Shahrukh Birthday Countdown, Dil Se! The Movie I Won’t Review, But I Will Tell You Why I Won’t Review It

I was dreading reviewing this movie and then I thought “well, what if I just don’t? What if instead, I explain to people why I don’t feel able to review it?”

There’s a way to tell a fictional story that is so similar to general real events that it is sad in a specific way. Devdas is melodramatic sad, about unfulfilled love and so on and so forth. My Name is Khan is a different sad. Yes, these are fictional people and a fictional story. But it is about hate and violence and grief that happens in real life, every day. Not just in general, but in specifics, a specific flavor of hatred and violence that follows and then grief not just for a person, but for how you thought the world used to be, for the wound of love and faith being repaid with ugliness.

Dil Se is like that. Yes, it is a made up story. But it is about two very real things. First, the violence against the women in particular of the Northeast region. And second, the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female suicide bomber.

A.R. Rahman, Gulzar - Dil Se (2017, Gatefold, Vinyl) | Discogs

I don’t want to look at that ugliness, because I know it would hurt me. That sounds selfish, it’s a truth, it’s a thing that is happening, I should look at it. But I just can’t, I have to protect myself, you know? It’s a self-care issue. If I were to actually click all the links that pop up when I search for “violence against women in northeast India” it would wreck me. And if I were to think more about Thenmozhi Rajatranam and what she must have thought and felt as she killed Rajiv Gandhi and herself and 14 others, that would wreck me too.

Those two real life things are not directly in Dil Se. Our heroine’s experience with rape and violence from soldiers is made-up, not a real story, but it is like so many other stories that are real that it could be true. And the real life assassin was not a woman from the Northeast, but a woman from Sri Lanka, a survivor of that civil war. But she was a young woman who survived violence and gave violence back because she saw no other option in life.

With a film like this that is not-real-but-real, there are two ways to review it. The first is to pretend it is entirely fictional, simply deal with the fictional elements and ignore the “real”. The other is to fully dig into the “real”, to discuss the unspoken and unseen but felt. And with Dil Se, I can’t see reviewing it either way. The film is so fully influenced by the reality surrounding it, the sadness of the heroine, the impossibility of the love story, everything powerful is because of the “real” that is within them, I cannot review it without looking at that area. And at the same time, for my mental health, I cannot be your guide to understanding the “real” that underlays this film.

The one thing I can tell you is that the “Seven Shades of Love” interpretation is a total crock. Sure, that’s a loose framework for the narrative and the songs, but this is not that kind of a love story. I understand why the filmmakers found it judicious to pretend that was the case, but I am not going to insult the film they made by pretending it is the truth. Our hero may be falling in love, but his love matters not at all in the face of what our heroine has survived. That is the message of the film. To put his love journey over her violence journey is to miss half the story.

This is a fabulous song, but it transitions us into the mountains where our hero is surrounded by people broken by violence. It’s contrast is purposeful, our hero is enjoying freedom and fearlessness one last time before coming to understand the hopelessness of the world.

This is a memory of violence and injustice and never ending pain. To pretend otherwise is to disrespect the real people whose stories it is telling, by not telling them. Among the 14 killed by Thanmozhi Rajaratnam was a 10 year old girl. Another girl killed was only 17. Thanmozhi herself was the same age. I don’t need to click the links to know that young woman that age, and younger, are raped and killed every day in Northeast India.

This movie is a love story about the moment of bliss, the moment of hope in this wretched hopeless world, that love can give you. Love as a road to grace and escape. Love which is beautiful in contrast to the darkness that surrounds it. I cannot review this movie honestly as a beautiful work of art and love, without talking about the darkness, and that is a darkness I am afraid to look at directly.

So instead of reviewing it, I am giving you this discussion space. But the “happy place” rule is still in force, remember I have to read all your comments and, as I said, I cannot deal with this particular film’s real message in any depth. So talk about the performances, talk about your interpretation of the complex interpersonal dynamics, talk big thoughts about what the film is “saying” about masculinity, and the power of the state, and the power of love and all those things. Even fight over which song you think is best, and whether the weird spandaz tube imagery works. But don’t talk about the Tamil Tigers, or the Northeast.

