Dil Se..

Dil Se..

Dil Se is the third film in Mani Ratnam’s terrorist trilogy following on from Roja and Bombay. This was actually the first of these that I watched, mainly due to the presence of Shah Rukh Khan who was the major draw for me at the time, but also because the film is in Hindi, which I was trying to learn. It’s remained one of my favourite Mani Ratnam movies though and I find it hard to believe that it’s now 20 years since its release in 1998. I love this film for so many reasons, the amazing music, wonderful choreography and stunning scenery but also because the story grabs hold and remains captivating – every single time. Dil Se wasn’t a hit in India, despite winning awards at festivals and doing well in the USA and UK, but it now has a deservedly classic status and is well worth watching or revisiting if you haven’t seen it for a while.

Dil Se is the story of a Dehli-based radio journalist who falls in love with a mysterious woman he sees on a deserted railway platform one night. Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) describes it as “the shortest love story ever” when she leaves on the next train after sending him off to get a cup of hot tea. What I love here is the contrast between them, even in these first few minutes. She doesn’t say a word except for ‘a cup of hot tea’ while Amar never stops talking. It’s an early clue that these two aren’t likely partners but also raises questions about why Amar becomes just so obsessed by this woman based on this one brief meeting.

Amar’s assignment for All India Radio takes him to the north of the country where insurgents have been engaged in terrorist activity and Amar wants to speak to them as well as garner regional thoughts on the 50thAnniversary of Indian Independence. When he does finally reach his destination, after the wonderful Chaiyya Chaiyya on the train, he spots the same woman in the crowd and immediately runs after her. While Meghna (Manisha Koirala) is perfectly plain that she wants absolutely nothing to do with him, Amar refuses to take no for an answer and pesters her persistently until her friends take matters into their own hands and beat him up.

This starts out as the usual stalking = love trope seen in so many Indian films. It is really annoying that Amar fails to take no for an answer and is completely relentless in his pursuit. What I do like though is that Meghna is brutally clear, trying everything from ignoring Amar, to telling him that she is married, just to get away from him. All my sympathies are with her at this point, and I really don’t like Amar who just seems to be selfish and frankly obnoxious. But this seems more than just stalking. Amar is completely obsessed with this girl who won’t even give him her name and even the beating fails to dampen his desire.

Amar follows Meghna on a bus, walking with her when the bus breaks down and even attempting to force her to kiss him. Meghna has a panic attack at this point and hints that she has had experiences in the past that may have contributed to her determined refusal of Amar. She also continually tells him that she isn’t what he thinks she is, and finally we learn that she is part of the terrorist organisation. Manisha Koirala is completely amazing here. She appears ethereal and wraith-like, as if a strong gust of wind would blow her away, but also shows such incredible mental strength demonstrated by her continual refusal to yield to Amar. It’s clear as the story develops that she does have feeling for him, but her allegiance to her cause is deeper, possibly just more entrenched, and her emotional turmoil fleetingly moves across her face each time she has to interact with Amar. It’s a brilliant performance, particularly in the scenes where she reveals what has happened to her and tries to explain to Amar why she has turned to terrorism.

Gradually rapport develops between the couple, but Amar is left devastated when Meghna leaves him during the night and he ends up returning to Delhi alone to prepare for his upcoming wedding to Preeti (Preity Zinta). Preita is wonderful here in her début role portraying a confidently independent but still innocent girl from Kerala. Ok, the Malayali bit is a tad strange, but the rest is brilliant! I love how she refers to sex as “honka bonka bonks”, and her directness is refreshing after all the mystery and secrets surrounding Meghna. She also gets a cool song in Jiya Jale, which has some of my favourite picturisations in the whole film.

