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- A formula format drapes consciousness about terrorist personality
by Rakesh Gupta
Centre for Political Studies
School of Social Sciences
Jawaharlal Nehru University
New Delhi 110067
Dil Se, like his earlier film Roja, is Maniratnam's monologue on selected aspects of terrorism, on aesthetics, on the role of the cinema.It is therefore difficult to enter into an argument with him. Very consciously he, like other Cinema personalities like Gulzar and Govind Nihalani, he does not look at the people as signifiers in hisnarratives. It is individuals. In his own words 'I am trying to take this issue through individual characters' (interview with Maniratnam,The Week, September 6 1998,pp.39-40). In the domain of cinema, he remains within the confines of Hindi cinema's format of Hollywood determined love themes through individual character and the element of adventure. In the aesthetic field, he does not appeal either to experience or to awakening for widening the aesthetic horizon. In case of experience the audiences may identify with loves and hates or happiness or tragedies of the story line without gaining much about the why and where from the experience. In case of awakenings the audience is bound to question the reality surrounding them if the layers of unreality which provide the screen is torn apart. This will help them to act and in this case help in isolating the phenomenon of terrorism. In case of its political dimensions the issues need to be analyzed in terms of a view of India and North-east region of it and the issue of terrorist personality that is being tackled in the film.
Mani Ratnam says of the film" I am trying to take this issue through individual characters.... We were looking at fiftieth year of Independence. Being in the heart of India, we get this feeling that wehave achieved so much. But in a corner of the country there is a lot of dissatisfaction. We were trying to have two characters from these two Indias, conflicting with each other." Maniratnam's treatment of the issue with reference to individual characters is in the mould of Gulzar, Govind Nihalani and his own earlier treatment of aspects of terrorism in this decade. Shah Rukh Khan (Amar ) and Manisha Koirala (Meghna)represent these two sides of India respectively. Gulzar looked at the problem in the context of Punjab and Govind Nihalani looks at it in terms of countering terrorism against leftwing. Maniratnam himself, in his earlier film Roja, looks at the problem in terms of Kashmir. The film, Bombay by him, deals with communal riots. I am looking at the film from two concepts - representation and impersonation - that discursively are available to the society to get a message. These may have nothing to dowith reality as it is or even as perceived.
Before coming to the political dimensions of it let us look at the cinematic gloss. First, it is a love story. Second, it is a family story. Third, it is in the Irani - Parsi tradition of having song sequences. All these are part of Bombay formula massala. It's unbelievable song sequences on the train, in the mountains, on the raft involving Malaika Arora, Manisha Koirala and Preity Zinta with Shah Rukh Khan in designers clothes with excellent lyrics (Gulzar),cinematography-also snapshots of Delhi-(Snatch Ivan) and music(A.R.Rehman) appeal to fantasy taking you away from the world of anxiety(real or cinematic) to a world of idyllic bliss existing like the garden of Eden. It is a method to take the mind through the nocturnal journey of erotica. This means excite to numb: not to question. It is neither an appeal to awakening nor to experience. It is no involvement of the people in unravelling the face of the masked terrorist. At best it is sugar, at worst it is dope: sugary dope as far as the masses are concerned. In that sense the screen (purdah) is not torn apart. It becomes a cloth to drape it around people's consciousness.
If the intent is to' make the people aware of the problem' as is the declared intention of Maniratnam then a number of questions arise about the word people. Who are the people? In other words, who is Maniratnam's audience-rural \ urban, literate / illiterate, poor \ rich, or, middle classes or segments thereof? The poor, the predominant numbers in any region have been given the sugary dope. The film involves middle class families, which are bilingual and understand the length and breadth of the country though not always the way to social or family homogenisation. Not in all cases do they come out of their caste, regional or communal biases. In that sense to raise only the issue of patriotism uniting the two families, i.e. of Amar and Priety is a step backwards from Bombay, where at least the communal divide was the focus. In case of Amar wanting to marry Meghna no purpose is being served as far as the political question is concerned. In terms of the family map of India the film is an exercise in representation and not presentation since in India we do find families that may have all the four varnas inthe same units or there may be families with Sikh, Hindu and Muslim which may defy any varna pattern except that large reality of India is of mixed marriages, especially among the middle classes.
