Love, Politics, and Identity in Dil Se: Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.. (1998) is a musical drama chronicling the romance between Amar (Shah Rukh Khan), an earnest and curious journalist for All India Radio, and Meghna (Manisha Koirala), an undercover revolutionary who carries deadly secrets within her. Dil Se’s narrative is set in the politically charged 90s in India. This was a testing time for the country since its independence, as different regions of the country were fighting against the idea of nationalism that was aggressive and not accommodative. Moreover, the film is set in a climate following the political disturbances that changed the course of politics in our country.
To name a few, the long-standing Khalistani movement in Punjab, the ripple of riots caused by the Babri Masjid demolition and the rise of Hindu Nationalism in its aftermath, the ethnic insurgencies in the North East, the increased militancy and civilian deaths in Kashmir, the ULFA movement, and the assassination of Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi within a gap of just six years.
The expression of revolt in the country also took a particularly violent approach during this time. Additionally, the pressures of turning a topographically and culturally diverse state into a capitalist global economy were too much pressure on a young country’s shoulders. These politics are really important to keep in mind because the concept of a national identity was going through a huge change in the 50th year of independence. Amar and Meghna’s characters provide us with a representation of one of the two national identities that could exist among a multitude of others in a country like India. Following the two characters negotiating their space in the politics of the country, we understand how non-linear the idea of nationalism is.
Despite the complex backdrop, Dil Se.. finds its focus on the path of fatal attraction that Amar is struck by. He is helplessly drawn to the mysterious lady he meets at the railway station, one destined rainy night. Hence, after a certain point in the film, the political conflicts become merely a spectacle. Amar’s love and passion towards Meghna take precedence, not just in the script but ideologically as well. His pursuit of her leads him to uncover her irrevocable allegiance to the revolt. In trying to be close to her and understand her, he becomes part of an ominously larger scheme of things.
Amar embraces his feelings for Meghna the moment he sees her at the railway station. On watching her get on the train, he says, “This might be the world’s shortest love story.” His destined attraction towards her is reinforced when he finds her in the same town he was working in. After that coincidence, Amar follows Meghna as though she were the story that would satisfy his curiosity. The journey that Amar goes through is inspired by ancient Arabic philosophy on love. They believe that there are seven stages of love that take you through a path of Dilkashi(attraction), uns (infatuation), ishq (love), akidat (reverence), ibadat (worship), junoon (passion/madness), and maut (death).
This path is said to lead one closer to the divine or, perhaps, grant salvation. This philosophy sees love as a path to take toward a bigger destination. One can argue that the film doesn’t allow us to understand Amar’s immediate preoccupation with Meghna. In fact, his pursuit of her seems unnatural and even inappropriate. Personally, I think this is not an afterthought we have as an audience, but it is something that Amar himself experiences. It is an out-of-body, uncontrollable feeling that draws him toward her.
Almost like they were meant to find something beyond life’s circumstances with each other. Their growing intimacy is accompanied by a foreboding cinematic treatment throughout the film. Be it the harrowing sound design or the camera gushing past empty valleys, all of it makes the growing love between them a path toward a tragic destiny. But it is only in that tragedy the culmination of their love is successful. Hence, the seven stages of love become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This philosophy of the seven stages has been best represented through the mise-en-scene in the production of the song “Satrangi re.” The song is written into the script right at the cusp of Amar receiving a glimpse of Meghna’s dark past. He sees a flash of her post-traumatic stress disorder, which deeply propels him toward her emotionally, mentally, and physically.
The song seems to be a dramatic visualization of Amar’s mind and the path to his destiny. We see Meghna through a representation of seven different colors for the seven stages of love. She wears black when first introduced as the femme fatale. Right after that, she is seen wearing white to lure him into the journey, showing him that there is an ultimate salvation to come after it. She is then wearing red, which always is a color that symbolizes attraction and love. In the next sequence, she is wearing yellow, which flows into an orange too. This is to represent the fire around them.
