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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Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Mani Ratnam’s latest is a surprisingly conventional crime drama that pits three brothers against each other as they vie to take over their father’s gangster business. Unusually there is little character development for each of the brothers, so it does take some time to become connected to the film and get to grips with exactly who is who (and who is sleeping with who). However, the finale is excellent and does keep you guessing right up until the end, while Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami and Jyothika are all superb throughout.

Prakash Raj plays the ageing gangster Senapathi who survives an attack by two assassins dressed as police officers at the start of the film. His wife Lakshmi (Jayasudha) is also in the car, and it’s interesting that their conversation prior to the attack mentions Sena’s infidelities rather than introducing the family members or focusing on the crime empire. However, it’s not until the end that this and other snippets of information come together to make a satisfying whole and many of the seemingly throwaway statements are much more revealing than they initially seem.

Sena’s three sons all return home as their father and mother are rushed to hospital and it doesn’t take long until they are all at each other’s throats, arguing over who will take their father’s place. The eldest son Varadan (Arvind Swami) complains that Sena treats him as just another henchman, when he feels that he deserves better and has the best claim to inherit his father’s empire. The middle son Thyagu (Arun Vijay) lives in Dubai where he spends most of his time on a yacht discussing real estate projects with wealthy Arab backers. He seems to be more a businessman than a gangster and his stylish dress and polished wife reinforce that impression. The youngest son Ethi (Silambarasan) is a drug and gun runner currently based in Serbia and definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, a fact he seems to accept without too much rancour.

None of these men appear to have what it takes to run a criminal network as they indulge in petty arguments and spiteful digs at each other. Each has their own flaws that seem to disqualify them for the top job. Varadan is the most like his father but he lacks initiative and follows a predictable and well-trodden path as he pursues his father’s attackers. Varadan immediately accuses his father’s rival Chinnappadasan (Thiagarajan) of being behind the attack but it seems to be the easy option and doesn’t require Varadan to be anything other than the thug he has always been. Thyagu is slick and more polished, but despite his cutthroat business skills, he seems to lack the violent mentality needed to maintain control over the motley collection of gangsters so, despite his egotistical belief that he is the obvious choice of heir, he seems unlikely to survive long in Chennai. Ethi is unpredictable and erratic, and doesn’t seem to have the necessary concentration span to be able to successfully run a crime business.

Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) is Varadan’s childhood friend, and the two have remained close over the years despite Rasool being a police officer. At the start of the film, Rasool is suspended from the police force for an overzealous attack on a student, so he has plenty of time to help out his friend while attempting to get his suspension overturned. As the brothers squabble amongst themselves, Rasool is always there to help keep the peace, just as long as he stays off the alcohol.

Varadan is married to Chitra (Jyothika) who is loyal to her husband despite his affair with TV reporter Parvathi (Aditi Rao Hydari). She’s an incredibly strong character who seems determined to hold the family together through the sheer force of her willpower alone, but when the brothers finally descend into open warfare all her support is with her husband in spite of everything he as done. At one point I was hopeful that Chitra was going to turn out to be the last one standing, but alas that wasn’t to be and she stays true to her character until the bitter end. Thyagu’s wife Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) is less supportive of her husband, particularly when she ends up in jail after drugs are hidden in their apartment, while Ethi’s shortlived romance with Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) seems to only be included to act as the catalyst for his later suspicions when Chaaya is shot and killed on their honeymoon.

Initially the brothers unit in their search for the men behind the attack on Sena, but after Sena’s death it turns into a free for all as Ethi and Thyagu team up in opposition to Varadan, while accusations fly as to who was the real culprit behind the assassination attempt. Chinnappadasan is also out for blood after the brothers target his family and kill his son-in-law while the police have also vowed not to stand-by and let the gangster take over the city. The death toll rises inexorably as the brothers get closer and closer to finally determining who will take Sena’s place as head kingpin and their various rivals also close in for the kill.

The problem here is that for most of the film the brothers are only lightly sketched and we don’t know why they have chosen to act as they do. The women in their life are even more broadly drawn with just enough detail to know who they are and how they relate to Sena and his sons. There is a daughter as well, but she appears only briefly during the celebration for her new baby and I didn’t even manage to catch her name. This lack of any real motivation for the brothers makes it difficult to relate to their characters and, since none of them are particularly likeable, it’s also hard to decide who to support in their struggle to take over the top spot. Some of the support cast also appear to be completely superfluous, and it’s not until quite late in the story that the reason for the inclusion of, for example, Parvathi or Chaaya, becomes clear. But once the final twist in the tale is revealed, suddenly everything makes more sense, and many of the scenes with Lakshmi, Chitra and the others take on a deeper meaning. As too does the squabble between the brothers, and that ensures Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a much more intriguing film than it first appears.