If the film is an expose of the middle classes of the north - east, through the characterisation of Meghna then it is a gross injustice to the middle classes of the region. Some individuals or groups with marginal appeal may be terrorist in the seven sisters of the north -east. This portrayal of the north east is not possible since the real actors , i.e. the people are absent and there is no way in which he can tell us that the struggle therein began with linguistic demands and then followed by protests against migrants. In this unravelling he would have had to tell the story of how the political parties and external powers fared. To present a minor streak of terror as a reality of the north-east is to mutilate the sensibility of the people there who are suffering from the problems of violence as well as underdevelopment. All of them are not using ethnic symbols to either come to power. The film does not present but represents India as though the whole region is dissatisfied and terrorist. The duality of the region needs to bepresented and not represented. So, representation is used here for hiding rather than giving a true picture of the people there. Cosmetic dances of the region of Ladakh or Leh are not the only reality to be symbolically presented. He could present the festival of harvest which has an all India appeal and which also becomes a rally call for action from Bhagat Singh's Punjab to Bhupen Hazarika's lyrics.
This brings us to the core of the problem: assassination of the President of the Republic through the human bomb that Meghna is. Here one must in passing mention that this episodic pivot and the way the intelligence forces deal with the issue of the conspiracy remind one of the film Day of the Jackal, where the Jackal is the hired killer. In case of this film Meghna is the conspiratorial killer. As in the English film, in this film too the police is represented at its best, though there were reasons available in the English film as to why the intelligence forces are unable to track the killer down to the last minute. In case of this film look at the scene where the intelligence buffs are questioning Amar in the latter's house and some one whispers in the ear of a cop and the apologies galore from the police come through. The problem with this is two fold. First, the manner in which the police is shown to be dealing with the episode is so efficient that it is equal to impersonation. Second, the Republic day is presented as though it is a symbol of only military rockets and police and military bands. Even the traditional tables from different regions that were a replica of a static mosaic of India were absent. The character of the Indian State, its achievements with all their limitations in science and technology, poverty alleviation, changing nature of political articulation and aggregation are all missing. Also, more significantly what is missing is the negotiating process that deals with terrorism/insurgency as one of the methods of democratic absorption. Every one knows that Laldenga agreed to the democratic process, as did Bisheshwar Singh, to name just the two of the top leaders.
Let us get to the love story. Amar is obsessed with Meghna's beauty and Meghna is struggling between the desire of normal family life with Amar and the conspiratorial vows to kill the President. Meghna's characterisation is unparalleled. She speaks so little and conveys so much even when she does not speak. Witness the scene in the temple where Amar is asking her for marriage vows in front of the priest and she says 'he is mad'. Again look at the changing and merging expressions on her face in the scene preceding the final bomb blast, or the scene in which she is made to do a mock wearing of the jewellery, or her expression when she mistakenly realises that Amar has been killed by her accomplices. In contrast, Shah Rukh Khan is usual Dar or Anjam self when he becomes cold blooded stone in his expression overtaken by obsession. See him in the action scenes with the bleeding face. The change comes only when there is a situational change, particularly when he is dealing with the girl whom he decides to marry once Meghna has spurned him. The love story is Bollywood cum Hollywood formula. Since this film is dealing with love story in a political context a few films come to mind. The obvious comparison of it comes with Dr.Zhivago who is obsessed by Lara, played to perfection by Omar Sharief and Julie Christie, in the context of the Russian revolution which disrupts families and in that context links the political and the personal. Here nothing of the kind happens. Whatever narratives at the two levels there are and of both the characters are more or less static, with advantage of small movement with Meghna. The narrative here at the political level should have meant the macro and the micro narratives of India and its north - east, respectively and the micro narratives of the two characters. That unfortunately is bland, if not absent. In this case one is reminded of two love stories from the Bollywood history: Madhumati and Teesri Kasam. In the first the merging of the theme of the modern and the little culture narrative does justice to the latter. In the latter film theobsession of a simpleton for a prostitute-cum-dancer remains unfulfilled, as is the case with Amar's obsession. In that sense the film is not ahead of its time. In case of Madhumati, rebirth is used to overcome the tragedy. This is not done in case of Dil Se. In the case of Teesri Kassam that came at the end of the 1960s even that culture specific resolution is not resorted to. The film therefore is not ahead of its times as is made out by Shah Rukh Khan.