I’ve read a number of times that the film depicts the seven stages of love from Arabic literature comprising attraction, infatuation, love, reverence, worship, obsession and death. Using this theme, Amar’s obsession makes more sense and it helps to explain why he continually follows Meghna despite her apparent disinterest. There is the moment of attraction when he glimpses her face on the railway station. Infatuation where he sees her everywhere and thinks about the mystery woman before this deepens into love. Reverence and worship are pretty much covered in Satrangi Re where Meghna appears in all seven colours of the song. Like most of the songs this seems to be another fantasy sequence, although it’s not clear if this is Amar or Meghna’s dream.

Throughout, the contrast between Meghna and Amar is stark. Meghna is at home in the mountains and dresses in all enveloping costumes that hide her identity just as much as her refusal to speak. When she does talk, she is clear and articulate – she knows exactly what she is doing and why, and has little time for anything that will take her away from her mission. Amar is a city boy whose father was in the Army and he has little understanding of the world outside Delhi. In an interview with one of the terrorist leaders, the questions he asks and his comments make it clear that he has no understanding of the issues faced by minority groups or why they feel so betrayed by the government. This makes his refusal to leave Meghna even more poignant as he will stand with her even though he cannot believe in her view of the world.

There is so much detail in this film too. Right from the start there is the threat of violence with soldiers stopping and searching Amar’s taxi on the way to the train station. In Assam there are army checkpoints and barbed wire barricades, some of which even make an appearance in the song picturisation for Dil Se. The scenery the north of India here is beautiful and stunning with the first sequences set in Assam and then later in Ladakh. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan does a fantastic job and brings surrealness to the scenes shot in Ladakh where Meghna and Amar are alone and able to talk to each other without the pressures of his family and her responsibilities. Back in the city the contrasts between Meghna and Preeti are emphasised by clever camerawork including a memorable scene where Amar’s mother (Sheeba Chaddha) asks Meghna to be a stand-in model for Preeti’s bridal jewellery. Added in to the wonderful visuals is the superb soundtrack, one of A.R. Rahman’s best, and I love every single song. Farah Khan’s choreography is spectacular too, and it’s hard to believe that there could ever be a better dance routine on top of a moving train. This is also one of SRK’s best ever performances where he moves between joy and despair at the drop of a hat and really nails the role. He throws himself into the choreography too, and his facial expressions are brilliantly expressive, particularly when he is trying to understand Meghna’s actions.

Dil Se is simply a great film. The subject matter is tragic but there is a lot of joy in the film too and the combination of stunning scenery with a good story and excellent music means there really is something for everyone. The cast are all fantastic and with so much detail to the story there always seems to be something new to pick up on with every viewing. This is a film I rewatch regularly and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it before. 4 ½ stars.

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Badhaai Ho (2018)

The Kaushiks live in a cramped old apartment in a colony overflowing with other lower middle class families. Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) runs the household and her husband Jeetu (Gajraj Rao) is a ticket inspector on the railways and sometime poet. They have two sons, 20-something Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana) and stroppy teenager Gular (Shardul Rana), and Jeetu’s overbearing mother (Surekha Sikri). After a particularly trying evening, tired of keeping the peace, Priyam retires to her room. Jeetu reads his latest poem to try and sooth her hurt feelings. The poetry, the stormy night, the emotion…one thing leads to another. And 19 weeks later, the Kaushiks find out Priyam is pregnant.

When people find out about the pregnancy, reactions are varied to put it mildly. The GP and his wife are supportive of Priyamvada but give Jeetu the side eye as though to say he should have been more careful. The boys are just horrified that their parents still have sex, and are embarrassed by their degenerate behaviour. The mother-in-law goes full harpy mode and criticises Priyamvada, saying she is no better than she ought to be. And the gossip mill goes in to overdrive as news spreads.

Jeetu tells Priyamvada he’d prefer she had an abortion, but she won’t contemplate that option. He gently tries to make her see the downside, but says finally it’s her body so it should be her decision. Good man, Jeetu. I really enjoyed seeing an older couple as the focus of the story, and Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao are wonderful. They are both conditioned to defer to their elders and maintain the peace. She looks elegantly middle aged, her face showing gentle lines and character. He is sweetly reticent, all business and stingy as hell on the surface but secretly romantic.

