I believe this movie was a hit when it was released back in 1998. I at least know that the music was a success, the A.R. Rehman music we grew up listening, the Chaiya Chaiya & Dil Se Re etc. Growing up, I was never really a fan of SRK, maybe it was the sibling rivalry as my sister was a fan, or maybe something else (I have my theories, but that’s for another time), so I ended up having never watched this film. 24 years later, I finally watched it a couple of days back.
In a short chat with my sister, I realised Manisha Koirala has done some diverse roles which have required her to really act, not just look pretty and sing & dance, while the hero does the work and the acting. However, Manisha wasn’t the only motivator. I recently resumed formal education.
I had been conditioned to keep my head down, not worry about the country as a whole, worry about my job, about performing well at it, and ensuring there’s always food on my plate. And I’m not saying that that was wrong, I needed that during those stages of my life. It’s absolutely okay to chase the practical, not everyone will have the luxury to NOT DO, and Just Think. Doing is essential for one’s survival, specially those who aren’t cushioned by family wealth.
But I’m grateful for and also slightly disturbed by this chance of getting to study sociology. We’re taught locus of control, and that in order to be happy, we shouldn’t worry about things we can’t change. However, sociology has made me think, made me worry, about these over which I feel powerless.
So against the backdrop of Manisha ji and my sociology-induced thinking-mild-sorrow, I watched Dil Se. And what a problematic portrayal shown as a love story. Now here is when I should give the disclaimer before proceeding, these are just my views, they may seem right or wrong to you, most welcome to leave a comment. Also my views may be biased as I see from the lens of a woman.
This was problematic, and as I’ve realised were most of SRK’s characters for maximum of his movies, this was too. But this ‘love story’ was problematic in more ways than one.
The film starts with SRK going and introducing himself to Manisha uninvited, at a railway station. When you think of it, most introductions are uninvited, I mean how does one gauge an invitation for an intro? So moving on, SRK goes to buy some chai sutta (tea & cigarette), a train comes, Manisha leaves, and SRK proclaims this is the world’s shortest love story. Yes, my friends, he’s already in love (applause). By now Manisha hadn’t even told him her name, however, SRK had introduced himself as Amar from All India Radio (AIR). Later we find out that Manisha’s character is called Meghna. Anyway, somehow these two land up somewhere in the hills together again, he sights her again, starts following her, she asks him to leave her alone, and this being true love, Amar acts as a creep and keeps stalking the girl who was so clear she didn’t like him or want him around, that she didn’t even tell him her name. But that doesn’t stop him really. Finally sensing that he’s unwanted, he asks the girl whether she doesn’t like him, promises to leave her alone if she says with her own mouth that he should leave her alone (later on in the movie he does some things for which he forgets to seek such enthusiastic consent). She says it, goes on to take a bus, he stops, doesn’t board the bus, but then runs after it and climbs at the back and looks at her through the glass like a major creep.
Like a respectful lover that he is, he continues to follow the girl around, even to her house. She finally tells him that she’s married and he shouldn’t follow her since the two of them could now never be legitimate partners. Amar respects that for a second, but then tells everyone that he’s such a Spiderman with a sixth-sense that he couldn’t have fallen for a married woman. Which he ultimately finds out she isn’t married and carries on to stalk her.
She has left this city and gone to Leh, so Amar takes up an official assignment in Leh (to stalk the said girl some more, true love & all that). Apparently AIR does whatever their Program Executive Amar asks them to do and lets him go to Leh on company money. He ends up spotting her and following her into yet another bus, this time sitting right behind her. Here there’s some checking of IDs and Amar is flaunting his AIR ID card again and we see that Manisha doesn’t seem to have an ID, so tells the police/military men that she’s Amar’s wife.
As is the case with all vehicles in movies, this bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere and these two become travel companions to return to a safe dwelling.