10 thoughts on “Shahrukh Birthday Countdown, Dil Se! The Movie I Won’t Review, But I Will Tell You Why I Won’t Review It

  1. I was 8 yrs when the movie released..the songs were all the rage and of course, I wanted to go see the movie in the hall…my parents were sensible and refused to let the kids watch this movie…and we just couldn’t understand why…its a love story…SRK is dancing…why can’t we see it?? Then the movie was playing on TV and parents allowed us to watch till interval…so we saw all the fun/song parts and that was that..parents summarized the rest of the movie like “oh nothing much happens…they are in love but they end up dying together”…I just always thought of it as a “deep” love story with a tragic ending and great songs…

    I rewatched the movie in my 20s and got the shock of my life…this was not the fun childhood movie I was expecting…I finally saw the “real” story…and it was no longer fun…and I completely agree with you…the “real” is too tragic, heartbreaking, and depressing…I have conveniently forgotten that and when I listen to the songs I only think of the tragic romance and nothing else.

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    • Yes, exactly, to call this a “tragic romance” is to miss what makes it special. “Tragic romance” is mundane, is overdone, is everyday. But this is true real tragedy based on true real historic events, it feels completely different when you are watching it. I think a lot of people either just think of the songs, or think of the first half romance “and then they die”, because the mind runs away from the rest of the film, from the real problems it brings up.

      On Tue, Sep 29, 2020 at 1:43 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. While your post is about Dil Se, the entire time I was reading it, I kept thinking of Mission Kashmir. Everything you wrote, to me, applies to Mission Kashmir, real-but-not-real film where there are only two ways to review it – ignore the real or ignore the fictional, which is maybe why no reviewer has ever done it justice. A movie I love and also have such complicated feelings towards that are impossible to articulate. And while I would love for someone like you to review it, I just don’t know how to discuss that movie while preserving my mental health. I think you put it perfectly when you said, “Love which is beautiful in contrast to the darkness that surrounds it.”

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    • In an effort to preserve your mental health, I’m going to put up the best part of Mission Kashmir:

      On Tue, Sep 29, 2020 at 8:35 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I remember Dil se for the fabulous acting. Shah Rukh and Manisha really killed it. And the cinematography was mind-blowing!

    Another similar film that was beautiful but also very painful was Fiza with Karisma and Hrithik. It had a very similar structure, but based on brother-sister love.

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    • Yeah, I’ve never even watched Fiza. For that reason, it just sounds too painfully beautiful to stand, like a knife to the heart. You mention Karisma and Hrithik, but isn’t Jaya also there as the mother? Jaya can break your heart with a look in the lightest of films, I don’t want to see what she would do with a role like this.

      On Wed, Sep 30, 2020 at 9:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. I really like Dil Se, but I don’t understand how it is viewed as a love story. Yes, the hero falls madly in love, but the heroine appears to me to have no romantic feelings for him at all. It seems she is focused on her planned task and she is annoyed and agitated by him. She sees him as an unwelcome distraction. I don’t know if this reading is intended or not (a weakness in the script, the actress?). It may just be me.

    When I was living in India, a friend told me that when the film ended, the theatres effectively changed the ending (or at least it’s depressing effect) by playing Chaiya Chaiya. Otherwise, the audience just sat there in stunned silence.

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    • I see the heroine written and played perfectly as someone who is so damaged, that love is truly impossible for her. There is no “marry a nice guy, have kids, happily ever after” for her. But the tragedy is that we can see how the part of her that survives, the happy loved safe young woman she used to be, is responding to Shahrukh. He starts out dreaming of her as a nice usual kind of love story. Then moves on to thinking of her as a romantic love he has to fight for. And finally accepts that if he loves her, he has to meet her at her level, and the only thing she can accept is having someone with her as she dies.

      Have you seen Geethanjali? Writing this out, I am beginning to be reminded of that film. A young couple having a silly happy love story, but on some level knowing there is no future and accepting that, accepting that they love each other so much it is worth it to take this half love story.

      For me it is a love story because it shows how love is able to give one small moment of brightness to a horrible hopeless situation. Not a “love story” like “boy and girl meet”, but still a story about the power of love. And the powerlessness of it, how Shahrukh can love whole-heartedly and it can’t fix anything.

      On Thu, Oct 1, 2020 at 3:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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