- Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala’s Dil Se turns 21 years old today.
- The film, directed by Mani Ratnam, was released on August 21, 1998.
- Had the film been made today, it would have been met with much outrage on social media, to begin with.
Dil Se turns 21 today. The film opened to massive critical acclaim in August 1998 and had the diaspora gushing over it. It was a film that found its place in Time Magazine’s list of Best Bollywood Films ever. Closer home, it was one of the best films ever made on Indian politics, a fact that its two National Film Awards testified. But what would happen if Mani Ratnam were to try and release a Dil Se today?
It would start with Twitter. Dil Se would be called an ‘anti-national film’, to begin with. And in 2019, Dil Se does look like an ‘anti-national film’ because such is the order of the day. There will be people baying for Mani Ratnam’s blood. How dare he give voice to an insurgent, a terrorist? How dare he have an Army officer’s government-employee son fall in love, self-annihilating love, with a suicide bomber? Then there will be the FIRs and the court cases. The Censor Board will ask for cuts and muting of words. It will then go to the Revising Committe, from where, it might just reach the Supreme Court. Exaggeration?
Look at what is happening to the web series Sacred Games 2. On the day Dil Se completes 21 years, there is an FIR registered against Anurag Kashyap for a ‘sentiment-hurting’ scene in Sacred Games 2. Saif Ali Khan’s character throwing his kada into the sea in a fit of rage and disappointment has reached the Delhi Police.
In the past years, we have seen the country set alight for a mythical queen: Padmavati, we have seen petitions and cases against depicting the drug menace in Punjab: Udta Punjab, we have seen a politician baying for the blood of Bollywood stars for what he says is a video of them partying in a ‘drugged state’. We have seen filmmakers beaten up, others threatened with rape and murder. On social media, we see abuses and threats against anyone and everyone who speaks against the government. We are seeing the state of affairs in Kashmir, where a communication blackout is in its 17th day.
So when you see Dil Se in 2019, you have a sense of disbelief, of shock, at seeing the sheer ‘audacity’ of a filmmaker who dared to have a lead heroine saying how the Indian Army raped a 12-year-old and wiped out entire villages in the name of protecting the state. And mind you, Dil Se was a film that won two National Film Awards (sounds unbelievable today, yes). Dil Se gave an insurgent – a millitant, a terrorist – a voice. Even if only to be killed off in the end. But along with killing the anti-government, ‘wrong’ Moina, Mani Ratnam also killed his ‘government employee, son of an Army officer’ Amar. The balance is what made Dil Se a film to be watched and re-watched even 21 years after its release.
On August 21, 1998, when Dil Se was released, the country was in a state of turmoil. Two governments had collapsed at the Centre. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was named the Prime Minister in March 1998. But there was no clear mandate, and Vajpayee’s government too met the same fate as its two predecessors in just 13 months. The Lok Sabha was dissolved. It was only in 1999 that India finally got a stable government that lasted its entire term.
So when Dil Se hit the screens, Mani Ratnam had his material in place. He sent his hero to Assam on board the Barak Valley Express from Haflong to get a special programme on 50 years of India’s Independence. In Assam, Amar goes from disappointed tea garden workers screaming they had no freedom to disillusioned Liberationists asking for the Indian government’s blood, and records both of them. As Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se slowly sucks the viewer into this world, where Delhi is safe and the far-flung Northeast burns, you can’t help but think of a Dil Se in 2019. And the fate that it would probably have met, had it been made today. Yet, it was the political comment on India in Dil Se that made Indians all over the world praise Dil Se to the heavens.
A searing scene in Dil Se is that of a swing seat swinging as a fire engulfs it. That one frame is a comment on what the Army has done to Assam: robbed childhoods, ravaged villages and snatched livelihoods in its bid to curb insurgency in the state. In Dil Se, Mani Ratnam did not hold back. He tore your psyche apart as you took in frame after frame of government-sponsored destruction. Two star-cross’d lovers try serenading each other, but “kaaton ke taarein hai, patthar ke darwaaze deewarein.” And he got his accolades and appreciation, both in terms of box office and critical acclaim. For a moment, think of that in 2019. It will be called a ‘sacrilege’ on Twitter.