Let us get to the story line. Here is Amar, a reporter from All IndiaRadio, going to the North-east for eliciting public view on India's achievements. On a railway station on a windy, cold and stormy night asks for a matchbox from the only other passenger. The passenger is huddled in black blanket/shawl. Amar discovers when the shawl is wind-blown that the person has a beautiful face and this is Meghna. This scene is dramatised with sound, light and Amar's act of making Meghna ask for a cup of tea to actually to get rid of him. The blues and its shades show there dramatic colour quality in the windy dark station, which has an eerie silence disturbed by the arrival and the departure of the train which is boarded by Meghna. This leaves behind Amar in bewilderment and with a feeling that she has let him down. The scene is unbelievable. Only on other passenger; the bubbling declaration of love by Amar, who it is assumed, must have started on his journey with the heart in his hands to fall in love with the first woman who comes his way. Compare this with the first scene of Dilip Kumar, who enters as Anand babu in the mountainous region and is impressed by the sheer beauty of pristine pure nature. If one recollects the lyrics of the song he sings, one realises that Dilip uses an analogy of the mountains conveying to him as though he might find his heart- throb there. But this does not happen. The chaiya chaiya song on the roof of the movingtrain is later and has not relevance to the story. What is relevant about the scene is that Meghna is presented in black - representing the dark face of terrorism.
Amar, in his journey to interview local people keeps meeting her. She keeps eluding him and in this rigmarole he gets into trouble with the local terrorists who are with her and also meets the leader of another terrorist organisation. The relationship that he develops with Meghna is climaxed by the bath scene and the scene at the temple. At the temple he asks the local priest to perform marriage ceremony. The seesaw of encounters between him, Meghna and her compatriots makes Amar conscious or suspicious about Meghna's real identity. She does not agree to marry him. The story's location shifts to Delhi and it is here that the marriage preparations of Amar to Preity are made and Meghna comes to him for seeking help from him for a job and residence. He gets her the job and keeps her in his house at the time when he is getting ready to marry. This incongruity complicates matters between him and the intelligence as well as ultimately bleak the prospects of his marriage to Priety. The potrayal of the intelligence forces during this phase leaves much to be desired in terms of their efficiency. The portrayal of that part of the old city in negative terms is to rely on myths that are discursively present here. Amar keeps pursuing her on the basis of his suspicion and obsession and dies with her in the last scene.
In this story line the strength of the film is its attempt to unravel the face of the terrorist. Is there a terrorist personality? Does a terrorist suffer from psychopathology? The answer is no. Does the terrorist have a rationality? The answer is yes. Does the terrorist have a sensibility? Theoretical literature says yes but the film shows that there is perhaps a desire to come out but that desire is as doomed as death. It is here that the failure of the film on its own grounds comes out. True tragedy is the fate of many a terrorist. But the psychological dimensions that can make a person come out of the inner life of the terrorist groups needed more space. This is related to the group or organisational life of a terrorist. It does not reflect on inter - group conflicts that impinge both on psychology and politics of the terrorist.
To unravel the processes, debate and the past needed more attention to the narrative. Here the pace of the film comes into focus. The earlier part which is spent on too many unnecessary songs and other details could've been avoided and increase the pace of the film. The latter part, which is packed with flash backs could have been slower to unravel the travails of the people and the little girl who grows up as Meghna that leads to her choking. In this case it is rape. Look at the scene where Manisha chokes. It is at the time when Amar is advancing towards her. Let us look at comparisons. In case of Lara in Dr. Zhivago it leads to disgusting feeling. Like Meghna, Lara is also very small. In Madhumati attempt to rape her leads to her death. The issue is why does Meghna choose the path she does? This needed a bigger narrative at a slower pace to unravel the cultural specifities of the people of the north-east. So also attention was required about their politics. The plight of the people and their alienation, angst and ennui needed to be unravelled. From that perspective the film has nothing to do with the north-east. It is also here that the role of the state forces and the exhaustion of the people with violence would have come out. The narrative of the region and of the nation could have been integrated in terms of integration and not assimilation or secession. This would have led to the merging of the meta and the micro narratives.
What then the problem with the film is its strength. It attempts to explore the terrorist personality but inadequately even when the acting calibre of Manisha Koirala is impressive with a lot of reservoir of talent evident in her silences of speech but emoting with face and body language. Preity's talent and the dancing calibre of Malaika Arora,lyrics and choreography are excellent as independent pieces. The problem is to what use all this has been put? The answer is sugary dope. One can leave it to Maniratnam to decide if it is pass to raise a right issue in a wrong way?
NB Exclusively for discussion at the Academic Staff College, JNU.