I think this is where she finally tells him her name, not sure. One might even think that these guys are warming up to each other, or mainly Meghna is coming out of her shell and warming up to Amar. But here in the middle of nowhere, Amar loses his shit (& becomes more of a man as per Bollywood), grabs Meghna, she tries to defend herself, but Amar grips her even more strongly and continues to forcibly smooch her. Mainly to show his dominance and that he’s in control no matter how cold & pricey Meghna acts. He’s annoyed that Meghna is being the puppeteer playing with him, so this is a way of showing he’s in control, that he could have her in a minute, but he’s just being respectful. No, we don’t want to see Amar’s emotional maturity when he feels that he’s being seduced by someone who’s playing hot & cold, we want to see his sexual dominance. This makes Meghna gasp and the viewers can see that this is probably bringing back some past trauma. Amar grabs her face and asks if this has happened to her before, she nods a yes, and Amar asks her to cry and let it all out.
She is now therapised by the great & amazing, respectful & caring lover Mr Amar. There’s not a minute spent on the fact that Meghna was harassed by Amar, the focus is on the healing power of one Mr Amar. So further they find some temporary shelter where Meghna proceeds to have a bath and Amar proceeds to peep, and then instead of coming into the bathroom, he closes the door once he’s had an eyeful. What a great man! All hail. Who wouldn’t want to marry this guy on-the-spot?
So now direct sexual harassment + voyeurism added to the great qualities of the manly Bollywood man.
All this and then some, finally much later in the film, when Amar is getting married to Preity, Meghna reappears asking for shelter and a job in AIR. He obliges.
Lo & behold, Meghna is a terrorist who wants to bomb the Republic Day Parade through her AIR pass. Amar learns of this and wants to save Meghna further. He wants to know why Meghna is doing this. She elucidates the reason through personal anecdotes. She’s a Kashmiri (Muslim probably, I didn’t quite catch that part), one of the many innocent civilians who were a victim of Military atrocities. Her whole community was wiped off or displaced, the men killed, the women raped, she herself raped at the age of 12 by the saviours of the country i.e. the army men. Amar acknowledges all this is terrible, but bombing the parade, killing herself and countless other innocent people, will not give her any peace or happiness, or relief or revenge, whatever she’s looking for.
Cut to Meghna going to the parade wearing a bomb, Amar again stalking her, hugging her tightly, bomb explodes, both of them die. End of film.
So what is problematic apart from the sexually harassing behaviour of Amar? I find it unfair that Amar’s definition of right was forced upon Meghna. Was it really the right thing for her to die, but not kill anyone? Must point out that there was a backup suicide bomber, in case Meghna weakens, so basically many innocent people must have died anyway, we don’t see further into the parade in the movie, and it just ends without this resolution.
I mean I can’t help but see a girl who has been just a victim all her life. She was a victim at least from the age of 12, in fact even victimised by men mainly, apart from the country and politics as a whole. Amar came and further victimised her through the harassment yes, through showing that he was still dominant and in control. So yes, her gender was victimised by this apparent saviour. (There is the theme of sexual agency, as we see that Meghna had seduced Amar to get to AIR only, but that’s also kind of diluted by showing that she actually falls for him. However, sexual agency is the only agency we show women as having, that too against a background of having accepted sexual harassment as a part of the seduction, is still very problematic for me.)
But also, this was a girl who was a victim all her life, till that moment when she could’ve carried on that bombing and reclaimed some power, to have been an instrument in sending across a message for change. Now, yes I understand that one may say this is wrong, to send a message by harming others. But who has decided that some people’s wrongs are legitimised (political parties, military), while other people’s wrongs are deemed illegitimate?
If a message was to be sent to the powerful people, why could it not have been in a more sane, a softer way? Like maybe a non-violent protest? My question to this argument is that why do the victimised have to be soft and powerless, reinforcing the power of the powerful? When the powerful send across their message through murder, rape, sanctions, then why must the victims protest non-violently, sit on hunger strikes etc.? Why are the rules different for the powerful and the powerless? Why is right different for the powerful vs the powerless?
Anyway, I don’t condone violence at all, as a society and on a personal level. However, if I’m to see this story as a story of one person, if I’m to empathise with that one person, I see a woman who was a victim all her life, who had one chance of feeling that her life had any meaning, other than being a victim, her chance at being an instrument for change, her chance at being powerful, her chance at not dying a victim, which was also lost at the hands of someone more powerful. This was a terrible love story…