I loved a scene at a family wedding where he manoeuvred his way to be close to her in a photo, his face alight with booze and proud affection. The female relatives and wedding guests are less happy with the pregnancy and make free with their remarks, tormenting mild-mannered Priyamvada. Neena Gupta was quietly compelling but easily switched to perfectly timed comedic beats. Seeing Jeetu and Priyam navigate their way through a life changing surprise, their relationship, and all the reactions was highly engaging without being overly dramatic. It was disappointing when the film shifted focus to Nakul and his girlfriend as their relationship is one you see in every other film. I liked seeing the often invisible people get their time front and centre.

In the midst of all the talk of reproductive rights and safe sex, the male characters’ idea of masculinity rarely strays from the often toxic manly man stereotypes. Jeetu is in demand as a fertility coach among his peers, asked to counsel a troublesome nephew who remains childless despite two marriages. The nephew is introduced dancing enthusiastically to a Sridevi hit song as onlookers make snide comments. Gular is considered to be fine once he has beaten up a bully and asserted his masculinity. Nakul made fun of an impotent friend and hides lest he be on the receiving end. His jokes are funny, in a mean spirited and rehearsed way, but it is kind of telling that his friends are really frenemies. The men seem less supportive and rarely get real in their conversations with each other. The women bitch and bicker but ultimately they seem to get that family is what it is and in the end all they may have is each other. And bingo.

Ayushmann is delightful as the sooky, moody manchild Nakul who is the centre of the universe. His timing in the dialogues and his physical reactions are just about perfection, and when Nakul isn’t brooding he has a goofy energy that lights up the screen. But Nakul is an entitled dick and everything is about him. Everything. And although I was happy to see some character growth, I grew tired of the perfection of reformed Nakul, Best Son Ever. Even when the baby is born, he makes it about him. I just never really got why the boys were so horrible. Shocked, sure. But feeling betrayed – why!?! When the film detoured over to focus on him and Renee, I did lose some interest. On the upside he and Sanya Malhotra are great together and also do some excellent eyebrow choreo in the big production number, Morni Banke, that closes the film. I love an all-in end titles extravaganza!

Sanya Malhotra is charming but Renee is a little under-written, a standard issue modern girl. I liked that she has a career and that she straight up called Nakul out on some things. But when her supposedly progressive mother, played by the elegant and considered Sheeba Chaddha, criticises the Kaushiks and Nakul fires back, Renee breaks up with him. It seemed a bit convenient for the plot given her previous behaviour, but I didn’t care so much about that relationship. She has appealing looks and energy, and was a good match for Ayushmann.

Jeetu’s mum likes an orderly world where people pay attention to god and their elders, but she might not be as backward as she seems. Surekha Sikri is over the top as cantankerous Dadi at first, but when restraint was needed she wound it back nicely. Dadi helped demonstrate the strong familial love and support that helped the Kaushiks get through everything. Mostly by demanding maximum forbearance from everyone around her.

I was so relieved that Priyamvada is not simply fodder for tacky jokes, despite the dreadful poster designs. Writer Akshat Ghildial and director Amit Ravindernath Sharma deliver humour, pathos, social critique and a warm respect and affection for most of their characters. I like a good slice of life middle class social comedy and this delivers in spades. A great cast, a smart screenplay, and beautifully immersive visuals make this a delight to watch.

Pari (2018)

Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) and his parents are returning from meeting a prospective bride. Distracted and in heavy rain, nobody sees the old lady on the road until it is too late. They discover a girl chained up in the old lady’s house. Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) is her granddaughter but there is no explanation for why she is chained up. She is certainly odd but seems able to live independently to some extent. A tattoo on the corpse freaks out one of the morgue attendants who was checking her for valuables. He calls Professor Qasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor), a man obsessed with eradicating all traces of a cult dedicated to spreading an ifrit’s bloodline. He has been looking for Rukhsana, the last of the ifrit’s children, for years. Meanwhile Arnab has taken pity on Rukhsana and has grudgingly allowed her to stay in his home. They fall into a cosy domesticity but there are signs that something bad is coming. Who is she? What is she?

