il turns 21 today. The film was released in August 1998 to great critical acclaim and sparked the enthusiasm of the diaspora. A film that found its place in Time magazine’s list of the best Bollywood films of all time. It was one of the best films about Indian politics, as evidenced by the two National Film Awards. But what if Mani Ratnam wanted to release a “Dil Se” today?
He would start with Twitter. First of all, Dil Se would be branded as an “anti-national film.” And in 2019, Dil Se does look like an “anti-national film” because that is the order of the day. There will be people calling for Mani Ratnam’s blood – how dare you give voice to an insurgent, a terrorist? How dare you let the son of an army officer, a government employee, fall in self-destructive love with a female suicide bomber? Then the denunciations and trials will come. The censorship board will demand that the words be cut off and silenced. Then it will go to the Review Board, from where it could go to the Supreme Court. Hype?
Look at what’s happening with the Sacred Games 2 web series. On the day Dil Se turns 21, a complaint was registered against Anurag Kashyap for a scene that hurts feelings in Sacred Games 2. The character of Saif Ali Khan, who throws his kada into the sea in a fit of anger and disappointment, has reached Delhi Police.
In the last few years we have seen the country ignite over a mythical queen – Padmavati, we have seen petitions and lawsuits against the portrayal of drug menace in Punjab – Udta Punjab, we have seen a politician crying for the blood of Bollywood stars over a video showing them partying in a “drugged up state”. We have seen filmmakers beaten up, others threatened with rape and murder. On social media, we see abuse and threats against anyone who speaks out against the government. We see the situation in Kashmir, where a communication blackout has already reached the 17th day.
So when you watch Dil Se in 2019, you get a sense of disbelief, of shock, at the sheer “audacity” of a filmmaker who dared to let a leading lady narrate how the Indian Army raped a 12-year-old girl and razed entire villages to the ground in the name of protecting the state. And mind you, Dil Se was a film that won two National Film Awards (sounds amazing today, yes). Dil Se gave voice to an insurgent, a militiaman, a terrorist. If only to be killed in the end. But besides killing the anti-government and “misguided” Moina, Mani Ratnam also killed his “government employee, son of an army officer” Amar. The balance is what makes Dil Se a “must watch” and “re-watch” film even 21 years after its release.
On August 21, 1998, when Dil Se was released, the country was in turmoil. Two governments had collapsed at the center. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was appointed prime minister in March 1998. But there was no clear mandate, and Vajpayee’s government also met the same fate as his two predecessors in just 13 months. The Lok Sabha was dissolved. It was not until 1999 that India finally had a stable government that lasted its full term.
So when “Dil Se” hit the theaters, Mani Ratnam had his material ready. He sent his hero to Assam, aboard the Barak Valley Express from Haflong, for a special program celebrating 50 years of India’s independence. In Assam, Amar switches from disillusioned tea plantation workers crying that they have no freedom to disillusioned freedmen calling for the blood of the Indian government, taking in both. As Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se slowly sucks the viewer into this world where Delhi is safe and the far northeast burns, one can’t help but think of a Dil Se in 2019. And of the fate it probably would have met had it been made today. However, it was the political commentary on India in Dil Se that made Indians all over the world praise Dil Se to the skies.
A very intense scene in Dil Se is that of a swing seat swaying as a fire engulfs it. This frame is a commentary on what the army has done in Assam: robbing children of their childhood, devastating villages and snatching away their livelihoods to contain the insurgency in the state. In Dil Se, Mani Ratnam did not hold back. It shook your psyche as you saw picture after picture of government-sponsored destruction.
One of the main characters is a program director of All India Radio: “a government employee, son of an army officer”. The other is a terrorist to our aseptic tongues, but a “revolutionary” to them. Dil Se is the latest installment in Mani Ratnam’s trilogy of films about India’s political climate. It began with Roja, set in Kashmir. Then came Bombay, set in the city of the same name. And finally Dil Se, which traveled from Assam to Ladakh to Delhi, culminating as a statement on India’s 50 years of independence. Such “statements” are considered blasphemous in today’s social media-driven world.
When you see a Moina watching her sister being raped, an Amar falling in love with “the other,” you know that a film like Dil Se cannot go without outrage in 2019. You just know it. Our sensibilities today are also loaded with these “kaaton ki taarein”. Our censor boards today have these “patthar ke darwaaze deewarein” that try to lock away anything that is “too problematic”.