She then wears a green robe in the sequence inside the Monastery, representing reverence and worship. The song moves on to a sequence inside the water where she is wearing blue and indigo, representing the force of nature they are within. She even wears purple right before the song ends, representing the passion they feel. Throughout these sequences, Amar is in black, as though Meghna is the true maker of the journey.
The song also uses three-dimensional space around the characters to convey their relationship. At times, there is an expanse like a mountainous desert or a lake to separate them. But, on the other hand, it also unites them by shadowing their movement inside a red tarp or a maze of nets. Apart from the overarching philosophy of the film, the dance form and costume also seem derivative of Arabic culture. It is said that art forms like belly dancing(a dance form that originated in Egypt) represent raw emotion through movement. The dance style aims to convey a wide range of feelings like mystery, romance, meditative, spiritual, etc. In this way, the dance conveys Meghna’s enchanting effect on Amar. The gestures of her hands, her whispering voice, and her slow, predatory moves all of it indicate her hypnotizing him.
Throughout the film, Meghna’s predisposition is passive and subtle, but this song liberates her from the circumstances that bind her otherwise. Her unconscious control over Amar is manifested here through choreographed physical dominance over him. We watch him try to contain her in a state of orange flames ablaze, surrender to her on his knees, move to the command of her beat, and lose control over his body while she circles around him. He is unexplainably devoted to her. This intangible passion is what drives the soul of the entire film.
Towards the end of the song, we see both of them dressed in white and in each other’s arms. The pose they strike is that of Pietà by Michelangelo. The sculpture represents Virgin Mary cradling Jesus in her lap after he has been taken down from the cross. The song ends with an overexposed frame, perhaps indicating Amar’s salvation in death. According to the Bible, Jesus is crucified as a sacrifice for the sins of everybody. This parallel is drawn, anticipating the climax of the film.
By choosing death with Meghna, Amar saves a terrorist attack from happening. This turns the tables on what the suicide bombing represents. Meghna was bound to kill herself, either way, that day. But by giving in to Amar, her suicide bombing becomes an act of passion rather than an act of hatred. His death becomes a sacrifice for the sake of his political righteousness, though in the face of love.
Twenty-five years ago, Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.. boldly chose to tell the story of two gray characters. There is no judgment of right or wrong in what they were doing but an attempt to explore the predispositions which led them to this point. Through Meghna, the film tries to humanize the insurgency movement witnessed in Northeast states ever since India gained independence.
Meghna represents the consequence as well as the cause of disruption in the civil life of specific geographically and politically neglected minorities. She is conditioned within the totalitarian mindset of the insurgents and holds their cause as an anchor after losing her family. Meghna had her reasons to make the choices she did, and the film gives her past that due. The subplot of her experience with counter-insurgent violence, the wretched excess within the law, feeds into a circular structure of the fight for decentralization and justice.
Amar is the son of a martyred army officer. He is also a vocal and intrepid journalist. Amar represents a voice of the nation that is more centrist in nature. He is open to studying terrorism as an act of rebelling against oppression but is also deeply disturbed by the helpless means of violence they chose for their cause. Even when he confronts Meghna after knowing her truth, he is shaken not by her lie but by the hatred she carries inside her. However, he falls prey to the same bias that a person of majoritarian privilege would. He tries to convince her to put her past behind her and offers his love as a naive cure to her pain.
Amar may finally know Meghna’s truth but doesn’t seem to understand it. His view of the world clashes with the radical leftist reality that Meghna belongs to. However, he is helpless in the situation, which is evidently beyond his control. Towards the end, he only asks for the requital of his deep love towards her. He seems to have faith that his love for her didn’t exist in a void and that it was something she shared with him. Her giving in him indicates more than just love’s power to triumph over all. It paints her as a victim within her social system, negating her goal and agency.
Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.. undoubtedly tries to give us a balanced story of the problem. But in ironies like the liberal centrist being called “Amar,” which translates to one that is immortal, the film settles for a more conservative idea of nationalism than it had set out to represent.