Over the years, several people have recommended Dil Se to me. Based on the DVD cover, I expected a good but fairly typical romantic drama. Boy, was I wrong. Dil Se takes the genre in unexpected directions, enhancing a well-told story with surreal dance numbers.
The couple on the DVD cover meet on a train platform on a cold night during a downpour. Amar (Shahrukh Khan) assumes that a figure huddled under a blanket is a man and asks him for a match to light his cigarette. A gust of wind blows the blanket away to reveal a lovely woman named Meghna (Manisha Koirala).
Amar flirts clumsily with the taciturn beauty, until she finally asks him to buy her a hot cup of tea. While he’s helping the sleepy tea vendor prepare the chai, a train pulls into the station. Amar arrives on the platform, cups of tea in hand, to see Meghna seated on the train with some rough-looking guys. She gives him one last look as the train pulls away.
They meet again a short time later in Northeast India, where Amar is covering the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence from Britain, for the national radio station. What should be a happy time is marred by ongoing clashes between the army and groups of separatists. Amar interviews the revolutionaries to better understand their goals.
When, in the course of his work, Amar comes across Meghna, she pretends not to recognize him at first, which only intensifies his pursuit. Amar’s pursuit is aggressive, almost as though he feels entitled to her. Still, she doesn’t reject him as forcefully as she has grounds to. She eventually tells him that she’s married. Amar’s attempt to apologize results in him being beaten up and left in a ditch by the men who were on the train with Meghna the first night they met.
Amar is understandably confused, as is the audience. Who is this girl? Is she interested in Amar, or not? Is she telling the truth? It’s no wonder why he finds her so alluring, despite the danger to his personal safety.
There’s an aura of danger surrounding Amar as he files his reports. He’s in essentially foreign territory; he doesn’t speak the language or understand the people. His bravado masks the fact that he’s out of his element, whether talking with terrorists or walking through the desert after his bus breaks down. The only thing he understands is how he feels for Meghna.
Enhancing that feeling of disorientation are the movie’s musical numbers, arguably the best part of the movie. It’s easy to incorporate a song-and-dance number by having the characters join in a parade that just happens to be passing by. It takes guts to make the romantic leads run from soldiers as the city explodes around them during a love song.
The numbers are symbolic rather than literal. This is the ideal way to include musical performances in a movie, as it provides a visual representation of a character’s mindset. It elevates the performances beyond mere devices for selling soundtrack CDs, especially since A. R. Rahman’s amazing songwriting sells itself.
I’m not qualified to say if the choreography in Dil Se is the best ever, but I’m confident that it is some of the most challenging and well-executed. Choreographer Farah Khan demands that actors throw themselves into her dances whole-heartedly. There is no way to half-ass her moves.
The most impressive dance number in the movie, “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” takes place on top of a moving train, traveling through tunnels and over bridges. It’s nearly seven minutes long. The dance is so technically stunning and the setting so precarious, thinking about the practicalities of its filming temporarily brought me out of the movie. Still, it’s so cool that it’s impossible not to enjoy it.