WHEN Dil Se was released in cinemas on August 21 1998, it surprisingly didn’t do well at the box office in India and received negative reviews. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the romantic thriller became a big hit internationally and the first Bollywood film to officially crack the UK box office top 10.
The soundtrack was a global sensation, many elements of the movie became part of popular culture and the story triggered debate. The Mani Ratnam-directed classic also introduced new talent, brought out the best in established names and rounded off a unique trilogy.
Despite all the great elements, the fabulous film perhaps still doesn’t get the credit it deserves and is a lot better than most people imagine or remember. To mark 25 years of Dil Se, Eastern Eye decided to present 25 reasons why it is actually a movie masterpiece that should be celebrated.
Mani Ratnam: The ace writer, director and producer has had a glittering 40-year career. He has regularly introduced new elements into storytelling and brought out the best in his team, from the music department and technical crew to the actors. He did exactly that with this movie and really showed his mastery in all departments.
Trilogy: It was the final instalment in a stunning trilogy masterminded by Ratnam, which also consisted of acclaimed movies Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995). All three movies gave a uniqueness to Indian cinema in terms of politics and storytelling.
Cinematography: The visually stunning film had sublime camerawork from Santosh Sivan, and he was given multiple honours for his masterful work, including a prestigious National Award.
Journey: Although on the surface it might have seemed like any other love story, Dil Se was so much more than that. A lot of audiences missed that the lead protagonist played by Shah Rukh Khan actually passes through the seven shades of love that are defined in ancient Arabic literature as attraction, infatuation, love, reverence, worship, obsession, and death.
Politics: There are political messages scattered throughout the film, including power dynamics, Indian minorities being pushed to the fringes, government negligence, division, societal pressures and more. Those issues remain relevant today.
Contrasts: There isn’t usually this big a contrast between two protagonists in a love story as there was in Dil Se, which made the conflict interesting and the movie more unpredictable. He is a radio host from the big city, whereas she is from the northeastern state of Assam, a member of a terrorist group and traumatised by a deeply painful past. He falls in love, but that is the last thing on her mind. The differences dismantle the conventional concept of the Hindi film hero and heroine.
Powerful ending: Whether you like the powerpacked ending or not, it leaves a lasting impact and many of those who saw it in cinemas were left shocked. Does the ultimate sacrifice happen for love or for the national interest? There was a real intensity in what occurs.
Manisha Koirala: After delivering a mesmerising performance in Ratnam’s film Bombay, Koirala followed it up with another stunning turn in Dil Se. One of the finest performances of her career was multilayered, unpredictable, raw, and rooted in reality. It was decidedly different to the glamorous leading ladies that dominated Bollywood at the time.
Shah Rukh Khan: The superstar actor’s presence drew in audiences internationally and turned the film that had failed in India into a global hit. Khan delivers one of his best performances, with a character far removed from the suave romantic heroes that made him famous.
Instead of being on autopilot like in his romantic movies, Khan went out of his comfort zone as the everyman who falls for the wrong woman. He replaced the indestructible and irresistible hero with someone who goes through a range of emotions and gradually finds himself in a situation that spirals out of control.
Chaiyya Chaiyaa: The biggest musical highlight of the movie was this stunning song picturised on a moving train with dancers, which hadn’t been done before. The catchy song won multiple awards and became a rage all over the world, including later appearing in Hollywood films.
Sukhwinder Singh: The Chaiyya Chaiyaa song performed by the singer was a star-making moment for him. He introduced a new kind of high-energy vocals into Indian cinema, which would carry him towards further hits that included Oscar-winning song Jai Ho.
Inspiration: Legend has it that Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired to create his hit West End musical Bombay Dreams after seeing the Chaiyya Chaiyaa song picturised on top of a moving train. He would use the same song in his musical.
Soundtrack: Although Dil Se is largely remembered for Chaiyya Chaiyaa, it also had other stunning songs composed by AR Rahman, which included Dil Se Re, Satrangi Re, Ae Ajnabi and Jiya Jale, which remain popular today.
Dream team: One of Indian cinema’s greatest dream teams across the past 31 years has been filmmaker Ratnam and composer AR Rahman. Ratnam has inspired him to create some of the greatest songs from the modern era of cinema. Rahman has given Ratnam music that has enabled him to bring stunning visuals to life, which is what Dil Se has from start to finish.
Lyrics: The superhit music was given added depth thanks to the masterful lyrics from Gulzar. The wonderful words helped make Dil Se a great collection of singalong numbers, but also gave the movie added meaning.
Choreography: Although she received a best choreography Filmfare award for Chaiyya Chaiyya, the work of Farah Khan deserves way more credit. Apart from the train top mastery of that song, she introduced some stunning moves and new dance elements to the big screen, which resulted in some visual brilliance.
Sound: The visuals and songs may have pushed it into the background, but Dil Se has a great sound design. It was almost like an extra character. H Sridhar would get a well-deserved best audiography National Film Award for his stunning work. He would later win more National Awards, including for the Oscar nominated film Lagaan.
Debut: Preity Zinta made a delightful film debut with a memorable supporting role that took audiences by surprise. It would lay the foundation for similar feisty roles she would play in future and inspire other heroines to do the same.
Locations:Dil Se has eye-catching locations throughout in beautiful parts of Himachal Pradesh, Leh, Assam, New Delhi, Kerala, and Ladakh, including sites not seen before in a film. This all added an extra layer to the story.
Debate: Beyond the visual splendour, powerful storyline, great music and memorable performances, a winning aspect of the movie is that it caused a lot of discussion. Whether it was certain story elements, the deeper meaning that existed in the subtext, politics, the relationship dynamic, and where the film stood next to other commercial releases, Dil Se triggered a lot of debate. That is what great art should make happen – people talking about a creation. Academic papers also took a deep dive into the themes of the movie. Others discussed the metaphors that existed in some of the musical numbers.
Languages: The Hindi movie was also released in multiple languages, including Tamil and Telugu. The hit songs were re-recorded in the various languages. It would later inspire many more producers to have pan-Indian releases.
Survived negativity: Being ahead of its time meant the movie received a lot of negative reviews from leading critics in India. It survived all that negativity and initial failure in India by becoming a part of popular culture. It showed that a good film will eventually find its audience.
Box office: It might have surprisingly failed in India, but Dil Se became the first Indian film to officially crack the UK box office top 10. This would pave the way for other movies to do the same in subsequent years and help create a Bollywood boom.
International: Outside of making history at the UK box office, the movie was screened at Era New Horizons Film Festival, Helsinki International Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Netpac award.
Timeless: Apart from the political messaging, a lot of elements about the movie remain timeless. Whether it is the stunning soundtrack, story, performances, look, feel, romance, song picturisation and emotions, multiple elements of the movie are still fresh today. That makes Dil Se one of the great movies, even if some haven’t realised it yet.