A.R. Rahman’s music threads through the screenplay with different themes recurring as the characters come and go, and the songs mostly occur in snippets over pieces of the action. Santosh Sivan is in charge of cinematography and does a very capable job, although what is most interesting is what is not shown except in brief glimpses, almost too fast to catch. In keeping with the twist at the end, the final images of Rasool and the three brothers in a circling jeep at the top of a cliff are the most stunning. The ground is a rich red, while the sky is a vibrant blue and the sea a restless azure, making a vivid contrast between the stark but grandiose scenery and the petty, backstabbing action taking place in the jeep.

This is a film that I want to see again now that I know the ending. I suspect that there are clues scattered along the way although on reflection I can only identify a few, and I know that more will becone clear on a second watch through. I also didn’t catch the music as well as I should as I was concentrating too much on the action. The actors too appear much better on looking back, as the whole point of that lack of characterisation and interaction is only revealed at the end. It’s hard to say much without revealing the final twist but it’s the end that does make Chekka Chivantha Vaanam well worth watching and overall one of Mani Ratnam’s better films, despite the initial slow build.

Roja (1992)

Roja

Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja is the first of his so-called ‘terrorist-trilogy’; three films with a romance set against a political background of terrorist activity. Here he takes us to Kashmir, where the Tamil-speaking Roja struggles to plead her cause when her husband is kidnapped by Kashmiri separatists. This is a film primarily about the relationship between Roja and her husband but Mani Ratnam adds in a generous and slightly overdone slice of patriotism as well as providing some insight into the situation in Kashmir at the time. Most interestingly while depriving the Tamil-speaking Roja of a voice in Hindi-speaking Kashmir, the film gives the terrorists an opportunity to explain their thinking and the rationale behind their campaign. In addition to the stunning scenery and compelling story, Roja was the first film featuring a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and it’s still ranks up there as one of his best. No wonder then that Roja won awards both nationally and internationally, and is still considered a classic today.

The opening credits roll over the sound of gunfire, helicopters and conflict, and the film starts with a bang as terrorist Wasim Khan (Shiva Rindani) is captured by the army in Kashmir. But the action quickly moves to a village near Tirunelveli, introducing Roja (Madhubala) in the beautiful song Chinna Chinna Aasai. It’s an effective contrast between the two worlds, and emphasises how easy it is to forget the violence in the north as we get pulled into the lives of the peaceful villagers in Tamil Nadu.

Cryptologist Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swamy) has come to the village with his mother (Sathyapriya) to meet his fiancée Shenbagam (Vaishnavi). He is first spotted by Roja and her younger sister who are favourably impressed with the sophisticated urbanite Rishi, but Shenbagam isn’t as smitten. She’s already in love with a local boy and persuades Rishi to reject the match – after which he tells Shenbagam’s family that he will marry Roja instead. Since Roja doesn’t know anything about her sister’s true feelings, she is horrified and angered by what she sees as a rejection of Shenbagam. It does seem surprising that Roja isn’t aware of her sister’s secret romance since otherwise they seem to have a good relationship, but perhaps Shenbagam is just very good at keeping secrets. She’s definitely champion of getting her own way, as in the end Roja has no say in the matter and she ends up getting married to Rishi.

Mani Ratnam captures the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu by involving the entire village in the vetting of the bridegroom and subsequent betrothal ceremony. No question is too personal and no subject off limits for the gaggle of aunties and uncles interrogating Rishi when he arrives, and to be fair he deals with their questioning well. Later, the gregarious group of aunties act almost like a Greek chorus as they chaperone Shenbagam and Rishi during their ‘private’ conversation and I love that Mani Ratnam involves them in the entire process, even in this song to celebrate the wedding and first night.

