As a neophyte of India’s cinematic and cultural history, I realize I’m out of my depth writing about politically charged Bollywood love story Dil Se , based on the horrifying Kunan Poshpora Incident. It’s a testament to the film’s power that wading into what I figured would be a campy good time (hearing it was a song-and-dance political thriller, my first thought was failed TV show Cop Rock), all its genre conventions worked exactly as intended, flying past the lofty removes of intellect and hitting right at the heart.
On his way to record songs in northern villages for the 50th anniversary of India’s unification, Radio India programmer Amal (Shahrukh Khan) encounters a mysterious young woman at the train station and falls instantly in love. He pursues Meghna (Manisha Koirala) despite her active disinterest, ignorant of her involvement in a terrorist cell until police arrive to question him. He escapes to find her, hoping love will trump ideology and keep Meghna from bombing the Prime Minister.
The film’s musical numbers do a lot of emotional heavy lifting – in getting the audience to empathize with Amal’s stalker-y behavior, in keeping the political relatable while surrendering to the poetic, and especially in reaching impassioned ranges difficult to portray with straight dialogue. It’s tempting to laugh at what seems like the sudden derailment of plot into music video, especially with Dil Se, where the titular number features twirling lovers framed by barbed wire running from gorgeous slow-motion explosions and synchronized soldiers. Laughter is a dismissal of emotion’s power; musical numbers try to carry you away with it. American audiences aren’t used to taking raw emotion seriously; Douglas Sirk might be the closest cousin to Bollywood in that sense. These interludes are emotion overflowing into the stylized form best suited to portraying them. As Sirk himself said, ‘film is blood, tears, violence, hate, death, and love’ – emotion expressed.
“Love is intoxicating. It’s not for us,” the terrorist leader says to Meghna. Having suffered deeply at the hands of the Indian government, their group suppresses all emotion in service of their higher cause. After hearing of a comrade’s death by cyanide capsule, Meghna’s told to stop her tears, as they’ll do no good. Cyanide is direct and controllable, while love is an unstoppable, all-consuming force, and Meghna’s already suspected of losing focus by giving in to emotion.
The song Satrangi Re expands this, with Amal singing to Meghna of the seven shades of love surrounded by desert ruins and fire. The film itself follows the song’s trajectory – attraction, infatuation, love, reverence, worship, obsession, and death. “Don’t you feel our love is more important than terrorism?” Amal asks when he sees Meghna again. What seems like a hack line is the total distillation of the film, asking if the two can give up themselves, their pasts, and the full weight of their country’s terrible history to forge something positive, or if they’ll continue on their paths to destruction. —Danielle Burgos