Mani Ratnam
Cinematography: Santosh Sivan
Cast: Shahrukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, Preity Zinta and more.
Music: A.R. Rahman
Lyrics: Gulzar
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar, M.G. Sreekumar, Kavitha Krishnamoorthy, Sonu Nigam, Mahalakshmi, Udit Narayan, A.R. Rahman, Anupama, Anuradha, Sapna Awasthi, Sukwinder Singh