After moving to the city, Roja discovers the truth behind Rishi’s change of mind and her initial anger develops into an appreciation of his good qualities. This understanding deepens into romance, so when Rishi is sent to Kashmir for work, Roja insists on accompanying him rather than wait at home. She doesn’t seem to know much about the political situation in Kashmir, which is shown by her naïve questions to Rishi on their arrival. I find this lack of awareness interesting, and I wonder if this regional isolation can still exist to-day in the age of 24/7 news, Smartphones and the internet? I can’t decide if Mani Ratnam is trying to educate the rest of India about the Kashmir situation with these dialogues, or simply to show how much faith and trust Roja has in her husband, to blindly follow him without any idea of where she is going to end up. Probably both!

Once in Kashmir, the relationship between Roja and Rishi continues to bloom. There is excellent chemistry between Arvind Swamy and Madhubala and the developing romance is hot enough to melt the snow. Mani Ratnam cleverly uses teasing interactions between the two to deepen their relationship and show their obvious enjoyment in each other. But just as everything seems to be falling into place, Rishi is abducted by a group of masked men in a minivan. Roja immediately chases after the van, and it’s only when the van is long out of sight that she falls to her knees – even then, it’s more from disbelief at the situation rather than a gesture of despair. Roja is a woman of action and she’s not going to let the terrorists get away with their abduction.

While Rishi is held by the terrorists, Roja is determined to fight for his freedom, but she immediately runs into difficulties as she doesn’t speak or understand the language. As with Divya’s character in Mouna Ragam, she is also isolated by being so far away from home and familiar surroundings, however Roja has something to fight for and a reason to make herself heard. Eventually she is directed to Colonel Rayappa (Nasser) who is in charge of the search and who handily also speaks rudimentary Tamil. While Roja wants her husband home at any cost, Colonel Rayappa is more aware of the political realities of the situation and exactly what the terrorists demands to free Wasim Khan mean. The political discussions here are excellent, with Roja passionately arguing that the army has a duty to her husband as Rayappa tries to make her understand that the government will not willingly release a known murderer.

Meanwhile, Rishi tries to engage the terrorists by drawing their leader Liaqat (Pankaj Kapur) into conversation. Again, the politics of Kashmir are brought into the dialogues as Liaqat explains the separatists fight for freedom and independence, all of which makes little sense to the staunchly patriotic Rishi. Some of Rishi’s decisions seem quite extreme, such as when he demonstrates his patriotism in a situation where he knows it will only lead to a severe beating, or perhaps even death. Although, since he passionately opposes the release of Wasim Khan, perhaps that is actually part of his intention, but it’s not at all clear. Rather, for much of his imprisonment, the politics take second place as Rishi stares out of his barred window thinking about his wife.

Madhubala is outstanding here and her drive to find her husband along with the passion in their relationship come through very clearly. Her transition from rebellious village girl to determined wife is beautifully done, and she manages to show her character’s resilience tempered with despair exceptionally well. Arvind Swamy is just as good, aside from the brief forays into patriotism where the dialogue and actions do seem rather forced. Best of all are his interactions with Liaqat where the dialogues allow an exploration of the politics surrounding separatist violence in Kashmir. This theme is one that Mani Ratnam expands on much more in his later film Dil Se, but the seeds are sown here with at least glimpses of the separatists’ point of view. Liaqat too is a more sympathetic character than might be expected, although he’s marked as a ’bad guy’ by a rather large mole on his nose, which does at least make him easily identifiable when the terrorists are masked.

Roja has a perfect mix of engaging story, stunning scenery and beautiful music that all combine to produce a classic film. The actors are all excellent throughout and bring their characters realistically to life. Madhubala in particular shines as the central character and provides a strong focus to the story, while the mix of romance, action, suspense and politics is well judged to keep that focus clear.

Mani Ratnam always excels when he films relationships, but here he adds a wider viewpoint as the social problems within Kashmir intrude upon Rishi and Roja’s personal life. The juxtaposition of Roja fighting to reunite with her husband with Rishi’s attempts to persuade the terrorists to embrace a united India acts to bring the personal and the social aspects together and there is effective contrast between Roja’s love for Rishi, and Rishi’s patriotic belief in his country. That doesn’t mean that Rishi doesn’t love Roja, but his fight is to turn the terrorists from their course, while Roja is single-minded in her quest to find her husband. A.R. Rahman’s music is the icing on an already rich cake while Santosh Sivan impresses with his excellent camerawork. I love this film and each time I watch I am amazed all over again by the richness and depth of both the story and the dialogues. Simply brilliant! 5 stars.