Pari was suspenseful in that I wanted to see what happened, especially to Rukhsana. And there are some good jump scares. But Prosit Roy positions too many things as a fact within this film world rather than building the suspense of “is it real or ?”. Rukhsana shows some signs of mental illness, but Roy makes it clear something supernatural is at work. Having said that I liked a lot about the film, particularly Anushka’s performance.

Rukhsana isn’t a child but some childish things like cartoons take her fancy. Arnab brings home little gifts like clothes and art supplies and teaches her how fridges work, how to dunk a biscuit, and things like that. She’s not interested in learning to cook but she is obsessive about clipping her very fast growing toenails. Anushka does great expressions as Rukhsana starts to open up to the possibility of enjoying her life. Rukhsana realises she can eat fresh white rice and food that is abundant and just for her. She enjoys her new clothes and makes paper jewellery, delighting in how it feels to do something pretty and frivolous. She bonds emotionally with Arnab, and after seeing a cheesy romantic scene on TV one day her feelings for him suddenly go beyond friendship.

Anushka has to switch sharply between the mild, girlish, Rukku and her more damaged and aggressive side. Rukhsana has excruciating stomach cramps, and hides away from Arnab – he assumes it is her period and leaves her alone. But she climbs the wall outsider her room and walks down the street, still in pain. She sees a little dog she had befriended. And kills it suddenly and silently after kissing it affectionately. Face smeared with blood and tears, she is clearly distressed but the pain is gone. She is jealous of Piyali and loses control in front of Arnab. How long can she hold on?

Parambrata Chatterjee is a good fit for the emotionally repressed Arnab. He doesn’t say a lot but is still quite expressive. He doesn’t know what to do about Rukhsana but he feels responsible for the accident. Once they grow closer, he finds excuses not to send her away, and hides the truth from Piyali. He is ambivalent about that engagement but Arnab is the type to try and keep the peace. Rukhsana becomes possessive of Arnab and wants him to break off his engagement with Piyali. But he betrays both women and goes into hiding. Arnab is a bit of a weasel, at best he lacks conviction. But he is the least malignant man in the film so there is that.

Rajat Kapoor is unsettling as the fanatical professor. He genuinely believes he is doing the right thing, and he may be right about Rukhsana, but he is a sadist. He lingers over her demise and wants her to suffer. It’s not a complex character, but the performance is fairly restrained, and creepy.

Ritabhari Chakraborty does what she can with her character. Piyali is generally ignored or forgotten by Arnab but some of their conversations have an impact and she prompts him to think about things from a different perspective. She is open in discussing, and the emotional burden of past relationships. They are chalk and cheese. Piyali doesn’t exist just to make Arnab a better man, although she does seem to have that effect, and she would be perfectly fine without him.

The film is beautifully atmospheric, and lighting and sound are used well. I liked the small world of Arnab’s apartment and the contrast with noisy, bustling, Kolkata.

While not completely successful as a horror movie, Pari also works as a kind of parable. For me Rukhsana also spoke to how women generally have to pay the price for male pleasure. She is the result of a rape, and a man insists she must die because she is an abomination. She never chose to be born but she has a life. Without Arnab’s protection, despite her inherent power, she has no voice in society. He castigates her as if it was all her fault they had sex. The professor and his band of weirdoes don’t just want her to die a clean death, they want her to suffer to pay for existing. There’s also a glimpse of just how quickly people can start to see someone as different and justify inhumane behaviour to them. While the climax of the film is violent and messy, that’s more or less what I expect from this genre. I’d be more perplexed if the evil creatures or the doomsday cult decided they’d had enough and quietly moved on without telling anyone. In the end though, it is a very human gesture that dissipates the threat.

See this for Anushka’s performance in a competent and not so clichéd genre film. Not the scariest thing I’ve ever seen but probably not one for just before bedtime either. 3 ½ stars!